Israel gave a valiant effort, but came up short against Serbia late Tuesday night, falling 89-78 to even up its Eurobasket record to 2-2 with one game remaining in group stage play.
The blue-and-white now have a must-win against the host Czech Republic on Thursday evening in a battle for a knockout stage place in Berlin.
Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets showed exactly why he is a superstar in the best league in the world as he, along with Anadolu EFES star Vasilije Micic, led Serbia to the win to keep its perfect group stage record intact.
Washington Wizards forward Deni Avdija and Partizan Belgrade guard Yam Madar played brilliantly together, but their efforts were not enough on this night as Israel will now have to find a way past Czechia in the final group stage game.
“I’m really proud of how we played against Serbia with all of the talent that they have,” Israel coach Guy Goodes said. “We saw what they did to Finland and I told them that if we want to keep the score close that we have to play together and never give up. We needed to handle momentum swings during the game and unfortunately they went on a 14-0 run and with a few big shots they opened up a small gap. We left everything on the floor and the last game will be like a final for the cup, whoever wins goes on. We have to give our best.”
Serbia coach Svetislav Pesic said his team was prepared for a challenge from the Israelis.
“We knew that we would have a tough game against Israel in what was an unorthodox game with switching defense,” Pesic stated. “But we scored 89 points which means that we were able to break that down and we won the game. Every game at this competition is a new experience and a chance to learn something about ourselves.”
Rafi Menco, who scored a trio of triples in the game for the blue-and-white, reflected on the clash.
“I’m very proud of the guys as we came to play against a very strong team, but at the end of the day we came up a bit short. On Thursday we have a big game versus Czechia and we will continue what we did today and do the same in that matchup as there’s no way home. We need to win any way we can.”
Israel came into the matchup against Pesic’s squad as a clear underdog as Serbia entered the contest with a 3-0 record having waltzed through the likes of Finland, Holland and Czech Republic. However, Goodes’s men gave everything they had and not only put Serbia on the ropes a couple of times, but were also able to play their most complete game ahead of Thursday’s decisive clash at the O2 Arena in Prague.
The Israelis started out slowly, which has been a theme throughout the European Championships, as Jokic did as he pleased and scored 14 first-quarter points.
Avdija tried to keep his side close, and got help from Roman Sorkin, Tamir Blatt and Yovel Zoosman, but Serbia was able to grab a 24-18 lead after 10 minutes of action.
Nimrod Levi and Madar found points to start off the second quarter, Menco drilled in an elbow triple, Jake Cohen cleaned up around the boards and Madar went from downtown to give Israel a 30-28 lead with 5:54 left in the first half.
But Vasilije Micic joined the party in the second frame for Pesic’s crew and Marko Guduric found his scoring touch as well, while the ever-present Jokic was a force on both sides of the floor. After an unbalanced flurry of scoring, the Serbs were able to open up a double-digit (50-38) halftime advantage.
Gel Mekel scored the first field goal of the third quarter and Menco went from deep. But Guduric responded with a three-point play and Nikola Kalinic came back with a corner triple.
Levi scored a layup, Cohen went from downtown, as did Kalinic at the other end, but points by Madar and a quarter-ending three by Avdija cut the Serbian lead to 65-58 after 30 minutes.
Israel continued to chip away at the lead to pulled to within two points (65-63) early in the fourth quarter, but Micic, Jokic and the game’s X-factor Ognjen Jaramaz Micic, Jokic and Ognjen Jaramaz immediately responded to bump the lead right back up to 73-63 with 7:07 left in regulation time.
The 14-0 run was the knockout blow that Israel just couldn’t recover from and helped Jokic & Co. polish off the 11-point victory.
Jokic scored a game high 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, Micic added 19 points, while Nikola Kalinic and Jaramaz scored 10 points apiece in the win.
Madar paced Israel with 20 points, Avdija added 14 points and Roman Sorkin chipped in with 11 points and nine boards in the loss.
Israel opened up its 2022 Eurobasket campaign with an overtime win over Finland and then a tough victory over Holland. However, the blue-and-white lost its last two contests against Poland and now Serbia, putting the Israelis in a precarious situation in which they will need to defeat the host on their home turf in front of over 18,000 supporters.
Serbia will tip-off against 3-1 Poland in the nightcap for the group’s first spot while Finland, with superstar Lauri Markkanen from the Utah Jazz, are also 2-2 but will need to beat 0-4 Holland in order to qualify for the knockout stages as well. Should the Fins be surprised and lose in Thursday’s opener, Israel will still be able to lose to Czech Republic by up to five points and advance.
But that is not something to count on by any stretch and Goodes, his players and all Israeli basketball fans understand well that Thursday’s duel with the Czech Republic is as must-win a game as they come.