Sinai says: Time will tell how good Shivek’s team really is

If the roster continues to play with the elan it displayed in recent weeks, it will have a fighting chance.

Reaching a 10th straight European Championships is nothing short of a remarkable achievement.
However, it will be another year until we discover if Israel’s current national basketball team is indeed as special as some are suggesting.
Despite its defeat at Montenegro on Sunday, the blue-and-white secured their place in next summer’s EuroBasket tournament in Lithuania as one of the two best runners-up in the qualifying round.
Israel overcame perhaps the toughest qualifying group, which also included Italy, Latvia and Finland, but its true test still awaits.
As impressive as it was to see the coaching staff of Arik Shivek, Oded Katash and Dan Shamir try and turn their team’s weaknesses into strengths over the last month, this roster will ultimately be judged by its performance next September.
“We played good, fast and attractive basketball,” Shivek said on Tuesday. “We used our weapons in the best way possible.”
After years of complaints by former coaches regarding Israel’s lack of big men, Shivek and Co. managed to overcome the shortcomings and build their team around its excellent forwards.
At a mere 2.06-meters, Yaniv Green was the only real center on the side that saw significant playing time, but even he averaged just 10.6 minutes over the eight qualifiers, playing no more than 18 minutes in a single encounter.
Israel decided to play to its strengths, and by dictating a fast pace in most of its games, it limited the damage caused by poor rebounding and a shortage of a low post presence on both ends of the court.
No player averaged more than 30 minutes on court, ensuring there was always fresh legs, something which will be even more crucial next summer, when the team will plays its three group games over as many days.
Complicating matters even further was Shivek’s decision to drop Gal Mekel, Israel’s opening point-guard at last year’s EuroBasket tournament.
While that left the side without a recognized playmaker, Shivek was banking on the hope that he could count on his forwards’ superb ball handling, and his judgment proved to be spot on.
Omri Casspi, who led the team in points (16.9 ppg) and minutes (29.3 mpg), may have had to defend centers more than a head taller than him, but his rare athletic ability meant that he could then grab the rebound and dribble the ball up court to lead an Israel offensive charge.
Lior Eliyahu (13.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and David Bluthenthal (8.0 ppg, 4.3rpg) faced the exact same situation, and despite both often being criticized for their defensive lapses, they held up admirably against some of Europe’s better big-men.
Yotam Halperin (13.9 ppg, 3.3 apg) has also attracted his fare share of criticism over the years, but after his performance over the last month there no longer remains any doubt regarding the identity of the most important player in Israel’s backcourt.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the campaign was the play of Hapoel Jerusalem guard Yuval Naimi (7 ppg).
After a slow start, Naimi seized a greater role as the campaign progressed and looks to be the favorite to start beside Halperin at the European Championships.
Tal Burstein (7.6 ppg) and Guy Pnini (7.6 ppg) acted as the glow of the team, injecting intensity on the defensive end and scoring decisive baskets at the other.
Uri Kukia, Yogev Ohayon and Raviv Limonad also deserve to be acknowledged for their contributions, but with no significant center, or playmaker for that matter, Israel’s prospects at next summer’s tournament aren’t as exciting as they could be.
“We know the European Championships will be tough, but our qualifying group wasn’t that far from the level of the EuroBasket tournament,” Shivek said.
Shivek preferred not to talk about his expectations of the side next year, which is no surprise considering the fact that he still doesn’t know if the likes of Bluthenthal (who admitted he was essentially forced by Maccabi Tel Aviv to play for Israel this summer) will be at his disposal and if Green’s troublesome back will hold up for another year.
Casspi, however, has never been one to back down from a challenge, and he firmly believes qualification for the 2012 London Olympics is within the team’s capabilities.
For that to happen, Israel will have to reach at least the quarters of the EuroBasket tournament, something it has done just once in its previous 11 appearances.
That will be a tough ask, but if the roster continues to play with the elan it displayed in recent weeks, it will have a fighting chance.
This Israel squad may have its limitations, but it has certainly proven that it can play better than the sum of its parts and when that happens there is no telling what can be achieved.