Israel-Mental toughness

Well Israel certainly put the loss to Finland to bed right after the game in Helsinki. There was no indication that the Israel National basketball team had let the disappointing game go into their minds and heads when they stepped on the floor against Montenegro Saturday night.

Israel came out strong and began the game with a monster breakaway Omri Casspi dunk. This one play to make the game 2-0 in favour of the home side was just a small sign of what Omri had in store for the 11,000 Nokia Arena faithful.

Casspi finished the game off with a nice round figure of 30(!) yes 30 points against a very strong and competently coached Montenegro side. It is rare that in a European game a player scores 30 points and even rarer for an Israeli, so we can let Omri savor the moment as he rightfully should.

The difference between this game and then one played last Wednesday in Finland were so stark and obvious that credit has to be paid to the Israeli coach Arik Shivek for reorganizing his troops and getting them ready for battle with the likes of Omar Cook, Slavko Vranes and of course Nikola Pekovic. And that’s not even mentioning the Montenegro coach who knows Israeli basketball inside out, Dusko Vujosevic.

Montenegro were prepared for this game and knew that Israel would not be the team that they had probably seen film of from last Wednesday, but the team that played run and gun offense, active on the boards and making sure that the assist total was going to be larger than the single digit they produced last week.

However, Israel just simply outplayed Montenegro and clamped down on defense pulling down an admirable 30 rebounds and only giving up 9 offensive boards (while taking 7 of their own) against a much taller and more physical team, especially down low in the paint.

Israel had 10 steals, 3 blocks and 15 assists to go along with their rebound totals showing their athleticism and mental toughness.

After the game I asked Uri Kokia how coach Shivek prepared them for the game and he said to out the Finland game to bed and prepare mentally to face this foe, which was so evident on the parquet it must have made Shivek proud of his team.

Omar Cook shot a disastrous 0-8 from 3 point land while turning the ball over 5 times. Coach Shivek knew they had dodged a big bullet with the off game from Cook, but some credit has to be given to Yuval Naimi who was extremely relentless on defense and shadowed Cook throughout the match. And as Cook told me, “I was terrible”.

The 7”6 Vranes started the game in typical coach Vujosevic fashion, trying to beat up the Israelis down low but had a tough time with David Blu playing tough defense. Then the aforementioned Nikola Pekovic who will be off to play in Minnesota this year came on the floor and started to deliver the goods for the visiting side.

But the three keys for me in this game were this: The Israeli coaches and players basketball IQ to make sure Pekovic would pick up his 4th foul at the start of the fourth quarter with Israel taking the ball right to him and rendering him ineffectual for the last frame as he fouled out midway through the period.

The technical foul that was called against coach Vujosevic which had been brewing after a bad foul call in his eyes, which led to Montenegro unraveling and losing their cool.

And for the first time was finally saw Omri Casspi take charge of a National Team game with about 3 minutes to play in the 3rd quarter and have the offense run through him for the balance of the game.

Casspi had scored 11 points after one quarter but sat around the 15 pt mark for a while until he just let loose and led by example. One of the Hebrew daily columnists said that Casspi doesn’t create, well he certainly did last night in a huge way. The NBA player in Casspi shone to the forefront of the game and his four 3 pointers led the way for a 77-73 victory.

But just as Israel didn’t let the game in Finland affect them on Saturday night, they can not go on the same high they had after the Latvia win, because Italy shows up to play on Tuesday night with their NBA stars, Andrea Bargnani and Marco Belinelli.

So as the players told me after the game last night, we won’t rest on our laurels and our minds are already around Italy as they are a totally different opponent than Montenegro.

Let’s hope that this is true and we see Israel come out as they did in Bari, Italy two weeks ago to begin this campaign.

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