Israel may have been the last team to qualify for the EuroBasket tournament, but a 74-65 defeat of crowd-favourite Latvia in Group D's opening game showed they aren't here just to make up the numbers
The Israelis opened the game with an impressive shooting display led by Moshe Mizrahi, but when the shots started rattling out, Zvi Sherf's men did all the little things to secure a victory.
Playing in their visiting blue, the Israelis quickly built a ten point lead in the first quarter thanks to Mizrahi's streaky shooting and Meir Tapiro's smooth running of the offense.
But Latvia got back into the game and held a three-point lead, 41-38, at half-time.
Captain Roberts Stelmahers led the charge and was helped by some equally accurate shooting from beyond the arc by Kristaps Valters.
Israel lost their lead when captain Tal Burstein picked up his second personal foul in the first quarter and had to sit out until the start of the second half.
Dror Hagag drained a three-pointer to give Zvi Sherf's men an eight-point cushion at the end of the first quarter.
But the second quarter saw a reversal of fortunes as Latvia proved the more patient, better-organised side and their shots finally began to drop - as Israel's began to rattle out instead.
Latvia forced Israel into some bad shots and their ball movement at the other end of the court proved to be working as Martins Skirmans, Stelmahers and Kristaps Janicenoks all benefited from the extra pass to make knock down some open shots.
Israel's offense meanwhile was stalling and Hagag began forcing plays and paying the price as Latvia was now blocking the paint and double teaming every drive to the basket and also stepping into the passing lanes.
Both teams struggled to make a shot in the third quarter but Latvia's persistence to take every possible shot from beyond the three-point arc - and missing most of them (they shot 7/31 for the game) - gave Israel a chance to stay close in the game, before pulling away in the fourth quarter, when Gur Shelef provided some much needed offense.
Hagag hit some all the shots when they mattered, and finished the night leading a balanced Israeli offense with 18 points. Shelef added 15, Mizrahi finished with 12 and Yaniv Green chipped in with 11.
For Latvia, Stelmahers lead the way with 19 points, while Kristaps Janicenoks added 13, most of which came in the second half to keep his side in with a fighting chance. Kristaps Valter finished with 11.
Israel were the last team to qualify for EuroBasket 2005 but only a fool would put this down to a lack of quality.
The Israelis, who face Latvia in their opener on Friday, are a much better side than the one upset by Portugual in their Division A campaign one year ago, a defeat which contributed to their third place finish in Group B and forced them into the additional qualifying tournament.
Having been beaten to qualification by Latvia and Bulgaria, few expected Israel to reach the EuroBasket, especially after the departure of coach David Blatt.
|Dror Hagag came up big for Israel in the additional qualifying tournament|
So what do we make of this? Man for man, Israel do not appear to be as strong as most teams, certainly not in Group D where juggernauts Serbia & Montenegro and Spain reside.
What gives the Israelis a chance is their experience and savvy, and timely contributions from players like Dror Hagag, who came off the bench to fire Israel to an 83-78 success over the Czechs.
Stars are born in EuroBaskets, and this could be the case for 1.8m guard Hagag, who has only just cemented his place in the squad yet had 15 points and equally important, four steals against the Czechs.
His efforts, combined with the play of veteran Tal Burstein - 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists - drove Israel to victory.
Burstein was uncertain to face Hungary in the next game with a back problem but played and poured in 17 points.
Basketball players do not come any tougher than this guy.
Latvia are an excellent outside shooting team and will be forced to rely on that as big man Kaspars Kambala is not in with the team in Serbia & Montenegro.
When Latvia are hitting from outside, they are formidable.
The two sides split their meetings in the qualifying round.
Israel, who have qualified for every final round since 1963, will like their chances.
They have been playing competitive basketball for about a month. They have also learned how to come from behind and win.
The free-scoring Czechs led them 40-25 after five minutes of the second quarter but Israel fought back, just as they did in the 2003 championships when they came from a mammoth 17 points behind to triumph over Slovenia.
Against Hungary, it was a much closer affair that was only settled in the last three minutes of the contest as the Israelis reached into overdrive.
An 11-0 run saw Israel eventually claim a narrow victory as the Hungarians fought back to lose 72-69.