I generally try to keep my Omri Casspi ramblings to a minimum over here, because I truly believe my own censorship is the only thing standing between a Sacramento Kings blog and an Omri Casspi fanclub. However, you will have to grant me this one tonight, because Omri has just turned in a performance of the highest caliber for the Israeli international team — absolutely obliterating a very good basketball team in the form of Montenegro.
Allow me to paint the setting for you: Israel is currently competing for a spot in the 2011 Eurobasket tournament, set to be held next summer in Lithuania. 10 teams have been granted automatic entry: Lithuania, Spain, Serbia, Greece, Slovenia, France, Croatia, Russia, Turkey and Germany. The other 6 spots are granted via qualifiers: 15 teams are split into 3 groups; the first placed team in each group automatically qualifies; the two 2nd placed squads holding the best records join them; and the worst 2nd placed squad is left to battle for the final spot with the other squads who failed to qualify from group play.
Israel’s group consists of Montenegro, Italy, Latvia and Finland. With the two latter squads considered substantially weaker than the first three, Israel’s main competition for qualification was supposed to be Italy and Montenegro. However, despite high hopes coming in to the tournament and the presence of Andrea Bargnani and Marco Belinelli, Italy started off 1-3, including a home loss to Israel in the first game, while showing an utter lack of a cohesive team game. Montenegro played it’s part by going undefeated through their first three games, featuring a well-rounded squad led by the dominant post play of new Timberwolf Nikola Pekovic. Latvia filled in for Italy as squad number three, going 2-2 through its first four games. Israel started off great, with a road win in Italy and a home win against Latvia, before falling to weak Finland in an embarrassing road collapse.
As such, tonight’s match couldn’t be more important to Israel. With Montenegro poised to distance itself from the group, and a road game between the two squads still set to come, Israel knew it couldn’t let this one slip away, leaving them to battle Latvia for the second spot while keeping an eye out for the other two groups.
All eyes, naturally, were on Omri Casspi. After scoring 68 points through 3 exhibition matches while displaying a more diverse offensive game to go with previously unseen leadership skills and extra muscle, Casspi performance in the games that actually matter was considered a step back. He struggled on offense againt Italy, and wasn’t much better on defense, unable to stop Belinelli from getting his points. He was better against Finland, finishing as the team’s second leading scorer with 17, but lacked aggressiveness on offense, and was unable to prevent the stinging one point loss. His best game came against Latvia, leading 6 Israeli double figure scorers with 21, but if he can’t score in a 22-point blowout, when can he?
Well he can against Montenegro, apparently. Omri was on the top of his game from the start when he blocked Montenegro’s first shot attempt. He then scored the first points of the game on a breakaway dunk. Down went his first three point attempt. Then he got to the line. Then he made a layup. Another block. Another three. Two more free throws. Another dunk.
When the dust settled on the first quarter, the scoreboard showed Israel 26, Montenegro 22, with 15 of those 26 points coming from the same pair of hands.
The second quarter wasn’t as dreamy as the first. Omri seemed to take his hot streak one step too far, forcing two bad shots within 30 seconds of each other. Omri went down to the bench for his first rest of the game, returning with only 2:45 remaining in the quarter. Casspi only attempted one more shot in the half – a desperation floater to with the clock winding down – finishing the second quarter with the same amount of points he had in the first. The score tied at 40.
The drought continued through most of the third quarter as well. Casspi did manage to register 2 steals during that span, but much like his teammates, he seemed tired and couldn’t cope with the size Montenegro had down low. After his getting trigger happy seemingly led to his benching in the second quarter, Casspi didn’t force things on offense, instead deferring to teammate Lior Eliyahu, widely considered as Israel’s second best offensive weapon. Lior scored eight straight points after a horrendous first half. Eliyahu wasn’t enough to match Montenegro, though, who started the quarter on a 7-0 run and were suddenly leading 56-48.
At this point Casspi came to life. Omri continued to go strong to the rim, scoring a layup while drawing foul number three on Pekovic. On the next possession, he added three more – this time from way, way behind the arc. After teammate Yaniv Green added two of his own, Montenegro scored four straight, only to meet yet another long range bomb from Omri to end the quarter. Israel had come back from the slippery slope of no interior defense, now down just two, 61-59, to start the final quarter.
The fourth started where the third ended: Montenegro once again went to Pekovic, who drew yet another foul on Israel’s only true center, Yaniv Green. But again, Casspi was there to return the favor, continuing to take the ball hard to the rim, and drawing Pekovic’s fourth while making the layup for dessert. Pekovic went over to the bench, but Casspi continued to draw fouls, with big man Vladimir Dasic joining Pekovic on the bench after committing a charge on, who else, Omri.
At this point the game became sloppy. Neither team scored for two minutes, with Casspi and Eliyahu committing turnovers for Israel and both teams missing long jump shots. Eliyahu broke the ice by making one of two free throws. The miss, however, proved to be more important than the make: after his free throw met iron, Eliyahu flew in for the offensive rebound, drawing the ire of Montenegro coach Dusko Vujosevic. Furious that the officials didn’t call Eliyahu for a lane violation, Vujosevic walked several feet into the court, immediately getting hit with a technical. Former Seattle draft pick (53rd overall in 2006) Yotam Halperin tied the game at the line, with the momentum shifting towards the home team.
It is at this point that we criticize Casspi for getting a little trigger happy. Omri missed two bad threes from here on out, probably a little too eager to win the game himself. Luckily, Israel secured the long offensive rebound both times out, with Eliyahu contributing two points each time. However, at 70-70, Casspi basically seals the game y taking Nikola Pekovic off the dribble once again to draw the foul. Meeting the international foul limit of five, Pekovic is out of the game. Casspi makes two from the line then two more the next time down the court after yet another drawn foul, Halperin adds two of his own, and the game is over. 77-73 Israel, 30 points for Casspi.
Was the performance perfect? Hardly. Through a quarter and a half Casspi was absent offensively. He was often too eager to do too much, taking some bad shots and to my eyes committing more turnovers than the one he was credited for. And his defense was inconsistent as always, combining athletic blocks and nifty steals with constantly getting beat down low (to be fair, he was guarding bigger players then he does when playing the perimeter for Sacramento). Not only that, his tendency to bite on pump fakes almost cost Israel the game: up 72-70, Casspi tried to block a shot attempt by Goran Jeretin, only Jeretin was just faking. The guard proceeded to draw Omri’s fourth foul, sending Jeretin to the line for a couple. After Casspi responded with two free throws of his own, he was subbed out by Israeli coach Arik Shibek so he won’t commit his fifth foul on defense. However, the lack of live-ball timeouts in the international game kept Omri on the bench for the huge offensive possession that followed, which luckily ended in Halperin drawing and making two free throws of his own.
Nonetheless, Casspi’s performance was masterful. Beyond scoring 30 points in a 40-minute, 150-point game (I lack the advanced statistics skills to translate this into a pace-based offensive rating, but I bet it’s pretty high), Casspi took an entire squad on his back, both to start the game and to end it, and willed them to victory — all while showing the basketball IQ to constantly take it to the opponents most important player and foul him out of the game. The decision to constantly let Casspi play iso-ball late in the game – a role which he never played in Sacramento or in Israel, and which is quite rare in the international game – says it all.
We shouldn’t expect Omri to come back to Sacramento and drop 20 points on a nightly basis. This was a rare performance against inferior competition to what Omri sees during the regular season, and at times it showcased Omri’s flaws as much as it did his strengths. But along with the never ending swagger and the long range Omri has shown Kings fans last year (seriously, nothing was more fun to watch tonight than Omri taking a three from NBA range while his defender hopelessly stood on the international three point line), beyond the efficient shooting (30 points on 19 shots) or the encouraging progress at the free throw line (8 of 10), Omri is now showing the ability to lead. The ability to rise to the occasion. It may be a while before Sacramento plays meaningful playoff games, but one player seems more than capable of doing it at that level.
Which means it’s Team Donte’s turn to make a move.