Greek miracle sets stage for super semis!
Greetings from the Community of Madrid Sports Palace! What a quarterfinal round of basketball we all went through! On Friday, I saw one of the most unbelievable comebacks in European basketball history! Theo Papaloukas showed why he is the Euroleague MVP and Greece provided its third miracle comeback in as many years. By now, you all know that Spain, Russia, Lithuania and Greece made the semifinals, coming up on Saturday. There is plenty of action outside the Sports Palace, too. The hottest spot of all might be the Lithuanian bar. That's right - a Lithuanian bar in the center of the Spanish capital. OK, it's Lithuanian by adoption, but still...Lithuanian fans came in advance and rent a nearby bar to taste their beer. The place has turned into a home away from home for all Lithuanians in the city. Meanwhile, the stream of MVPs into EuroBasket games has been non-stop, but none had more direct impact than the Prince of Spain, whose security system accidentally interfered with the shot clock during the Spain-Lithuania game. But let's write about Greece, Slovenia and especially Papaloukas with the vibes of having experienced something unique and special.
It is difficult to describe what happened. Slovenia was leading all the way, with Domen Lorbek slowing down Papaloukas, Rasho Nesterovic dominating the boards, Goran Dragic showing that he is one of the best young playmakers anywhere. Matjaz Smodis shouted out loud after not being able to pick up a loose ball, shook his fist with every basket and every assist. Lakovic pointed at the bench after a huge driving layup. Slovenia led 58-42 midway through the final period. Defending champion Greece seemed already dethroned. There was no way no earth they could come back. And they did. First, Kostas Tsartaris capped a 0-7 run with a corner triple to give Greece some minimum hope, but Lakovic's triple still left Slovenia ahead 62-53 with 1:37 to go. There was precedent for a comeback, too, on the same spot. Back in the 1986 World Champs and at this very same place - not the exact same aren, since it burned down a few years ago and was rebuilt as the Sports Palace - Yugoslavia led by 9 against the Soviet Union with 1:10 to go. Arvydas Sabonis, Valeri Tikhonenko and Valdis Valters each buried a triple, the latter at the buzzer, to force overtime and advance to the title game against the United States.
This proved almost the same. Papaloukas ran the length of the court for a huge driving layup, making it 62-55. He missed the free throw that came with it, but Slovenia committed a 24-second violation. The ball went back to Papaloukas, who jumped high, opened his legs to balance his body in the air and hit an incredible three-pointer, 62-58, with 49 seconds to go. Slovenia needed to cool down its offense but once again the great Theo, the Euroleague MVP, collected a steal from his CSKA teammate Smodis, probably the saddest man in the world right now. All of a sudden, Nikos Zisis, a new member of the mighty CSKA team, pull the trigger from downtown to make it a one-point game, 62-61, with 33 seconds remaining. Fans in the stands were going crazy and the sound level was way off the charts. Domen Lorbek could feel it, no doubt, as he missed a long shot. The ball went out of bounds to Greece with 13.9 seconds to go. Greece took a timeout.
There have been precedents of miracle comebacks for these very players, too. Greece is the defending champion precisely because Dimitris Diamantidis had beat the buzzer in another major comeback against France in EuroBasket 2005. Last year at the World Championships, when Greece won silver medals, Zisis nailed a game-winner off a stealagainst Australia. Neither of those players was the main option now, however. Papaloukas would take the shot. He got the ball, drove to the basket and scored a high, arching layup over the entire Slovenian team to give Greece a 62-63 lead. Timeout Slovenia. Lakovic would take the final shot, just like last week against Italy, only that he was way short this time around. Papaloukas lifted both arms and looked to the sky, shouting. Greek players grabbed each other and danced on court. Agony, happiness, misery, glory, failure, all in one. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what basketball can offer, above any other sport. As simple as that. Nothing is half as thrilling as this. And I feel sorry for Smodis, because he had a great championship, is a natural-born winner and didn't deserve this. Above all, I feel lucky to have seen what I saw live.
Russia made it to the EuroBasket semifinals for the first time since 1997, proving that coach David Blatt is doing a great
job. It was surprising to see Zakhar Pashutin - what a EuroBasket he is having - guarding Tony Parker a lot, especially when
Russia counts on J.R. Holden, one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the Euroleague. A lot of people came to see Russia, including CSKA representatives such as Sergey Kushchenko,
Andrei Vatutin or Sergei Panov, who was on that last Russian semifinalist team in 1997. As many as 17 Russian and French players scored in the first half of a game that went down to the
wire. Andrei Kirilenko fouled out with 4 minutes to go and when Russia seemed to be in trouble, Holden stepped up big with a
key three-pointer and a pair of very important free throws. Tariq Kirksay, who will play in Russia next season, intimidated
Pashutin when he was shooting free throws at 71-69 with 10 seconds to go. He missed both. Parker was fouled next and, just as in the
game against Slovenia, he missed right when it mattered. You have to praise the French national team, as no less than eight
players came to the mixed zone to talk with the press despite the loss. Kirilenko came around, and so did Sergey Monya, but no-one else was seen around
despite the win.
Something strange happened to me before the Spain-Germany game. I was waiting - mostly in vain - for the Russian
players to come out and speak to the media when I heard the national anthems. Spain and Germany were about to face each
other, so once the Spanish anthem was played, I rushed to my desk, but I didn't know the exact way. Suddenly, I almost crashed against a huge guy. It was Dirk Nowitzki, who was on his way to the bathroom three minutes before the game, and so was Patrick Femerling. Nowitzki came out of the toilet jumping up and down, ready for a big game. Dirk was right, it was not a bad idea after all, so I went looking for a rest room, opening more doors than Maxwell Smart in
the intro of the series Get Smart. Where did I end up? In the doping room. I finally managed to get reach my seat in the press section right before tip-off, but it didn't matter, because the game was soon interrupted because the 24-second clocks completely collapsed due to interferences with the Spanish royal family's security system. The organization could not fix the problem until halftime. In the meantime, emcee Eddy Vidal announced when "EIGHT SECONDS!!!" were left on each possession. And the fans took it from there, chanting "5... 4.. 3.. 2.. 1!" on each and every German offense to make everyone nervous. Jose Manuel Calderon got crazy every time he heard Eddy. I met Eddy after the game and without me saying a word, he shouted "EIGHT SECONDS!!!". Eddy is funny, you all should meet him.
The game itself was close for 14 minutes until Spain considered it had enough. A three-pointer by Ademola Okulaja got Germany
within 31-27 late in the first half. Outstanding defense focusing on Nowitzki, great concentration, as well as a patience
offense always finding the best option boosted the Spanish lead to 64-38. Game over. Suso, the superfan, a man
with energy drink flowing through his veins, was jumping up and down. A big poster behind one of the baskets read "Pau,
darling, will you marry me?". If there is a player that can summarize the game and the difference between what Spain was in
2005 and now, that's Jorge Garbajosa. In EuroBasket 2005, Nowitzki hit a fallaway jumper right in his face to win the
semifinal game. Garbajosa now stepped off the bench ready to win the game, looking for revenge, knowing Spain can beat
anyone, anywhere. Alternative defenses drove Team Germany crazy and Rudy Fernandez broke the game open with a power layup, a
huge dunk and a seven-meter three-pointer. In other words, Spain proved it is the team to beat in the tournament and the only
favourite. That semifinal game against Greece will be something big. Postpone anything you have to do, no matter what it is.
Once again, it was an eventful Friday morning for me. I went to Las Rozas, a distant, quiet village outside Madrid to see
Real Madrid and coach Joan Plaza at their practice court. Plaza is very excited about his Euroleague head coaching debut. Plaza is one of the
most laid-back, coolest people I have met, and in a way, we have a lot in common when it comes to loving the sport. I wished
him a good season, and I am sure Real Madrid will go far in the competition. It was clear why Real Madrid did so well
last season: Jorge Perez, one of the most efficient press officers in the entire continent at any sport, told me that the players all
live in the same neighborhood. "Everything is easier, man," Kerem Tunceri agreed. "We are all friends." Tunceri, however, opted not to say a word about the Turkish national team. In my opinion, it is obvious that there was one
player missing in Turkey: him.
Friday afternoon started in a shocking way, as the Serbian flag showed up on the giant video screens when the Croatian national anthem was played. Then, Mario Kasun headed to the bench 19 seconds after the tipoff, never to return. Rimantas Kaukenas stepped up, as Sarunas Jasikevicius seemed to be battling physical problems. You have to trust Saras, however, because he is nothing but a genius. No so many people remember a Top 16 game when his Maccabi team faced Siena in 2005. He had hit just 3 of 18 shots, missing all 8 attempts from downtown. Then, he hit a seven-meter triple in the final seconds to win it for Maccabi, 85-84. That was not the situation today. Lithuania relied on Darius Songaila and an unstoppable Linas Kleiza. Marko Popovic played his key role as scorer off the bench, but Davor Kus and Niksa Prkacin had their worst games in the entire tournament and Croatia paid a high price for that. Prkacin even kicked the mixed zone fences on his way out. It all came down to the final seconds, as Planinic, who shoots free throws deep in the right side of the circle, hit a pair to make it 74-72, but then missed two more to allow Lithuania to stay in the medal race. My friend from Zalgiris Kaunas, Almantas Kiveris, helped me to talk with Darjus Lavrinovic about how special is to play with his twin brother, Ksystof: "Playing with my brother in every team we were together was a dream come true," Darjus said, "but being able to wear the national team jersey in the same competition is above eveyrthing."
So, here come the semifinals! Spain faces Greece in a rematch of last year's 2006 World Championships final. That day, Spain was without Pau Gasol while Greece had beaten the United States in an incredible quarterfinal. Overconfidence killed Greece, but Spain also had arguably one of the best defensive games in basketball history. Now it is the other way around, Spain is with Gasol, is the current World Champion, thrashed Greece in the second group stage and plays at home. I am sure that Greece knows it is the right place and the right time for payback, even when Spain seems unstoppable these days. Russia faces Lithuania in an equally exciting game. "I love Russia, it is a great team. They play the way Maccabi played when I was there. I love its brand of basketball, it has decisive players in every position, plus it had a day off today, but I am sure we will also play better tomorrow," Jasikevicius said. Get ready for more here on Euroleague.net!
Javier Gancedo, Euroleague.net
Saturday, September 15, 2007