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Three cheers for Game 4!
Euroleague.net's editorial director, Frank Lawlor, has spent most of his career as a basketball journalist in Europe and his native United States, writing about and interviewing the top players in the world on both continents for more than two decades. In terms of practical basketball experience, he was a head coach in the Spanish second division for one fortuitous season in the late 1990s. Frank's blog will draw on all that background to enhance the Turkish Airlines Euroleague experience for you, the fans.
The prospect of Game 5 in the playoffs has taken on mythic status in the sport of basketball. Game 5 is the end of the road, where there's no turning back, no second chances, for either team. It defines do-or-die with a finality that could not be more of a contrast. One team dances around, thrilled to be going to the biggest basketball party anywhere, the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four. The other team has to watch the celebration right after its own season is cut short despite taking it all the way to Game 5 of the playoffs. If you are a basketball fan only, and not a supporter of either team, it's a bittersweet moment. A great duel has ended.
Which is why I like Game 4 so much. Game 4 is a celebration, just like Game 5, for one of the teams. But the other is not dead yet. Far from it. Both teams have beaten each other already by the start of Game 4. Anything can happen now. Even that Final Four qualification celebration. But if not, we have a 2-2 series. And the duel is not over.
Game 4 is upon us. Tonight, the spotlight falls first on Maccabi Electra vs. Panathinaikos in Tel Aviv. Friday, a double-header: Gescrap BB vs. CSKA Moscow at 20:30 CET, and Olympiacos Piraeus vs. Montepaschi Siena 15 minutes later. Get ready for 36 hours of fun!
Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv (2-1) Panathinaikos Athens
It's impossible to overrate the emotional charge going into this game. Panathinaikos must win if a group of the most successful players in a generation are to have a chance at crowning all their accomplishments with a unique one: a repeat.
Some incredible players have not won three Euroleagues in the Final Four era. Arvydas Sabonis, Drazen Petrovic, Mike D'Anoni, Bob McAdoo, Vlade Divac, Sergei Belov and many others never won three Euroleague titles. But Dimitris Diamantidis, Mike Batiste and Kostas Tsartsaris have lifted three in six years. And of course, their head coach, Zeljko Obradovic, has won eight, double any person, player or coach, in European basketball history. Five of his are with Panathinaikos, the most successful European club of the last 30 years. All are missing one accomplishment, however. The Panathinaikos dynasty, six titles altogether since 1995, has never won back-to-back. And dynasties like to have consecutive trophies. Some players who have been through it have spoken eloquently about the intense, season-long experience of meeting the expectations as a favorite to win the Euroleague. The self-imposed mental pressure of winning back-to-back has to be worse, especially in the case of Panathinaikos, which has won and done everything else possible. Panathinaikos is thisclose to being called the greatest European club ever. Without a repeat, however, that distinction must wait, who knows how long?
The only team with consecutive trophies in the last 20 years, Maccabi, wouldn't call itself a dynasty. But if this is the golden age of European basketball, as many global experts in this sport agree, then there's more than a little yellow in that golden glow. Maccabi doesn't have to win Game 4. It has surged ahead 2-1 in this best-of-five series in remarkable fashion: getting blown out in Game 1, seizing a Game 2 shootout in overtime, and winning a defensive battle in Game 3. That kind of diversity, winning in any type of game, is what great teams strive to do. In fact, it is often the surest route to a title. If yours is a high-scoring team, you almost always need a slowdown victory in a do-or-die game at some point. And if you're a slowdown team, you usually need to bust out offensively, at least once, to survive. Maccabi has one victory of each kind, plus its tradition, its fans and a group of playoffs first-timers who are playing like anything but rookies. I thought that the Maccabi fans looked apprehensive despite winning Game 3 at home. They are so knowledgeable about basketball, they were not about to celebrate early, especially knowing that the opponent is Panathinaikos.
Olympiacos Piraeus (2-1) Montepaschi Siena
This series that could become a younger version of the Maccabi-Panathinaikos rivalry. After playing each other only twice previously, Olympiacos and Siena have now packed eight games into blocks of two weeks last spring and this. Siena ambushed the Reds at Peace and Friendship Stadium in Greece a year ago, and Olympiacos is returning the favor now, dominating the series with a road win in the opener and a blowout in Game 3. Siena is alive thanks to a one-point victory in Game 2 on a steal in the closing seconds.
If anything, Siena is more anxious right now than Panathinaikos. Siena has been to four Final Fours since exploding on the Euroleague scene by qualifying as a rookie team in 2003. But all of those trips ended with defeats in the semifinals. In the most recent cases, 2008 and 2011, Siena reached the Final Four with injuries. So this veteran team is surrounded by a huge sense that it wants to take care of unfinished business. Two of its players, David Andersen and Nikos Zisis, won the Euroleague title before joining Siena. The rest of Siena's players count 20 Final Four appearances without ever reaching the title game. The holy grail for Siena is one Euroleague title, and you can be sure that guys like Shaun Stonerook, Bootsy Thornton, Igor Rakocevic and Bo McCalebb have one more huge effort left in them to get this series home to Siena.
Of course, much of the same could be said for Olympiacos, with two former Euroleague champs, and a whole rest of the roster hungry to match them. The difference is that only a couple more Olympiacos players – Michalis Pelekanos and Georgios Printezis – have had their own previous Final Four experiences. Which is why you see guys like Kyle Hines, Pero Antic, Martynas Gecevicius, Kostas Papanikolaou and the young trio of Evangelos Mantzaris, Kostas Sloukas and Dimitrios Katsivelis rocketing around the court like their life depends on it. It does, in a sense, because this is what they live for, a chance to make the Final Four
Gescrap (1-2) CSKA Moscow
And what to say about Gescrap bowling over CSKA Moscow in Game 3? No team has ever lost the first two games of the playoffs and survived. But right now it would be risky to predict beyond all doubt that their series is not going back to Moscow for a fifth game. Very risky. The unconditional love that the fans in Bilbao pour onto their Men in Black seems to make magic with games there. Even Andrei Kirilenko of CSKA remarked about the great atmosphere after losing Game 3. Gescrap has even less Final Four experience than the four teams mentioned above. They have a former winner, Roger Grimau, who captained Barcelona's 2010 team, and another player who lost in the semis, Kostas Vasiliadis with Unicaja in 2007. Most of the rest only got close to a Final Four. You think they wouldn't like to bring half the city of Bilbao with them to the Final Four in Istanbul?
For all its dominance this season, CSKA is trying to erase some bad memories right now. One is from last season, when its eight-year streak of Final Four appearances – likely an unbreakable record, in my opinion – was ended with CSKA eliminated in the regular season. The club, coaches and players moved heaven and earth to start a new streak this season. The other bad memory comes from 2005, when CSKA was just as dominant, losing just one game to this point. That team reached its own Final Four in Moscow, however, and got upset in the semifinal. By a team, Tau Ceramica, that's an hour away from Bilbao. The difference for CSKA tonight is that it can lose and still go home to play a Game 5 in Moscow. But just like I prefer Game 4 to Game 5 at this moment, chances are CSKA does, too.
FRANK LAWLOR - EUROLEAGUE.NET
Thursday, March 29, 2012
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