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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.
There is a certain poetic justice to Panathinaikos vs. Maccabi having the stage to itself tonight as the only Game 5 in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Playoffs this season.
We have spoken before about what makes this the best rivalry in world basketball this century.
The five Final Four meetings since 2000, a modern record. The three title games between them, ditto. The most successful team of the century, Panathinaikos. The only repeat champion in two decades, Maccabi. The only team this century to beat Maccabi in a semifinal, Panathinaikos. The only team to beat Panathinaikos this century in any Final Four game at all, Maccabi.
The list goes on now that they have reached Game 5 in their first playoff series ever. This is just the third Game 5 among the 16 series played since the best-of-five format came to be in 2009. The overtime win by Maccabi in Game 2 is just the second out of 105 playoffs games since 2005 - when the playoffs started as best-of-three series - to reach OT.
Both of those overtime games were played by Panathinaikos in OAKA, where 18,700 people have tickets for tonight's sixth do-or-die, season-saving and season-ending showdown between these two clubs in 13 years. The previous one came in Game 1 against Efes Pilsen in 2005, the only year that Panathinaikos lost a Final Four semifinal - to Maccabi, of course. There was one other game at OAKA in this playoff era that no one should forget. It happened a year later, in 2006, when Tau Ceramica of Spain came to town for the third and final game of the playoffs. The image is still seared in the memory of 18,700 disappointed fans in Athens as the Tau players danced off the floor in joy. They remain the only road winners since 2005 in the final, do-or-die game of a Euroleague playoff series.
Make no mistake: Panathinaikos wants nothing more at this moment than to match Maccabi's singular achievement of back-to-back titles in this, the golden era of European basketball.
Just as Maccabi wants nothing more than to deny Panathinaikos that achievement and avenge last year's loss to the Greens in the Euroleague title game.
But before one of them wins and one of them loses, let's thank both.
Game 5 is a tribute to both of these clubs. Yes, for the history they brought with them to their first playoff series ever. But also for the basketball they have given us during it. Even before Game 5, this serieshas lived up to the hype, even exceeded it.
The way they got to this point, each winning once on the other's floor, makes tonight's game totally unpredictable, no matter what anyone says, no matter which team those 18,700 fans in the stands are cheering for, and no matter the precedents.
Just as it is almost impossible to predict who will be tonight's hero or heroes.
In this series, we've had great performances from established stars like Dimitris Diamantidis and Mike Batiste. We've had blasts from the past like David Blu's series-changing three-pointers in overtime of Game 2. We've been reminded how guys like Nick Calathes and Ian Vougioukas are often much more than role players in this modern era of deep rosters and non-stop intensity. We've been introduced to future stars like Devin Smith and Yogev Ohayon. And we've had the touching story of Stratos Perperoglou helping the Greens force Game 5 months after he wasn't sure he would ever play basketball again.
All of this plus two men, Zeljko Obradovic of Panathinaikos and David Blatt of Maccabi, who flat out coach up a storm. They should be wearing uniforms instead of suits, because they sweat almost as much as the players. They honor their profession with the effort they put into this game.
And last, but not least, are two sets of fans who live and die with every basket made and every shot missed by their teams. In addition to their demonstrative loyalties, they are also true basketball fans. They know the game inside-out and recognize the efforts of a noble opponent. Their respect for this sport means respecting great competition for itself, win or lose.
This series has been basketball's version a heavyweight championship prize fight. Panathinaikos tried for an early knockout with a sharpshooting blowout in Game 1. Maccabi won the middle rounds with panache and bravery, cornering the champs. Just when it seemed defeated, Panathinaikos fought its way off the ropes to catch its breath. Now, they are in the middle of the ring, touching their gloves in solemn respect before the last round.
Electricity is in the air. The crowd is buzzing. And as the bell sounds, remember: only one of these two giants can survive. But by going the distance together, by honoring the place they share in this sport, they've already given us everything that we, as basketball fans, can ask for. May the best team win. The sport already has.
FRANK LAWLOR - EUROLEAGUE.NET
Thursday, April 05, 2012
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