History was in the air as surely as three-point shots Sunday when Panathinaikos seized the Euroleague title from Kinder in Bologna. The Greens became just the sixth team with three or more European titles, while their wizard coach, Zeljko Obradovic, joined an exclusive club of one. His fifth European title - two for Panathinaikos, plus one each for Partizan, Real Madrid and Joventut - make Obradovic the most successful European coach ever. "After winning my first Final Four with Partizan in 1992, my mentor, Aza Nikolic, told me, 'This will be the first you will win of many'", Obradovic said. "And all I thought was, 'This guy is crazy!' I thought that it could not be repeated, but he was right. Nikolic is always right."
This year's victory could well be Obradovic's masterpiece. Everyone underestimated the Greens, despite their having won more games in the first two rounds (17-3) than anyone, because Kinder, just a step behind Panathinaikos (16-4), would defend the title on its home court, a Final Four precedent. Panathinaikos was not even favored in the semifinal against last year's SuproLeague champion, Maccabi Tel Aviv. But the Greens pushed past Maccabi to find Kinder, its 10-star rotation and expert coach Ettore Messina, waiting next. Obradovic joined everyone in calling Kinder the final favorite on its own floor.
"I ran into two guys on the street in green shirts who said no," joked Messina in Saturday's press conference.
"Those guys were from Benetton," answered Obradovic, referring to Kinder's semifinal victim, who also wears green.
Benetton, despite having beaten Kinder three previous times this season, had wilted under that swarm of talent Friday, and two days later, it seemed that something similar could happen to Panathinaikos. It did and then it didn't. Kinder certainly swarmed, its exquisite ensemble turning a 23-23 first-quarter tie into a 45-31 lead with just 2 minutes left until halftime. Those proved to be 2 very crucial minutes, however.
Obradovic sent in young center Lazaros Papadopoulos and stuck with Ibrahim Kutluay until his shot started falling. Papadopoulos started tangling with Kinder's big men, while Kutluay followed a baseline jumper with a three-pointer. The lead was slashed to 48-41 by halftime.
"Panathinaikos started winning the game when they were down 15 points before the half," one-time European champion coach Dan Peterson said afterwards. "Cutting that to 8 only at the half put a new pace on the game for both teams. Panathinaikos showed great experience and poise, and of course Obradovic is the winningest coach in European basketball for good reason. No other coach could have come back from 15 down on the road like this. He remains calm and transmits confidence to his players. Although I must say that if the situation had been inverted, with Panathinaikos winning by 15, the only team that might have come back is Kinder, because of Ettore Messina."
Kutluay had another three and Papadopoulos 8 points in a 4-11 run that started the second half and it was all downhill from there for the defending champs. The euphoria of just a few minutes earlier, when Kinder seemed to do whatever it wanted, was gone sooner than the lead, which Panathinaikos took on a Fragiskos Alvertis turnaround on the baseline halfway through the third quarter.
While Kinder's shooters went cold, its big men kept fouling and the frustration of both frustrated their trademark defensive aggression. It was as though Kinder's young bucks had overwhelmed even themselves with that spectacular second quarter display. Now, Kinder needed a player to take control, but that control already belonged to someone else: Dejan Bodiroga. His teammates looked to Bodiroga to handle, distribute or shoot the ball as he saw fit, while they worked for the right shooting, rebounding and defensive positiones.
"I think it was great the way Panathinaikos stayed together as a team, especially after being behind by so much," said David Rivers, the 1997 Finals MVP, after the game. "That's their trademark. They knew what to do and kept their poise. That was the difference in the game."
The lead finally changed hands for good on a drive by Damir Mulaomerovic with about 5 minutes left. At that moment, Kinder was in the process of crippling itself by missing 5 of 6 free throws in the span of three possessions. Veteran forward Johnny Rogers now drilled a three-pointer, but Kinder was able to pull within a basket, at 80-82, with under a minute left. That's when Bodiroga drove the lane and flicked a pass out to Kutluay on the arc. Kutluay faked his defender into the air, reset his feet and buried his shot. His fourth three-pointer, tying him for the second-most made in a Final game, put Panathinaikos in the clear. Silence fell over PalaMalaguti, except for the green wave behind the Panathinaikos bench.