There is only one undefeated team left in the Euroleague playoffs, and it is not Kinder Bologna. Say hello to the new Euroleague Finals favorite, Tau Ceramica of Spain, who took over early in Bologna on Tuesday and finished with a huge 65-78 victory in Game 1. Just like that, exactly as it had done in three other playoff rounds, Tau stole back the homecourt advantage in the series opener. As always, Tau gave a classic team effort, but it was Victor Alexander with 21 points and 19 rebounds who showed the way, especially as Tau opened leads of up to 21 points in the middle quarters. Alexander thrived in the absence of injured center Rashard Griffith of Kinder, but for much of the game, Tau was without its best rebounder, Fabricio Oberto, who drew four fouls in as many minutes to start the game. "I was just prepared to play," Alexander said right after the game. "It didn't matter to me if Rashard was there or not, since I'm going to play as hard as I can against everyone. But I'm sure Kinder missed him some." Griffith is expected back for Game 2 on Thursday, also in Bologna. but Kinder will also have to deal by then with Laurent Foirest, who scored 20 points and held Emanuel Ginobili, who fouled out early, to 8. Ginobili will be back with his best game on Thursday, of course. Things are just getting serious.
The Game 1 analysis has to start with one statistic that Alexander had a lot to do with, total rebounds: Tau 50 Kinder 33. Besides Alexander's mother lode of 19, Foirest had 7, playmaker Elmer Bennett had 5, and 20-year-old Luis Scola, pressed into early, important duty by Oberto's foul trouble, had 5 more. For Kinder, frontcourt starters David Alexander and Alessandro Frosini had 8 and 7, respectively , but if any of those came with Alexander nearby, a witness would be hard to find. Although the edge in offensive rebounds was only 13-12 for Tau, its offense ran so crisply, hitting 45 percent of two-pointers (20 of 44) and 40 percent of threes (6 for 15), that few extra shots were needed. Another key was the play off the bench of Mindaugas Timinskas, who entered jin the second quarter to help boost Tau's the lead into double digits, where it stayed almost the rest of the game. Timinskas finished with 11 points. And of course, there was Bennett, who played all 40 minutes as expected, and finished with 15 points. For Kinder, Marko Jaric had 14 points some of those as the lead was trimmed at the end, but never enough to alarm Tau or to make the Palamalguti crowd. This one was in the visitors' hands early, and they held on as tightly as possible.
Tau flexed its defensive muscles from the beginning, with a steal to start the game by Saulius Stombergas, who was matched with Antoine Rigaudeau, leaving Foirest to guard the ever-hot Ginobili. But it was Foirest's three-pointer on the first possession that stood as the only basket for several minutes as both teams hunkered down to defense. In those same minutes, however, as Tau's lead inched to 1-5, the refs put some limits on how tough the defenders could be. The warning was as clear as this: 4 fouls called on Tau power forward Fabricio Oberto in the first four minutes. That put Scola, the visitors' premier frontline sub, right into the fire, but just as soon, some of the pressure was off, as Ginobili was called for a second foul and sent to the bench. His sub, Alessandro Abbio, loosened things up by sinking Kinder's first three-pointer, which made it 8-9. A three-point play on a drive by Stombergas reestablished a small advantage that Tau nursed through the end of the quarter, but a drive by Marko Jaric cut the deficit after 10 minutes to 14-18.
That Jaric layup could have served as a warning. Kinder had toyed with a zone earlier, but now it sprung a full-court press that reaped two quick steals that served to take a short lead, 20-18, a couple minutes into the second quarter. But presses only work well after baskets, and Kinder was about to go a long time without any of those. Over the next seven minutes, Tau took complete control with a 21-2 run that simply stunned the 8,278 denizens of Palamalguti arena. Everyone took part for Tau: Bennett with a big three-pointer, Scola with back-to-back baskets that included a soaring dunk, Timinskas and Foirest with consecutive three-pointers.
It was Alexander, however, working like a champ under the boards, that made everything work. His baskets started and ended the run, and in between he gave Tau three more extra possessions on offensive rebounds. Needless to say, not many defensive boards escaped him, either. Tau's lead was an incredible 22-39 when Jaric broke the ice with a three-pointer for Kinder, but after five more points from young David Anderson, Griffith's replacement in the starting lineup, Alexander ended the half with a three-point play on a fastbreak pass that ricocheted off Scola. Tau not only had the force with it, but a little bit of the luck that coaches all say is needed, in this case to end the half with a 30-46 lead.
Incredibly enough, Alexander ended the half with more rebounds (13) than the whole Kinder team (11). He also led all scorers with 13 points, followed by 10 from Foirest, who held Ginobili to just 2 in the whole half. Without checking the record books, its safe to say that Kinder has rarely been treated so roughly on its home floor as in the first half on Tuesday. And if anyone was counting, Tau had more points at 46 than anyone would have expected, either. Though no one was forgetting Kinder's comeback ability, as proven in making up 18 points in the final quarter of its last semifinal game, in one half the dynamic of the Euroleague Finals had already changed.
Kinder was still down 39-57 when it made its best run, 8 unanswered points that cut the lead to 59-47 late in the third quarter. But in the final two minutes, two free throws each by Bennett and Foirest, plus a final bucket by Alexander, restored the margin to 16 points at 49-65. The margin dwindled in the fourth quarter to as few as nine points, but that was in the final 90 seconds, and a defense that held Kinder down all night wasn't about to give up then.
Tuesday, April 17, 2001