The team that refused to lose throughout this revolutionary season made European basketball history on Thursday with a commanding 82-74 victory in Game 5 of the Finals against Tau Ceramica. Kinder's third win in the best-of-five Finals allowed coach Ettore Messina and his players to lift the championship trophy at center court without a doubt about their deservedness to be called the best team in Europe this season. Kinder posted the Euroleague's best regular season record, 9-1, and outdid itself with a 11-2 run against four elite opponents in the playoffs. Its intense, full-speed team play fuelled Kinder's success since October, and the Game 5 tie-breaker in the Finals was no exception. Perimeter stars Emanuel Ginobili, who was the unanimous MVP with 16 points, and Antoine Rigaudeau, who led his team with 18 points, took turns lifting up Kinder in the middle quarters. "I'm so happy, but it's not so important that I'm the MVP," said Ginobili. "I'm happy for our victory. We are a great team, we keep together well and my MVP award, it's secondary." Sub forward Matjaz Smodis was Thursday's timely star off the bench, scoring the last five points of the third quarter to fend off Tau's best comeback attempt. It all added up to a title-clinching performance for the 2000-2001 Euroleague champs: Kinder Bologna! "We have played under enormous psychological pressure, but we've been able to withstand everything and win this great title," coach Ettore Messina said. "I'm very proud of my players because they are very young."
A stellar all-court performance by a team that doesn't mind sharing the load was again the key for Kinder, whose four main starters all coincided with solid scoring games. Point guard Marko Jaric added 16 points, including 8 of 12 free throws, while center Rashard Griffith registered a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds. Griffith joined Ginobili and Rigaudeau on the all-Finals team for Kinder while Elmer Bennett (24 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists) and Victor Alexander were chosen for Tau, whose 19 of 34 shooting at the foulline didn't help the cause. Perhaps the most interesting statistic on Thursday were the fouls, which seemed to keep Tau in trouble constantly. As it turned out, both teams were called for 30 fouls each, but it was less notable for Kinder because of its deep bench.
Kinder started on the right foot, with a three-point play by Griffith that opened the scoring and a triple from outside by Rigaudeau. Two more inside baskets by Griffith and Alessandro Frosini made it 10-3 and forced Tau coach Dusko Ivanovic to call timeout. Ginobili, who had missed a dunk earlier, drove for a basket to make it 12-5, but then a rash of fouls were called affecting key players. First Bennett was called for his second, but he stayed on the court. Then Rigaudeau and Griffith got two fouls each for Kinder, and they were replaced by David Andersen and Alessandro Abbio, respectively. No sooner did they leave the court than Saulius Stombergas hit Tau's first three-pointer, but missed the additional free throw given on a foul by Abbio. Next up, Fabricio Oberto and Victor Alexander scored on the inside, the former on an offensive rebound. Oberto would put back another one to cut the lead again, and Laurent Foirest completed Tau's surge with a three-pointer at the buzzer. Kinder's lead was down to 19-18, and the battle was joined.
To start the second quarter, with Andersen making his second basket and Rigaudeau back on the floor to make 3 free throws, Kinder got back into a comfort zone at 29-22. That foul on Rigaudeau was also the third by Stombergas, who had just walked back on court. After a Tau timeout, fouls soon became a big issue for the visitors. No sooner was Tau out of the huddle than Foirest committed two more fouls, his third and fourth. And no sooner had he left than Stombergas returned and was called for his fourth. Foul trouble on its entire perimeter (Bennett and Timinskas 2 each, Stombergas and Foirest 4 each) halfway through the second quarter was not a good sign for Tau. Niether was its total of six points in 6 minutes and a 33-24 deficit. Tau had to look to Alexander and Bennett, and they responded with six points in a minute to pull their team within 36-31. But now it was time for Kinder's one-two punch, Griffith and Ginobili, to respond. With six points on drives and dunks, they bumped the lead back up to eight, at 42-34. Bennett was cut on a foul and had to leave the court for the first time in the whole series, but he returned in time to hit and end-of-the-half buzzer-beating three-pointer that lowered Kinder's lead to 42-37.
As might have been expected, Ginobili and Bennett led their teams at the half with 11 points each. Griffith was a perfect 3 for 3 from the field and the foulline for 8 points to go with 6 rebounds, more than any player on the floor. Tau was only in striking distance thanks to its 8-2 edge in offensive rebounds (3 by Oberto) and by virtue of having made 3 three-pointers to just 1 for Kinder. Things could have soured for Kinder early in the second half, however, as Griffith was the victim of a couple whistles, his third and fourth fouls. Tau nudged as close as 44-41 on a fastbreak connection between Bennett and Alexander, but then Rigaudeau, who was also saddled with 3 fouls, took over. He drove the lane for an acrobatic two-pointer then stepped out to nail a three-pointer to boost Kinder's lead into double-digits 52-42. At the same time, Jaric was clamping down defensively on Bennett, blocking his shot at one end and then slamming down an alley-oop dunk to make it 54-44. Now, Foirest went off with his fifth foul and Ginobili struck gold from three-point distance as a Kinder possession expired. The lead was at 13, 57-44.
Only six straight points from Bennett - a three-pointer, a two-pointer and 1 of 2 free throws - saved Tau from sinking towards the end of the third quarter. Kinder coach Ettore Messina needed a timeout, but no sooner did the teams return to the floor than Bennett got a steal and a layup. Just like that, the Tau point guard had his team back within 57-52. But one more weapon was ready on the Kinder side of the court. Matjaz Smodis, the sharpshooting powerforward who even guards centers, had his own ideas, and they included a huge three-pointer and an offensive rebound put back at the buzzer. While Tau was running out of men, Kinder was running new ones out there and giving them the ball. The lead was back to 10, 62-52, going into the fourth quarter, and Kinder's incredible depth was showing dividends.
A stalemate to star the fourth quarter favored Kinder, but a Timinskas three-pointer halfway through gave Tau life at 65-58. But Marko Jaric was as fresh as ever for Kinder and rolled off his own points in response as the lead was back to double-digits, 67-57. Kinder not only had the homecourt now, but the strength and the numbers on its side.
Thursday, May 10, 2001