Zalgiris became the Group G leader by beating Maccabi Tel Aviv 78-70 in Kaunas on Thursday night. Zalgiris improved to 2-0 and now leads the group exclusively, while Maccabi drops to 1-1 and will have to avoid future missteps to achieve its biggest goal, the Final Four in Tel Aviv. After Arvydas Sabonis received the regular season MVP trophy to start the evening, Zalgiris pulled away to victory behind 14 points from Ed Cota, 13 from Giedrius Gustas and 11 each from Dainius Salenga and Sabonis, who notched a double-double with 12 rebounds. Sarunas Jasikevicius scored 20 points, Nikola Vujcic 15 and Anthony Parker 14 with 12 rebounds for Maccabi. It was a bad day at work for the guests, who just made 17 of 43 two-pointers and 3 of 9 threes, and were outrebounded by 43-35.
Sabonis was awarded the regular season MVP trophy by Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu in a pre-game ceremony, but once the game started, the story looked different, as Baston dunked on the guest of honor and Vujcic added a layup for a 0-4 Maccabi lead. Zalgiris missed its first 4 shots, but awoke with a Cota three-pointer from the top of the arc. That ignited a 7-0 run highlighted by a Sabonis dunk. Still, Maccabi was doing a good defensive job against the Lithuanian legend, who faced two-on-one situations whenever he touched the ball on offense. Meanwhile, 4 points by Jasikevicius and a coast-to-coast dunk by Anthony Parker gave Maccabi back the lead at 9-10. Soon, Jasikevicius popped a three-pointer to make it 11-15, but Gustas answered from downtown himself, igniting a 7-2 Zalgiris run to an 18-17 lead after a layup by Mindaugas Timinskas. Maccabi had the final word in the opening period on a put-back by Baston near the buzzer, good for an 18-19 visitors' lead after 10 minutes.
Gustas became the go-to guy for Zalgiris early in the second quarter, drilling back-to-back triples but earning a huge ovation for diving after a loose ball. Zalgiris had its first big lead, 24-19, but Maccabi fired back, as Jasikevicius drew fouls and made 5 of 5 free throws to tie at 24-24. A three-point play by Tanoka Beard prevented Maccabi from regaining the lead, then Sabonis returned to the game and started producing right away. He fed Arturas Javtokas for an easy basket and added another shot of his own for a 31-28 Zalgiris lead. Maccabi struggled to score against the hosts' organized defense, while entering the foul bonus too early. As such, Salenga, Ainars Bagatskis and Timinskas combined for 6 foul shots in a 9-2 in which Cota's three-pointer gave Zalgiris a 40-32 lead. Before the half could finish, a high-flying dunk by Paulius Jankunas helped the hosts to enter the locker room with a 42-34 lead.
Both teams exchanged missed shots and turnovers after halftime. A left-handed floating layup by Bagatskis were the only points scored in 3 minutes, extending the Zalgiris lead to 44-34. Parker and Beard then held up their respective teams with 4 points each. Zalgiris powered the boards and found some second-chance points, enough to keep a safe margin at 52-42 after a layup in penetration by Cota. Maccabi called timeout, but everything seemed to work for the hosts. Maccabi's offense collapsed, while a long distance jumper by Beard, a dunk by Sabonis and an acrobatic layup by Cota were good enough to give Zalgiris a 58-45 lead after 30 minutes.
To begin the fourth quarter, Zalgiris not only kept but extended its lead, to 64-49 with back-to-back jumpers by Gustas. Maccabi tried to get back in the game with a three-point play by Deon Thomas and a bomb from downtown by Jasikevicius. Sabonis answered with 4 points before picking up his fourth foul with more than 6 minutes left. Zalgiris didn't back down, however, and back-to-back fast break layups by a very active Salenga gave the hosts a 73-56 lead. Maccabi needed a miracle to win now, and started trying to reduce the deficit to avoid further trouble in possible future tie-breakers. Indeed, foul shots by David Bluthental ignited an 2-9 run to make it a 10-point game at 75-65, after a turnaround jumper by Thomas and a three-point play by Gur Shelef. The local fans had already started to celebrate, while Maccabi finally lost by 78-70 with a triple by Vujcic at the buzzer.
Thursday, March 11, 2004