The 2011 Final Four starts with one of the best games any European basketball fan can see this season, as Panathinaikos and Montepaschi Siena face each other in the first semifinal on Friday at 18:00 CET. Despite combining for 9 apperances since 2000, Panathinaikos and Montepaschi had never been in the same Final Four, turning this game into an even more anticipated showdown. Moreover, both teams arrive to the game without major injury problems, so expect two deep, versatile teams battling for a spot in the Euroleague final. Panathinaikos looks for its sixth Euroleague title. Despite three previous Final Four appearances, Montepaschi will try to reach its first Euroleague title game. Bo McCalebb is back in shape and ready to offer speed, court sense and aggressivity at point guard. Montepaschi has many options as playmaker, such as experienced guard Nikos Zisis and tall swingman Marko Jaric, who may see extended playing time to guard Euroleague Best Defender Dimitris Diamantidis, who is having a career-best season. Diamantidis is the Greens' silent leader due to his clutch, court sense, on-the-ball defense and experience. Nick Calathes, who had a superb playoff series against dethroned champs Regal FC Barcelona, will give Panathinaikos driving skills and size as backup point guard. It will be a very special game for Panathinaikos forward Romain Sato, who played the 2008 Final Four and won four Italian League titles with Montepaschi. Sato offers athleticism and experience at small forward, but the Greens have other options at both wings, such as sharp shooter Drew Nicholas, reliable swingman Stratos Perperoglou or do-it-all off-guard Milenko Tepic. Nicholas is ready to test his scoring skills against veteran bomber Rimantas Kaukenas. Perperoglou and Sato must be ready for a demanding physical test against athletic forwards Malik Hairston and David Moss. Hairston was Montepaschi's X-factor in his team's playoff series against Olympiacos and wants to keep shining in the best possible scenario. Marco Carrareto will offer defense, intensity and winning mentality off the bench against Nicholas or even Diamantidis while Pietro Aradori will be ready to offer instant offense. The battle in the paint will be critical, as Montepaschi runs its offense through its big men. Shaun Stonerook and Ksistof Lavrinovic can open the floor with their three-pointers and Milovan Rakovic is set to play a critical role in his first-ever Final Four game due to his size, frame and intensity. Shot blocking ace Deji Akindele and mobile big man Tomas Ress round Montepaschi's frontcourt. Rakovic and Akindele have the tough mission to guard Mike Batiste and Aleks Maric, back in action at the right time. Batiste has the complete package - size, intensity, high basketball IQ, post skills and ability to read pick-and-roll situations - to make the difference in a game like this. Antonis Fotsis will try to spread the floor with his shots from downtown but Panathinaikos can improve its post game with Ian Vougioukas, play with experienced center Kostas Tsartsaris or be more versatile with forward Kostas Kaimakoglou. Montepaschi needs to be its usual self in defense, keep Rakovic out of foul trouble, lock the defensive board and dominate the game with its trademark ball circulation. Panathinaikos must play with high intensity, run its offense through Diamantidis and Batiste and make the most out of its longer bench. Expect a great tactic battle, as seven-time Euroleague winner Zeljko Obradovic and Simone Pianigiani will have some surprises to offer. In other words, it is nothing but the perfect start to a truly world-class event, offering drama, action, tradition, intensity and outstanding European club basketball.
REFEREES: Juan Carlos Mitjana (Spain), Grzegorz Ziemblicki (Poland), Robert Lottermoser (Germany)
Dimitris Diamantidis led the Turkish Airlines Euroleague in assists this season with an average of 5.7 per game.
Diamantidis already has one of the top 10 single-season assists marks in Euroleague history. Diamantidis has dished 113 assists so far this season, which ties him with Ed Cota (Zalgiris 2003-04) for the seventh most in a single Euroleague season. Next on the list for his to pass are Theo Papaloukas (114, Olympiacos 2008-09), Terell McIntyre (118, Montepaschi 2007-08) and Elmer Bennett (120, 2000-01).
Diamantidis was the Quarterfinal Playoffs leading scorer with 18 points per game.
Diamantidis has made 10 consecutive free throws in Euroleague games.
Head coach Zeljko Obradovic has used 11 different players in the starting lineup this season. Not one Panathinaikos player has started every game.
Obradovic coached Montepaschi guard Marko Jaric on the Serbian national team at EuroBasket 2009.
Panathinaikos has made (366) and attempted (478) more free throws than any other Euroleague team this season.
Romain Sato played the bulk of his professional career with Montepaschi. He spent four seasons from 2006 through last summer and helped the club win four Italian League titles, three Italian Super Cups, two Italian Cups and reach the 2008 Euroleague Final Four.
He played under head coach Simone Pianigiani and alongside six current Montepaschi players.
Antonis Fotsis needs 1 more steal to reach 100 for his Euroleague career.
Drew Nicholas was a teammate of Montepaschi guard Nikos Zisis during the 2005-06 season at Benetton Treviso. The team, coached by another 2011 Final Four participant, Maccabi Electra’s David Blatt, won the Italian League championship.
Nikos Zisis moved into the Euroleague’s career top 10 in assists in the last game of the Playoffs. He has dished 429 assists in his career. Zalgiris guard Marcus Brown is ninth with 457 career assists.
Zisis has been a regular on the Greek national team since 2004 and has played alongside as many as seven different Panathinaikos players on that team. In fact Zisis was a teammate of all seven – Dimitris Diamantidis, Antonis Fotsis,Kostas Tsartsaris, Stratos Perperoglou, Ian Vougioukas, Nick Calathes and Kostas Kaimakoglou – at the FIBA World Championships in Turkey last summer.
Zisis, Fotsis, Tsartsaris and Diamantidis were part of the core of the Greek national team and played together almost every summer between 2004 and 2008. Together they helped Greece win the gold medal at EuroBasket 2005 and claim silver at the 2006 World Championships.
Head coach Simone Pianigiani has used 12 different players in his starting lineup this season. Milovan Rakovic is the only player to start every game.
Montepaschi leads the Turkish Airlines Euroleague in steals this season with 9.4 per game.
Bo McCalebb teamed with Panathinaikos center Aleks Maric to lead Partizan Belgrade to the Final Four last season. The two also claimed the Serbian League, Serbian Cup and Adriatic League titles and were named to the All-Euroleague teams.
Marko Jaric made his professional debut in the Greek League playing for Peristeri between 1996 and 1998.