Tau Ceramica and Maccabi Tel Aviv will battle for the Euroleague title in the Final at the Olympiysky Arena, Moscow, on Sunday at 16:40 CET in a game that will make history no matter which team wins. Maccabi Tel Aviv could become the first team to win consecutive Euroleague titles since Split won three in a row from 1989 to 1991. Its head coach Pini Gershon has reached its fourth consecutive continental final with Maccabi. He could win his third consecutive title after leading Maccabi to the Suproleague title in 2001, retiring after that and making a big comeback to win the Euroleague title in 2004. Speaking of triple crowns, Maccabi point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius could become the first player to win three consecutive Euroleague titles since several Split players did it in the 1989-1991 period. Maccabi is also searching its fifth continental title, as along with those titles won by Gershon, the team clinched the Euroleague title in 1977 and 1980. Meanwhile, Tau Ceramica has reached its second Euroleague final, as it lost to Kinder Bologna in a best-of-five final series in the first edition of the competition, back in 2001. Only Luis Scola, Sergi Vidal and head coach Dusko Ivanovic stay on the team from back then. Ivanovic can join a select group of three people who won the Euroleague title both as a player as a coach, something that only Svetislav Pesic, Lolo Sainz and Armenak Alachatchan did before. Scola can become the 10th player in basketball history to win both the Euroleague title and the Olympic gold medal, joining the likes of Arvydas Sabonis, Bill Bradley, Sergei Belov or Mirza Delibasic, among others. Maccabi has won 22 consecutive games since losing to Winterthur FC Barcelona in Game 14 of the Euroleague regular season. It has been unbeaten throughout the Top 16 and the quarterfinals playoffs before downing Panathinaikos 91-82 in the first semifinal on Friday. Meanwhile, Tau Ceramica managed to beat CSKA Moscow 78-85 in the second semifinal to clinch a spot in the Title Game. CSKA had a 53-1 overall record this season before entering this game, but Tau managed to provide one of the most surprising results in Euroleague history. Both Ivanovic and Tau president Jose Antonio Querejeta have already won a Euroleague title against Maccabi, as Ivanovic's Jugoplastika beat Maccabi in the 1989 Euroleague final, while Querejeta played for Real Madrid when it won the Euroleague title back in 1980.
With the performance of both teams' benches in the semifinals, it is safe to say that the matchups for the final are varied and unpredictable. At the same time, both teams count on major stars that anchor their games inside and outside. For Maccabi, three all-Euroleague nominees head the list of options that Gershon can call on. Jasikevicius is not only a deadly shooter and master passer, but a born leader who communicates continually with all his teammates. His twin specialties, penetrating to dish assists or killing opponents from the arc, make him Tau's biggest challenge. The responsibility for trying to match Jasikevicius falls to the fearless Jose Manuel Calderon, whose strengths fall more to scoring, by driving or shooting, although he makes few mistakes in running Tau's offense. Maccabi's next go-to star is the Euroleague MVP, swingman Anthony Parker, whose relative quietness in the semifinal, until he led his team out of trouble in the third quarter, is a warning to Tau: Parker rarely is quiet for long, and showed when needed during the semifinal that his pull-up jumper remains essentially unstoppable. A first-year Euroleague player, jumping jack Travis Hansen, will have the chore of handling Parker. Inside, Maccabi looks to Nikola Vujcic, a key link to the system not only as a fine scorer, but as perhaps the best-passing big man in Europe. Tau counters with toughness and experience from Kornel David, whose consistency gives his team something to count on every night. His 12 rebounds in the semifinal were huge for Tau. If Maccabi's big guns play point guard, small forward and center, Tau certainly has the shooting guard and power forward spots under control. One of the sharpest shooters on the planet, Arvydas Macijauskas, was magic in the semifinal, his Final Four debut, delivering a memorable corner triple off an inbound pass with a second on the shot clock that killed CSKA. He'll have a big-game performer, Tal Burstein of Maccabi, to deal with on the defensive end, too. Inside, Tau's anchor on offense is Luis Scola, a virtuoso in the paint who struggled with foul trouble in the semi. Like Parker, Scola is more likely than not to explode in the next game, although he'll have an aggressive shot-blocker to deal with in Maceo Baston.
If it seems like Maccabi has a three-to-two advantage in scoring starters, however, the benches will have a lot to say in this Final, as they did in the semis. The littlest man on the court, Maccabi veteran Derrick Sharp, proved again on Friday that he, too, can take over a game if given the slightest opportunity. He'll see time against Tau defensive ace Pablo Prigioni, who also can hit the big shot. Elsewhere on the perimeter, steady Sergi Vidal of Tau got unexpectedly big help from Roberto Gabini against CSKA. Considering Hansen's inexperience, both will be key to coach Dusko Ivanovic's plans to stop Parker, whose backup is veteran Gur Shelef, an ace at giving strong cameo minutes. In the paint, Tau brings a little more experience to the Final, in part because Maccabi lost a key big man in Deon Thomas due to injury just two weeks ago. In the semifinal, Nestoras Kommatos put in 18 solid minutes, taking and making just a shot, but pulling rebounds while making steals and blocks. He and big man Yaniv Green, a capable scorer, will have their work cut out for them against veteran Andrew Betts, who played an inspired semifinal, and active young talent Tiago Splitter, himself a shot-blocking threat. Look for Tau's bench to be on the court more with the Maccabi starters, as in the semifinal, Ivanovic gave them plenty important minutes. How they handle those minutes against the Maccabi superstars will go a long way toward deciding the chances of Tau, a Final Four newcomer, to try to unseat the defending champions.
Saturday, May 7, 2005