The classic matchup of modern European basketball will decide the new Euroleague champion as Kinder Bologna of Italy and Panathinaikos of Greece meet face-to-face for the first time this season on the former's home court, PalaMalaguti, at 20:30 (CET) on Sunday. Between them, Kinder and Panathinaikos own four of the last six Euroleague titles. Panathinaikos won its first continental crown in 1996, after decades of dominance in Greece, and added a second in 2000, under present coach Zeljko Obradovic, the winningest coach of the Final Four era. Kinder's first moment of glory came in 1998, also after decades of domestic success, and its second last season, with current coach Ettore Messina on the bench each time. Now, both teams want a third Euroleague crown, with Kinder motivated to become the first champion to repeat the honor since Jugoplastika more than a decade ago. They are not only the best two teams of this entire season, by virtue of record, and the clearly deserving winners in the semifinals. They are also the best European teams in recent years. The stage is set for a showdown of historical proportions. May the best team win!
Both Panathinaikos and Kinder excelled through the long season despite numerous injures because they were built for depth. When Panathinaikos lost lead guard Damir Mulaomerovic, his backup, George Kalaitzis, and sharpshooter Ibrahim Kutluay missed long stretches this season, their teammates did not falter. The same can be said for Kinder, whose inside anchor, center Rashard Griffith, and only summer addition, combo guard Sani Becirovic, lost much of the winter to injury. With practically full rosters in the semifinals - Panathinaikos is without suspended center Giannis Giannoulis, while Kinder added scorer Antonio Granger - their superiority was clear.
In the first semifinal Friday, Panathinaikos relied on its clear leader, Dejan Bodiroga, to avenge a loss in last year's Suproleague final by beating Maccabi 83-75. Kinder shifted to a higher gear in the last quarter to stop Benetton, the nemesis of its domestic season, 82-90, in the second semifinal. The similarities of those victories, with both teams taking charge of virtually tie games at the turn of the last two quarters, were revealing. But the fact that Panathinaikos put the ball consistently in Bodiroga's sure hands, while Kinder's diverse talents shared the take-over run, marks a difference between the two teams that may prove key in the final. As the tension builds in the second half, is it preferable to have a proven go-to player like Bodiroga, who is so adept at drawing fouls as to be nearly unstoppable? Or, as in Kinder's case, is it better have an array of talented options in critical moments, with no particular first choice?
Whatever that answer proves to be on Sunday, the group ethic is required through the large majority of any game, and both these teams showed tremendous depth on Friday. Though Bodiroga overshadowed the game with his 26 points, 21 of them in the second half, he had plenty help. Most important were the inside duo of Darryl Middleton and Lazaros Papadopoulos, the veteran and the kid, who combined to outdo Maccabi's center tandem, Nate Huffman and Huseyin Besok, widely assumed to be superior going into the game. Middleton and Papadopoulos combined for 24 points while holding Besok and Huffman to 21. They and Bodiroga, who led his team with 9 rebounds, neutralized what was supposed to be Maccabi's consideral advantage on the boards. Both teams pulled 28 rebounds in the end.
Kinder's depth is even more impressive. Several players shone at various times in what was a close game through three quarters. Rashard Griffith responded in the paint as a scorer and a passer. Then David Andersen joined him for what proved to be a double dose of skill too heavy for Benetton to survive. Emanuel Ginobili had his moments, as did Sani Becirovic. Those two guards pulles 8 and 7 rebounds, respectively, and their help in grabbing almost every miss by Benetton in the second half coincided with Kinder taking over the game and eventually compiling a 46-31 advantage on the boards. But the driving force throughout the game for Kinder was point guard Marko Jaric. He took the game to Tyus Edney of Benetton and came out better than even, with 18 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
Only so much counting of statistics can tell why these two teams are finalists again, however. Confidence in its outside shooting, not to mention an inside-out strategy to get open shots, propelled Panathinaikos to early leads that seemed to make Maccabi think more than play at times. Confidence in Bodiroga with the ball in his hands, and in Middleton without it, anchored Panathinaikos in the second half. Both veterans stepped up stronger and stronger as the game went on, allowing the other Panathinaikos defenders to keep anyone on Maccabi from doing the same.
Kinder, meanwhile, shows an interdepence that is impressive. With 10 interchangeable players, things could get a lot more confusing. But when the time came to turn it up, Kinder did so in unison, showing the winning formula of a year ago, great ball movement triggered by great passing into and from the post. The same group ethic applied on defense, where suddenly no one on Benetton was open, every shot was challenged and the combination visibly demoralized Benetton.
Panathinaikos has one attitude: faith in a proven leader and the collective experience of the whole roster. Kinder has a variation: confidence that any one of its stars will shine whenever necessary if all are included throughout. The two most successful coaches in Europe will orchestrate and match wits for 40 minutes. Without doubt, the team that wins will deserve to be called the Euroleague champion for 2001-02.