An historic attempt to take two Euroleague titles in a row is still alive after defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv downed Panathinaikos 91-82 in the first semifinal of the Euroleague Final Four before 13,500 fans at Olympiyski Arena in Moscow on Friday. A masterful performance by Sarunas Jasikevicius, who finished with 13 points and 8 assists, was key for Maccabi. So was Derrick Sharp, who came off the bench for 20 points, his most ever in a Euroleague game. Maccabi had led by 12 points in the second quarter, but Panathianikos completed a comeback to take a brief 54-55 lead in the third quarter, before Euroleague MVP Anthony Parker scored his first basket on the way to 13 points. Maccabi was loyal to its usual basketball philosophy and put six players in double digits, with Tal Burstein and Maceo Baston adding 14 points each, while Nikola Vujcic had 11. Ibrahim Kutluay led Panathinaikos with 17 points. Dimitris Diamantidis and Vlado Scepanovic each had 16 while Fragiskos Alvertis added 10 for the Greens. Maccabi will face the winner of the second semifinal between CSKA Moscow and Tau Ceramica with the chance to become the first team to win consecutive Euroleague titles since Split scored a three-peat between 1989 and 1991. Meanwhile, Panathinaikos will fight for the third place in this year's Euroleague to cap a very succesful season. Maccabi head coach Pini Gershon enters its fourth consecutive final with the team. Sarunas Jasikevicius could be the first player to win three Euroleague titles in a row since 1991, his first having come with Barcelona in 2003 and his second last season with Maccabi.
Panathinaikos started the game ready to take the offensive challenge, with top bombers Scepanovic and Kutluay in the starting five. It took Maccabi seven seconds to score, as Jasikevicius found Baston for an alley-oop layup. Scepanovic got Panathinaikos started with a driving layup while Lakovic added free throws and gave the Greens a 3-4 edge still in the opening minute. Scepanovic added a five-meter jumper to cap a 0-6 Panathinaikos run, but Kutluay picked up his second foul. Vujcic found a three-point play in the paint for a 6-6 tie, as the Greens entered the foul bonus in less than 3 minutes. Burstein put Maccabi back ahead with a short jumper, and even though Kutluay immediately answered from downtown, Baston buried a five-meter shot which Vujcic followed with a put-back layup for a 12-9 Maccabi lead. An unstoppable Scepanovic made a three from the right wing, but Jasikevicius made free throws to keep Maccabi up, 14-12. Baston provided some showtime with a two-handed dunk while giving the Greens trouble when trying to score around the basket. Meanwhile, Burstein made a reverse layup for an 18-14 Maccabi margin. Alvertis came off the bench and immediately scored in the paint, while Parker found his first points in the free throw line, as he had struggled against Scepanovic's excellent defense. Lakovic tried to wake Panathinaikos up with a driving layup, but Maccabi was now unstoppable. Good ball circulation allowed Burstein to nail a corner three which gave the reigning champs a 25-18 lead after 10 minutes.
Kutluay opened fire in the second quarter with a big three, but that didn't change things. Baston fed Nestoras Kommatos for a layup while Sharp slashed for a three-point play and a 30-21 Maccabi lead. Diamantidis matched that at the other end, but Panathinaikos faced early foul trouble, with as many as five players already with 2 fouls apiece after 12 minutes. Diamantidis became the go-to guy for the Greens, as he scored from downtown to make it 31-27. Maccabi played now with both Sharp and Jasikevicius on court, and it worked brilliantly. Sharp followed a corner three with a tough layup, while 'Saras' fed Yaniv Green for an easy layup, enough to keep Maccabi in charge at 38-31. Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic called timeout and tried a small lineup with Diamantidis at the point to guard Sharp and Alvertis playing power forward. But Sharp was simply on fire. He followed free throws with another bomb from downtown, as Maccabi got its first double-digit lead, 43-33. The Greens struggled to score, while Burstein took over with a wild dunk in traffic which capped a 9-2 run. Scepanovic came to the rescue for Panathinaikos with a catch-and-shoot three, which Maccabi coach Pini Gershon answered with a quick timeout. Burstein found room for a six-meter jumper, but Alvertis fired in his trademark triple in the other end to make it a seven-point game, 47-40. Maccabi now had trouble against Panathinaikos's switching man-to-man defense. Even with that, Jasikevicius found a fast break layup to extend Maccabi's margin to 49-41 at halftime.
Nikos Hatzivrettas slashed for a layup to open the third quarter, but Jasikevicius dished his sixth assist to Baston, who turned a wild dunk into a three-point play to give Maccabi a 52-43 lead. Tsartsaris scored in the paint and by the time Diamantidis buried his second three-pointer, Maccabi knew it was in trouble. Hatzivrettas added free throws which brought the Greens back into the game, 52-50. Maccabi went scoreless for more than 4 minutes in which the current Euroleague holders missed 6 shots and committed 3 turnovers while entering the foul bonus, too. Hatzivrettas made the most out of it, drilling free throws to tie the game, 52-52. Sharp tried to change things with a layup on goaltending by Tsartsaris, but a red hot Hatzivrettas took over with a big three which gave the Greens their first lead since the early going, 54-55. Sharp stepped up with a mid-range jumper to put his team back in track, 58-55. Parker showed his MVP credentials in crunch time, following a big shot with a triple for a 61-55 Maccabi lead. Kutluay came off the bench after a Panathinaikos timeout and immediately nailed a three, but Maccabi had found its rhythm. Baston scored an acrobatic layup and Sharp - who else? - buried with fourth bomb from downtown to boost their team's margin to 66-58. Parker stayed on fire with a high-flying jumper, but a driving basket by Kutluay and a buzzer-beater tip-in by Tsartsaris brought Panathinaikos within 68-62 after 30 minutes, keeping the Greens' chances alive.
Panathinaikos forced a shot-clock violation on Maccabi to open the fourthe quarter. Kostas Tsartsaris followed that with a big block on Jasikevicius before Lakovic picked up his fourth foul. The Greens failed to score at the other end, however, and Maccabi found a go-to guy in Vujcic. He scored twice around the basket to boost his team's margin back to double digits, 72-62. Kutluay and Jasikevicius exchanged three-pointers, but Alvertis stepped up with a jumper which kept the Greens alive, 75-67. That's when Jasikevicius decided he had enough. He slashed for a tough layup and added free throws soon after that for a 12-point Maccabi margin, 79-67. Obradovic called timeout and put Scepanovic back on court looking for more fire power. Diamantidis tried to change things with a three-point play, but an unsportsmanlike foul on Alvertis allowed Maccabi to keep a safe lead. Kutluay nailed his fifth three of the game and added a free throw to bring Panathinaikos within single digits, 81-73, with 3:02 remaining. Baston grabbed an offensive rebound to score in the paint, but Diamantidis fed Alvertis for a basket-plus-foul which gave the Greens some hope at 83-76. Parker provided the highlight with a two-handed alley-oop dunk, while Jasikevicius sealed the outcome from the free throw line. A majority of Maccabi fans in the standings started to celebrate, knowning then that their team would be there to defend the Euroleague title in the Final.
Friday, May 6, 2005