The curtain is rising on the final act of a season that has changed European basketball. The perfect stage is set: Game 5 of the Finals before 8,278 rabid fans at Palamalaguti Arena in Bologna, Italy, known proudly as Basket City. On Thursday night starting with the tipoff at 20:30 local time (CET), host Kinder Bologna and visiting Tau Ceramica of Spain will write their own ending. Regardless of the final score, each will have done its part in lifting pro basketball in Europe to a new level. But only one can be champion. They have dealt each other knockout blows through four games to end up tied 2-2. Now, everyone is expecting just the opposite in Game 5, a nailbiter that will keep us guessing about a champion until the final shot. A close ending would seem to favor Kinder, which enjoys the home court advantage and a deeper bench. But only five players can perform at one time and Tau is a marvel playing on the road. All of which promises drama of the first quality, Kinder and Tau battling for 40 exhilirating minutes on Thursday night with the Euroleague title awaiting one of them at the final buzzer. It doesn't get any better than this. May the best team win.
Forget about tactics, according to everyone on both teams. This is about heart. And how can that heart be measured? Two plays from the first four games spring to mind. First, the third quarter tipoff in Game 3, in which Kinder swingman Emanuel Ginobili had already shone before halftime to give his team a big lead. Now, he wanted that ball again. And as the tipoff ricocheted toward one Tau player and another, he arrived an instant before, tipping the ball away and chasing it down again. When Ginobili finally put his hands on the ball, he was close to scoring, but flipped it sideways to Alessandrio Abbio for a layup. The prospect of a Tau comeback was silenced with that play, and Kinder won going away.
The second play is none other than The Dunk in the second quarter of Game 4 by Mindaugas Timinskas. In Vitoria, Spain they will talk for years to come of how Timinskas rose over the storied Kinder defense and seemed to stuff it down the hoop along with the ball. It was a symbolic play. Against all predictions, a Tau bench player had taken over the game. And no amount of attention from that Kinder defense stopped him. It was pure determination. It also intimidated Kinder's defense, which proceeded to allow a total of 94 points. Nobody in their right mind, even a Tau fanatic, would have guessed that before the series started.
Unpredictability has been the hallmark of this series, but a few things might be expected of each team will all the chips down this Thursday. Kinder will try to get three players involved early no matter what: center Rashard Griffith, swingman Emanuel Ginobili and point guard Marko Jaric. As usual, Griffith will get the ball, but don't expect him to shoot each time. Coach Ettore Messina loves Griffith's passing, and Kinder needs that to set up Marko Jaric, whose disappearance in Game 4 was a huge negative factor. Like many point guards, Jaric needs to give up the ball in order to get it back later in position to make something happen. That means his teammates have to be looking for him.
Ginobili, too, will try to warm his scoring engine in the first quarter, but he will likely shoot more selectively under Game 5 conditions, even though his 27 points in Game 3 mark him as one of two players in the series who has taken over a game. Ginobili is a virtuoso on the brink of stardom. The final step is to learn the difference between forcing his talent on the game and letting the game come to him. Ginobili's first quarter may matter, but it isn't likely to matter as much on Thursday his fourth quarter, and not nearly as much as ensuring that his teammates come along for the ride with him.
One Kinder player who doesn't require an early start is Antoine Rigaudeau, who missed three practices until Wednesday with fever and flu, but is expected to play. Rigaudeau stands out precisely because he needs no special treatment on the court. He takes care of himself. But of course he needs the ball. Whether his teammates make sure to include others first, they have to look for Rigaudeau throughout the game, because there may be no player on either team who has a better sense of the moment. As for the benches, Tau's biggest problem has been the veteran Alessandro Abbio, who steps on to fill whatever gap appears in Kinder's perimeter game. Don't be surprised to see Abbio on the court when it matters most Thursday.
Almost any of the Kinder players mentioned - Ginobili, Rigaudeau, Griffith, Jaric and Abbio - is an MVP candidate, but when it comes to Tau, two players stand out as the lead actors, Elmer Bennett and Victor Alexander. Playing the point guard and center spots, respectively, Bennett and Alexander have given Tau surety in the two strategic positions. Bennett's 40-minute reliability in each game despite extreme pressure from Kinder allows Tau's other players to do their jobs better. Meanwhile, Alexander's reliability underneath, both as a scorer who occupies Griffith's attention and a rebounding force, accounts for another great source of confidence in Tau. To be able to say that Alexander practically cancels out Griffith and Bennett is winning his matchup with Marko Jaric means, for Tau fans, that two-fifths of the battle is won.
That's why so much attention is played to the other three-fifths of Tau's lineup. Starting off-guard Laurent Foirest turned his right ankle in practice on Tuesday and may be hobbled in Game 5. Foirest was key to the upset victory in the opener, but without his three-point shot since, has been relied on mostly for his stellar defense. If he can hit a few shots in Game 5 - and they need not be three-pointers - Tau will be much better for it. Sharp-shooting forward Saulius Stombergas continues to be unpredictable, but his defense outside of Game 3 has not hurt Tau, so he has remained on the court as a potential game-breaker. But to break games he must also shoot, and that requires getting open and pulling the trigger, especially playing on the road. Stombergas is the one Tau player whose early scoring could change the equation for the visitors.
That leaves Timinskas, the supersub for either Foirest or Stombergas, and the powerforward duo of Fabricio Oberto and Luis Scola. Timinskas was key in the Game 1 victory and absolutely huge in Game 4. His minutes were down for some reason in Game 2, and in Game 3 he didn't stop Ginobili, either, though perhaps no one could have. The mix of minutes between him, Foirest and Stombergas is a key part of Tau's chemistry. At power forward, Oberto's first strong game coincided with Tau's Game 4 resurrection, while Scola's spark off the bench throughout the series has only been mitigated by his over-anxious fouling. The power forward is a matchup that Tau could win or lose, and it depends on how smart the Argentine duo of Oberto and Scola play. Oberto's talent for rebounding is unquestioned, as is Scola's for scoring. As such, the measure of their effectiveness is in how many mistakes - namely fouls and turnovers - they can avoid.
So there you have it, the stage, the set and the stars. It's up to the actors now. Expect 40 minutes of the best basketball available anywhere on the planet. Unless, of course, we go to overtime.
Wednesday, May 09, 2001