Normally there wouldn't be a lot of good news to report about a home team who gets thumped like Kinder Bologna did in Game 1 of the Euroleague Finals, loses the homecourt advantage and has to turn things around in 48 hours - or else. But two themes have emerged in Bologna on the off-day between Game 1, which Tau Ceramica won in a shocker, 65-78, and Game 2, which tips off at 20:30 local time (CET) on Thursday. One, Kinder center Rashard Griffith trained with the team Wednesday evening for the first time since his knee injury 11 days ago. Doctors were still waiting to give him the go-ahead for Game 2, but Griffith was sure he was ready. "I'm sure I'm going to play," he told Euroleague.net. "I'm ready." Two, not even the Tau players believe that, with or without Griffith, Kinder's other stars can repeat their subpar shooting and rebounding performances of the first game. Just the same, Tau had more than a little to say in Game 1, and has let the echo of its extraordinay play do most of the speaking since. Still, there was no denying the boost in Tau's confidence. As young forward Luis Scola said in a Euroleague.net Chat this morning, "If we play the same way again, it won't matter who else is on the court with us. We'll win again."
Kinder coach Ettore Messina admitted that he was indeed surprised by his team's reaction to the adversity of playing without Griffith in Game 1. Most notably, he thought Kinder rushed itself on offense, making too few passes to extend Tau's defense and taking too many quick shots instead. Griffith's absence had something to do with that, too, as the offense is based on his posing a major threat inside. The inside-outside game that begins with post passes to Griffith was undermined by Kinder's impatience in the face of Tau's relentless defense. Just as it would have against Griffith, Tau double-teamed the low post consistently, but Kinder's big men either shot too quickly or passed to perimeter players who did the same. "The injury to Griffith meant we had to change things, our offense, our defense and our rebounding, of course," Messina said. "I think also that the first final for some of our young players had an influence. But every time this team has lost this year, or played badly even, they have reacted well and learned from their mistakes very quickly."
Within Game 1, however, Kinder did the opposite. Messina saw his players react uncharacteristically to small mistakes with frustration. He might also have mentioned that when Kinder did make big plays, as on a couple of key third-quarter steals, they lost the ball right back to Tau. The 23 turnovers that Kinder forced out of Tau would normally be a significant stat, but they turned out to be of little consequence as the visitors led by 15 or more during many minutes.
"Tactically, you can't change much in just one practice," Messina said, "but psychologically, we can turn it around and play as we know how to. What we missed more than anything was personality. I was annoyed by our lack of mental aggressiveness. After making mistakes, I saw us get anxious and nervous. I didn't expect so great an impact from the first game of the Finals on our young players." Any talk of personality before Game 2 must start with Tau, however. It takes a special character to win a road opener so convincingly as the visitors did on Tuesday, and as they have done now in all four Euroleague playoff rounds. Besides just turning the homecourt advantage upside down - now Tau can win the series simply by winning at home in Vitoria, Spain - Tau becomes more dangerous in Game 2, as well. It has plenty of reason to be even more confident now. Nobody should forget that Tau won with a minimal contribution from two of its post-season stars.
Sharpshooter Saulius Stombergas scored only 5 points in 18 minutes, but chipped in 3 steals and 4 rebounds. Power forward Fabrizio Oberto was banished with fouls for most of three quarters and finished with 0 points and 3 rebounds in 13 minutes. "I wouldn't even say that was our best playoff opener so far," playmaker Elmer Bennett said on Wednesday, "but it's true we were really focused. We tend to focus better like that on the road, maybe because at home you tend to relax a bit. The thing we're fortunate to have a different player or two being real strong at different times during all our games. We've always had someone playing well when we needed it."
On Tuesday, that someone was everyone, really, considering that Tau had five players in there for 29 minutes or more. Swingman Laurent Foirest shone in the first and fourth quarters, center Victor Alexander dominated the middle two, while Bennett, Scola and swingman Mindaugas Timinskas filled in all the rest of the blanks. Normally, it is Kinder who forces people to fish around to determine which star shone brightest, because all of them contribute on most nights. Tau stole that script in Game 1 and Kinder will be looking to its big names to steal it back in Game 2.
"People ask if we can steal back a game when we get to Vitoria," Messina joked on Wednesday evening. "Right now, I just want to win one in Bologna."
Wednesday, April 18, 2001