Greens need to respond

Apr 20, 2017 by Frank Lawlor, Print
Greens need to respond

Players and coaches are fond of saying that Game 1 of any playoffs series is the most important one, and history certainly backs them up.

Since the best-of-five series came to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs in 2009, home teams have won 28 out of 32 opening games.

Those 28 home winners proceeded to take 24 of those series and advance to the Final Four. Of the four Game 1 road winners, three eventually prevailed in their series.

Put together, then, all the victors in Game 1 went on to triumph in 27 of 32 series for an 84.3% success rate in reaching the Final Four.

Those compelling numbers stand as a stark reminder of what Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens faces at home tonight against Fenerbahce Istanbul in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Game of the Week.

This is Game 2 of their best-of-five series, coming just 48 hours after Fenerbahce's head-spinning comeback from 16 points down with just over 17 minutes to play on the road Tuesday to defeat Panathinaikos 58-71.

Hard as it is to believe, in those 17 minutes Fenerbahce outscored the Greens 9-40 on their own floor and basically flipped this series on its head.

After fighting to gain home-court advantage from Fenerbahce at the tail end of the regular season, Panathinaikos suddenly finds itself with its back to the wall, needing to win tonight or face unprecedented odds for survival.

The Greens' second-half collapse on Tuesday compounds the challenge, because even they have to wonder how they could have been good enough for long enough to lead Fenerbahce by 16 points, but then be shut down so completely at both ends of the floor.

That complete turning of the tables after halftime on Tuesday called to mind something that a former player of Zeljko Obradovic always said:

"What was amazing about Zeljko was that we could practice a game plan all week, but in the first quarter he'd call a timeout, bring us to the bench and say forget it, that plan wasn't working. Then he'd have us change 180 degrees and play a completely different way. And, of course, we turned those games around and won them."

Coaches and players also say that playoff basketball is about adjusting game to game, but it's clear that Obradovic didn't plan to wait before completely transforming his team's performance. He explained the change as more aggressiveness defense leading to more confident offense, and indeed that was true. Panathinaikos spent much of its offensive time in the fourth quarter between the half-court and free throw lines, unable to find a way through or over Fenerbahce's switching defenders until the shot clock was nearly expired and its shot choices were anything but easy.

Fenerbahce's defense concentrated its efforts on containing point guard Nick Calathes by cutting off his passing and driving lanes. He finished with 5 assists, it's true, but only 1 of those came in the game's last 19 minutes and no one else on his team had more than 2. By contrast, Fenerbahce had four players with 3 or more assists. Big men Ekpe Udoh and Jan Vesely had 4 and 2, respectively, combining for almost half of Panathinaikos's total of 13.

At the same time that the backcourt of Panathinaikos was struggling, Fenerbahce's trio of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kostas Sloukas and Bobby Dixon was giving off sparks. Bogdanovic ignited the comeback with 11 points in the third quarter. Sloukas didn't score, but was his team's top rebounder, with 6, and assist-maker, with 5. Dixon scored 7 points in the last 6 minutes to keep Panathinaikos at bay.

The result was Obradovic winning at Olympic Sports Center Athens for the first time since he left an unmatched legacy in that building after 13 seasons and five EuroLeague titles with Panathinaikos. Every one of the 18,310 fans in attendance knew in advance that Obradovic and Fenerbahce were capable of winning at OAKA. But they, too, must have been left stunned by just how it happened, with a fine 22 minutes by their own team vanishing into thin air as if Obradovic had waved a magic wand.

The first task for the Greens and their fans tonight will be to take back their own floor as soon as possible, to put the ghosts of Game 1 behind them. Their second task will be to not trust that completing the first task will be enough, to be ready for anything from Fenerbahce.

There is precedent for losing Game 1 at home in the playoffs and coming back to reach the Final Four. But in 32 previous five-game series – to which we can now add the other three that started this week – no team has ever won Game 1 and Game 2 on the road. Right now, no one in Athens doubts that Fenerbahce and Obradovic are capable of that feat. And you can be sure it's a precedent that Panathinaikos will make every effort to prevent. Anything less and the Greens will have to find a magic wand of their own to wave.