Maccabi Tel Aviv was of course the winner once again. This is a wonderfully built and organized team, which managed an improbable and rare repeat of Euroleague titles. In Europe, with the many ups and downs between teams, and the amount of players that leave their teams with the greatest of ease, it is no easy task to win two straight final fours, especially when the number one favorite, CSKA Moscow, had been preparing for this Final Four for years.
Before analyzing the Final game between Maccabi and the Cinderella Tau Ceramica, let's see what happened during the semi-finals, two days ago.
The Final Four Semifinals
MACCABI TEL AVIV-PANATHINAIKOS 91-82
by Dimitris Ritsonis
On Friday evening, Maccabi was looking to get by Panathinaikos and its strong defensive game. The Greek champions entered the court as the game's outsiders and, despite their excellent defense, which was built around stopping Maccabi's superstars Sarunas Jasikevicius, Anthony Parker and Nicola Vujcic, they were trailing throughout the game.
The reasons were, on one hand the marvelous offensive night of Derrick Sharp and Tal Burstein, and on the other hand the three quick fouls of Greens' first offensive option, Jaka Lakovic. suffered.
Lakovic was quickly replaced in the 1st period and the scoring options became limited for Panathinaikos. With Sharp having his best game of the last three years and Vujcic battling both Kostas Tsartsaris and Mike Batiste in the frontcourt, Maccabi led 25-18 during the 1st period and extended the margin to double digits late in the second (43-33).
Dimitris Diamantidis was running Panathinaikos' offense with a great will to cut down the margin, but the team's offensive options were limited, especially since the big men had a very disappointing game. The Greens began finding open shots that Ibrahim Kutluay, Nikos Chatzivretas and Vlado Scepanovic took advantage of, but with no player outside Diamantidis being creative at all, the Greek team only managed to cut the margin to 8 (49-41) at halftime.
With Maccabi's coach Pini Gherson watching his team winning over the court of the first half, despite Jasikevicius' and Parker's mediocre game; he began to feel better in the second half.
When Panathinaikos managed a strong comeback early in the 3rd quarter and took the lead 55-54, based mainly on the heroics of Diamantidis and Chatzivretas, Parker found some space and led his team to a 7-0 run. Panathinaikos was not able to bring back the score from that point on and went to the 4th period trailing by 6 (68-62).
Diamantidis and the now returned Lakovic, who, in the meantime had been charged with his fourth foul, tried to help the Greens return to the game, but it was too late. Jasikevicius was freed and his passing was as accurate as ever. A couple of back-to-back baskets from the Lithuanian and some serious support from Maceo Baston and Vujcic helped Maccabi leave the court with the ticket for the Final Game. The final score: 91-82.
The 34-year old Derrick Sharp and his 20 points in 25 minutes were as crucial as ever for Maccabi, also coming on excellent stats (7/10 FG, 3/5 Treys, 3/4 FT's). Baston and Burstein scored 14 a piece, proving that Maccabi's depth is insurmountable and can overcome even the toughest defenses in Europe. Jasikevicius had 13, but also dished out 8 assists, and Parker had 13 himself, along with 5 boards and 2 assists.
Diamantidis, in his first Final Four game might have been the best player on the floor, but his all-around game would have also been a winning one, if Panathinaikos had a decent presence in the frontline to support him. The Greek PG finished with 16 points (5/7 FG, 2/4 threes, 4/6 free throws), 6 boards, 5 assists, three steals and a block on his 25th birthday. The veteran Kutluay led Panathinaikos in scoring (17 points) and along with Scepanovic (16) covered for the loss of Lakovic, who finished the game with 4 points (1/6 FG) in 17 minutes. Panathinaikos' big men, Batiste and Tsartsaris finished with only 6 points combined.
TAU VITORIA-CSKA MOSCOW 85-78
by Dimitris Ritsonis
CSKA Moscow entered the court for the second semi-final as the absolute favorite, having only lost one game out of 52 over the course of the season (Euroleague 21-1, Russian Suproleague and Cup 30-0!). Their second loss was a painful one, though...
Dusan Ivcovic's players saw a red-hot Tau take the court with an incredible desire to win the game and reach the finals. Despite the referees' friendly calls for the home team starting in the first quarter, the Spanish team never lost its power. Led by an excellent Arvydas Macijauskas, who scored 9 quick points in the first 5 minutes, Tau led the Russians by 13-5 and 21-10, while the main offensive weapons of CSKA, Marcus Brown and David Andersen were looking out of the game's pace. Luis Scola was quickly charged with 3 fouls (two of them were questionable) and spent most of the game's time on the bench, but still, whenever he was on the court, his presence gave hope to Tau's players, who were all having serious foul trouble from the first 10 minutes. Dimos Dikoudis and J.R. Holden provided some baskets for the hosts, who were not looking as the perfect, unbeatable team of the Regular Season anymore and was trailing in the first quarter by 8 points (25-17).
Sergei Monya and Theo Papaloukas' all-around game combined with the presence of many back-up Tau players (Tiago Splitter, Pablo Prigioni, Sergi Vidal and Andrew Betts) on the floor for extended periods during the second quarter gave the fans in the Olympisky Arena some hope for a comeback.
J.R. Holden was unstoppable early in the quarter and helped the Russians take the lead 28-27 and 36-35, but again Betts and Roberto Gabini scored some huge baskets and grabbed a couple of crucial offensive boards to help Tau to a 47-40 halftime lead.
With Scola facing hostile refereeing throughout the game and Macijauskas tightly guarded by CSKA's defenders, most were still cynical about the chances of CSKA losing. But the Russians who finished the game with a pathetic 10/28 from the free throw line, had all their stars in a bad day, tremendously influenced by the pressure that a favorite carries with a European Championship on the line, at home, after such a strong season.
In the third period, the only thing that the Spanish team was interested in was holding the difference that stood between 6 and 11 points, until the team's best player up to this point, Kornell David was charged with his third foul too. With CSKA attempting to make a comeback and the Spanish frontline being close to fouling out, Holden, Brown and Andersen made some baskets to help the Russians close out the quarter trailing only by one (60-59).
The whole fourth quarter proved the wonderful character that Tau's coach Dusko Ivanovic has transferred to his players. Having already lost Scola with five fouls; Jose Manuel Calderon, Prigioni and especially Macijauskas led a mid-quarter 11-2 run, which never allowed the disappointed Russians to even think of a come-back.
Celebrations were never over on Tau's bench, which was led by Macijauskas' 23 points (7/14 FG, 3 rebs, 3 assists, 3 steals), who hit some really important shots in the fourth quarter, while being guarded too harshly during the entire game. Calderon did a wonderful job with 13 points, while David had a double-double (11 points, 12 boards) for the game. Scola finished with 10 points in 20 minutes.
Holden led CSKA with 20 points, but with a terrible 6/18 FG, while the team's other options were disappointing (Andersen 10 points, 7 boards, a bored Brown had 12, along with 5 assists, but also 5 turnovers). Dikoudis came second with 13 points, most of which when the game was already over.
MACCABI TEL AVIV- TAU VITORIA 90-78
by Jonathan Givony
In front of 6,000 rowdy Israeli fans that made the trip to Moscow and painted the arena in yellow, Maccabi Tel Aviv won its second straight European championship behind an extremely well coached and executed game, particularly in the 1st and 4th quarters.
Maccabi started off firing on all cylinders and built up a comfortable lead early on, with a balanced attack that was sparked by its fantastic inside-outside ball movement. Maccabi had a great luxury to be able to throw the ball inside to their center Nikola Vujcic, who wasn't at his best but still always managed to use his all of his 7 feet to see over the top of the defenses and find the open man. He ended up with 7 assists on the game. Maccabi also looked to use its multiple ball-handlers as much as possible and push the tempo of the game, taking advantage of Anthony Parker and Maceo Baston's outstanding athletic ability and Sarunas Jasikevicius' court vision and killer instinct.
With only one day between the semi finals and the finals, Tau Vitoria apparently did not have enough time to prepare for Maccabi Tel Aviv's trademark matchup zone, which was constantly rotated with a traditional man to man defense and even a box and one zone at times to take the sharp-shooting Lithuanian Arvydas Macijauskas out of the game. With former Atlanta Hawks swingman Travis Hansen in foul trouble, these gimmick defenses worked for most of the 1st half. The athletic and versatile Spanish PG (who surely has opened some NBA eyes here in Moscow) Jose Manuel Calderon and the Argentinean PF Luis Scola helped keep Tau in the game by continuing to attack the basket.
On Maccabi's end, they once again showed just how well built of a team they are by bringing yet another ace in the hole off the bench to change the complexion of the game. On Friday it was Derrick Sharp, but in this game it was the usually sparsely used Greek combo forward Nestoras Kommatos, who scored 13 points on perfect shooting (3-3 from outside) in the first half off the bench, a performance reminiscent of David Bluthenthal last year, who exploded in similar fashion and rode this terrific game all the way to the NBA.
Kommatos' back to back threes from the corners put Maccabi up 36-20 early in the 2nd quarter, but Tau managed to rally back behind a balanced attack led by Calderon and Hansen's outside shooting, ending the first half 50-39 in favor of Maccabi.
The Brazilian lottery hopeful Tiago Splitter played every minute possible starting from 2 minutes left in the first quarter up until about 6 minutes left in the fourth when he was sent to the bench with his fourth foul. His defensive presence was actually one of the biggest reasons why Tau managed to stay in the game, and his fourth foul was the exact moment that Vitoria began to unravel and eventually lost any chances of winning this game. He had a modest 6 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks in 24 minutes, but managed to be a difference maker by ensuring that his presence was felt on the game defensively and putting a tremendous amount of pressure on Maccabi's perimeter players to make plays from outside. The Israelis only scored 15 points in the third quarter, with Jasikevicius shining the brightest and keeping their lead intact. The end of the third saw Maccabi up only 65-62 on Tau. Luis Scola, who finished with 21 points (8/11 FG), 9 rebounds and 4 assists was Tau's most dominant player.
In the fourth quarter it was time for Jasikevicius to show the NBA people in the stands just how stupid they were last summer for failing to make him a contract offer that is suitable for a player of his caliber. Hopefully Larry Brown was watching. Jasikevicius completely took over the game for Maccabi while hitting a number of huge shots, all the while mixing his offense in with terrific playmaking ability and controlling the tempo wonderfully to take just enough time off the shot clock to keep the Spaniards frustrated.
Anthony Parker woke up from his mini-slump for a while in the fourth and showed some glimpses of why he is considered the number one player in Europe today. Maccabi showed its experience at these levels by keeping its cool and slowly building its lead up to the point that the deficit became insurmountable for Tau to overcome, which signaled the start of the celebrations for Maccabi and their thousands of supportive fans.
Jasikevicius added yet another trophy to his huge collection by being named the MVP of the Final Four, thanks to his 22 points (4/8 FG, 3/4 3P), 6 rebounds and 5 assists in the final. This marks his third European championship in three straight years, matching Toni Kukoc in this aspect and cementing his place as one of the greatest European point guards of all time.
Third-Fourth Place Matchup
by Dimitris Ritsonis
The matchup between the two disappointed teams was actually the best of the Final Four, proving the will of the teams to win, even in a game of no real importance.
CSKA, mentally exhausted from their loss to Tau in Friday's semifinal, entered the court looking to prove that they didn't have such a great season for nothing. With all their starters scoring and a quick tempo created by their guards, they made it too hard for Panathinaikos to follow in the first half. Dimos Dikoudis and Marcus Brown led the team to an easy first half finish of 42-23 in favor of CSKA, which was mainly built on their excellent defense during the 2nd period (25-8 the score for those 10 minutes).
Panathinaikos on the other hand, had Mike Batiste and Kostas Tsartsaris playing better in the frontcourt, but Jaka Lakovic was out of rhythm and Ibo Kutluay was not as smooth as he was in the semi-final game.
The second half however proved that the game was far from being over, though. Panathinaikos, who was even trailing by 22 points (48-26) early in the 3rd period, dazzled CSKA defensively and scored consecutive big baskets through Batiste and Dimitris Diamantidis, who enjoyed one more exciting afternoon, cutting the margin to 10 points (61-51) at the end of the period.
Dikoudis and Theo Papaloukas tried to help CSKA keep its lead in double digits, but big baskets by Diamantidis, Kutluay, Dusan Sakota, Lakovic and Batiste (who was dominant in the paint) gave the lead to the Greens early in the fourth period (61-63).
Panathinaikos missed a big chance to win it, after leading by 5 (73-78) with 54 seconds to go, and the game went to overtime (78-78).
Consecutive turnovers in a tight defensive first overtime led the game to a second one (84-84), even coming close to a third, before Diamantidis stole the ball 11 seconds from the end and scored a basket with a foul to give Panathinaikos the win by three points (91-94).
Batiste carried the Greens to an excellent comeback and was the game's best player, even making even an impossible trey at the buzzer at one point. He had a career night with 28 points (11/20 FG), 10 boards and 4 steals. Diamantidis, once again magnificent, never lost his pace after playing for 45 minutes and finished with 15 points, 9 boards, 4 assists and 4 steals.
Lakovic also had 15 points and 4 steals, while Kutluay was the Greens' best shooter and top-scorer in the final four with 19 points (averaging 18.0 in the two games).
The Brown-Holden duo was once again problematic, with Brown leading the team (21 points), but on 8/20 shooting and 7 turnovers. Holden had 4/12 FGs, 4 assists and 5 steals, but also 4 turnovers. Dikoudis had 17 points and 10 boards, while Andersen had 14 and 15, as both big men of CSKA finished with a double-double, but none of them could contain Batiste in the game's second half.
See you next year in Prague!
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