By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
Barcelona were expected to win the series, and took Game 1 by the narrowest of margins. Panathinaikos stormed back to take Game 2. They head back to Athens knowing a pair of wins at OAKA will send the Catalans crashing out and the Greens to the Final Four. That was the situation in March 2011, just as it is in April 2013.
Only two Panathinaikos players are left from that series, four from the Catalan side. Times have changed but the main protagonists remain the same. Coach Xavi Pascual and the quartet of surviving players - Navarro, Lorbek, Sada and Ingles - are only too aware of how words like ‘favourite’ mean nothing in series such as these. Only too aware of how Dimitris Diamantidis can anchor a team, how the hell of playing on the road in OAKA can grind down even the continent’s best players.
It’s equally tempting to try to ignore ‘intangibles’ like 20,000 angry Greeks unloading their lungs when you have the ball, as it is to overstate their impact. The butterflies, if they exist, in Navarro’s stomach as he remembers what it was like to lose in 2011, will mean nothing if James Gist and Stephane Lasme stop playing such incredible defense on Erazem Lorbek and Ante Tomic. Xavi Pascual will experience redemption, not painful recollection, if Roko Ukic can’t accept responsibility for taking care of the ball.
On the other hand, Panathinaikos doesn’t have to sail up to the top of the offensive or defensive ratings over the next three games. They only have to take two of the next three with Barcelona, and the first two are at home. They have to carry on slowing down and uglying up the game, just as they did in the first two of this series. They have to keep winning the personal battles, especially in the paint, and die for each other on the court. James Gist has to continue to be a problem the Barcelona bigs, rather than his own coach, can’t solve.
Pedoulakis’ team won game 2 on the back of their defense. After Lorbek’s pair of free throws tied the game at 60-60, they scored only six points on threes by Bramos and then Diamantidis’ ice-cold step back game winner. But crucially they limited Barcelona to just five points of their own. The Euroleague’s leading offense suffered from a stultifying lack of creativity. Barcelona shot 4/16 in the second half from three point range, and without Pete Mickeal’s ability to create for himself in the post, they were reduced to putting everything in the hands of Navarro. He scored his team’s final five points, including a nonchalant left handed finger roll to take the lead at 62-60. But without a true point guard on the floor, everything was done with a high degree of difficulty. Too high to win, as it turned out. Marcelinho Huertas sat the final eight minutes, despite dishing out four assists to that point, and Pascual’s insistence on playing Sada along with Navarro for defensive reasons came back to hurt him. Without the Brazilian’s bursts of creativity, this Barcelona team looks beatable. If you make the game about each possession on its own merits, if you reduce it to a battle of wills, this plays right into the hands of the underdogs.
Now, as the series shifts to OAKA, where the infamous green hell awaits. Pedoulakis must keep with the same strategy, but problems are never far around the corner. An anxious wait for the injury status of James Gist will continue on Monday. This is the kind of through-the-looking-glass world that can be created by the immediacy of a short playoff series. James Gist has been transformed from the butt of jokes on the Asian side of Istanbul, to a vital part of a team that could make the Final Four. A battle between Lorbek and Tsartsaris would be one of the few direct reunions from 2011, with the Slovenian favourite to triumph. There is still probably an epic Sofoklis Schortsanitis five-minute salvo left in this series, even if his inablity to pass out of a hard trap killed his chances of playing in the second half in Game Two.
The games on Tuesday and Thursday night, given the war of words emanating from Athens, could be some of the most intense, and potentially controversial in Euroleague history. If the Greens can win, perhaps even in five games, who would bet against them winning twice more in London?