Well, well, well. What a delightfully tangled web is being weaved in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs!
For the first time in seven years, all four series are going to Game 4 – at least. Every tipoff tonight and Friday comes with one team poised to qualify for the Final Four and another in survival mode, its EuroLeague dreams for this season hanging in the balance.
There may be no greater sense of anticipation than in Kaunas, where Zalgiris can clinch a Final Four berth tonight while hosting Olympiacos Piraeus in Game 4 of a series that has so far been riveting, especially for the long-starved fans in Lithuania's second-biggest city.
You can be sure that those Zalgiris fans – who will be out in force not just in Zalgirio Arena but anywhere in the world that the game is shown on television – are not taking anything for granted. They have been down that road before, only to be left with bitter disappointment.
It was 14 years ago this month when Zalgiris was seconds away from the Final Four, in what would have been a shining tribute to legend Arvydas Sabonis in his final season as a pro. But without warning, the wheels fell off in Tel Aviv and glory vanished into thin air.
Anyone who saw it will never forget it: the 89-94 Zalgiris lead with 10 seconds left; Nikola Vujcic putting back an airball with 3 on the clock for Maccabi; the lunging foul a second later to stop the clock as Zalgiris inbounded the ball; the 2 missed free throws by Giedrius Gustas; Tanoka Beard stepping into the lane early on the second miss, stopping the clock again; Gur Shelef passing the length of the court, nobody fouling Derrick Sharp on the catch, his game-tying shot, and Maccabi dominating overtime against a shell-shocked Zalgiris.
It is said that fans in Kaunas counted up 11 different instances in the last half-minute or so of that game that, if any of them had not happened, Zalgiris would have gone to the Final Four. The same Maccabi team would win that season's title, setting championship-game records that won't be broken soon with a 118-74 victory over Fortitudo Bologna. Maccabi would win it all again in 1995 as the only back-to-back EuroLeague champions in a two-decade span. But Zalgiris fans will only remember that before that dynasty began, Zalgiris had Maccabi beaten – until basketball again taught the age-old lesson that a game lasts 40 minutes, and it's never over until it's over.
There is no doubt that in basketball-obsessed Kaunas, the hard memories of that night do not fade. But they may also consider another view of the same circumstances. The best player on the floor in that fateful game – with the singular exception of Sabonis – was one Sarunas Jasikevicius, the current Zalgiris coach. It was Jasikevicius who made that lunging foul on Gustas, his fifth, and well spent it was, otherwise time would have expired on Maccabi. Previous to that, Jasikevicius had poured in a career-high 37 points, the second-highest total in the history of the Top 16, and more than anyone has ever scored in a life-or-death playoffs showdown – which essentially that game was – or, for that matter, in any winner-take-all Final Four game.
Another factor in their favor now as opposed to then are the Zalgiris fans themselves. That fateful 2004 road game, which they could not directly influence, marked the last time that a Final Four berth in the Top 16. The following year, the playoffs were introduced as a new phase before the Final Four. Zalgiris never reached those playoffs until now. After so long a wait, this new opportunity to bury the 2004 ghosts and the team's first playoff game at home on Tuesday unleashed euphoria in the city. The lucky 14,345 people who wore identical green t-shirts and lived that moment with such passion no doubt helped Zalgiris to control its first home playoff game ever and take a 2-1 series lead with a 20-point win that was the worst for Olympiacos in its 31 playoff games this decade. They will be back tonight and sure to play the best sixth-man role any team can ask for.
Nonetheless, the wise fans of Zalgiris won't let their emotions get the best of them now or forget exactly what team theirs is up against. Olympiacos has as much Game 5 experience as any EuroLeague team and is 2-0 in those games at home, including last year, when the Reds trailed Anadolu Efes Istanbul 1-2 and still made the Final Four. Of course, this is Game 4, but that is the same one that really tripped up Efes last year. Although Efes first, and Zalgiris twice this season, including Game 1, both proved able to win in Piraeus, Game 5 is a different story. It’s the edge that top-ranked teams play all season to acquire, and no home team has ever wasted a Game 5. Yet.
That's what makes Game 4 so crucial to Zalgiris and Real Madrid, despite the fact that they lead their series. Both have two games left to win one, but they are home now, and that is where their hearts are. Traveling again would be a disappointment much like overtime in Tel Aviv was for Zalgiris on that fateful day in 2004, something to avoid at all costs.
EuroLeague fans have no reason to envy any sports fans on Earth. And when it comes to loving both their team and the game of basketball, Zalgiris fans stand shoulder to shoulder with the best. If tonight is their night, at long last, the Zalgiris Kaunas fans will have met their moment, too, just as the players and coaches.