The biggest rivalry in European basketball this century went for the second time this season to the visiting team on Thursday as Panathinaikos jeapordized Maccabi's season with a 79-86 Group A win in Tel Aviv. The veteran lineup of the defending Euroleague champions did everything necessary to make a success of point guard Arriel McDonald's return to Tel Aviv after his three years as Maccabi's leader. The upshot is that Panathinaikos is now 7-3, tied for first place in Group B and almost surely headed to the Top 16. Maccabi, meanwhile, drops to sixth place in Group B at 4-6 and must battle on all fronts to survive into the next round. Jaka Lakovic was hot from downtown in pacing the Greens to early leads on Thursday. He led all scorers with 19 points, while veteran big man Darryl Middleton ruled the paint with 18. Ibrahim Kutluay popped 14 more for the winners and Antonis Fotsis 13. Maccabi got 17 points from Quincy Lewis off the bench, 13 from Tal Burstein and 12 each from Derrick Sharp and Nikola Vujcic.
Prior to the game, Maccabi fans and management held an on-court ceremony to welcome back McDonald, who had starred for the club over the three previous seasons but was now dressed in the green of Panathinaikos. McDonald was emotional, and even shed a tear as 10,000 fans gave him a standing ovation. Neither McDonald nor Antonis Fotsis started for Panathainikos, however, and in their place were George Ballogiannis and Kostas Tsartsaris. The Greens were all business anyway once the ball started bouncing. The visitors did what they had to, going step-for-step with Maccabi to a 14-14 tie after 8 minutes and then taking the game over. Lakovic, Darryl Middleton and Fragiskos Alvertis were the catalysts. Lakovic would hit 3 three-pointers in the half. Middleton not only scored, but cleared the middle of all potential Maccabi rebounders. And Alvertis kept the Maccabi defense honest. By the time Fotsis added his mark with a dunk, the visitors had a 28-41 lead. Maccabi managed a 6-0 run then, but not before Fotsis finished the half with a triple from the wing, putting Panathinaikos in charge at 34-46. The most telling stat by then was that Maccabi had not managed a single offensive rebound in the entire first half.
The second half started just as the first one had ended. Maccabi made an effort to come back into the game, but to no avail. For 5 minutes, Rodney Buford and Fotsis kept Maccabi from getting any momentum. Then, another Panathinaikos veteran, Kutluay, stepped up. Whenever it seemed that Maccabi was ready to stage a charge, Kutluay was there to knock back the hosts with a three-pointer. First, he put up a shot from almost 8 meters with 1 second left on the shot clock, and it fell through. With 10 seconds left in the quarter, he rose in the corner to drain another triple. That set the score to 54-71, giving Panathinaikos its biggest lead of the game.
Maccabi opened the final quarter with a 5-0 run, but Lakovic retaliated with another triple, his fifth, to keep the lead at 15 points, 74-59. Perhaps no one among more than 10,000 people in Yad Eliyahu believed then that Maccabi could do anything now, no one except Sharp. The diminutive Maccabi guard dragged his team back, starting with a four-point play - a triple plus foul shot - and continuing with a steal off Lakovic and the resulting layup. Suddenly it was only 73-79 with 3 minutes, 30 seconds to play. But his teammates could not follow Sharp's lead. After several misses, Middleton downed a pair of free throws with just under 2 minutes remaining to return the Panathinaikos lead to 7 points. Then Sharp was forced to foul McDonald and leave the game with 5 fouls. That was the end of Maccabi's hopes. The crowd, witness to a third loss in five Group B home games this season, could not believe it. And neither could Sharp, who put his face in his hands on the bench. Maccabi was in hot water again, especially if its rivalry with Panathinaikos could not inspire a better performance.
Thursday, January 9, 2003
Eran Sela, Tel Aviv