To the delight of more than 4,000 fans at home in Thessaloniki, Greece, star scorer Panagiotis Liadelis and PAOK opened the playoffs with a hard-fought 75-64 victory against heady Olimpija of Slovenia on Thursday night, taking a 1-0 lead in their best-of-three series. Liadelis was the superstar, scoring 36 points in all, with 23 coming in the first half. But his most timely shot might have been the three-pointer that tied the game at the end of the third-quarter. Olimpija had been flirting with its biggest leads of the game at that point, but in the fourth quarter, Liadelis and veteran Giorgos Sigalas played deciding roles. If anything, they played like bodyguards instead of regular guards Liadelis shot 8 for 16 from two-point distance and made 2 of 3 three-point attempts, but he made his difference in forcing 11 fouls on opponents and hitting 14 of the 15 free throws that resulted. Sigalas backed him up with 17 points, while Yannis Giannoulis controlled the paint with 14 rebounds and 12 points, to just 8 points and 8 rebounds for his rival, Emilio Kovacic. For Olimpija, Sani Becirovic led the offense with 20 points.
OK burst ahead 16-9 as Giannoulis drew some quick fouls on forward Jurica Golemac, who would pick up three in eight minutes, an early blow for Olimpija. Liadelis didn't start with a single basket, but six straight points. Soon Becirovic answered with consecutive baskets and Olimpia finished the quarter behind by just 21-17. With a three-pointer by Midaugas Zaukaskas and another by Becirovic, Olimpija took its first lead at 26-27 early in the second quarter. That's also when new point guard David Evans, signed on Monday, entered the game. But the problem that Olimpija had not solved yet was Liadelis, who was unstoppable no matter what he shot, including three-pointers, which aren't his specialty. His last basket of the half not only gave him an incredible 20-minute total of 23 points, but he left PAOK with a 40-39 lead. With Giannoulis adding 10 points, they accounted for almost the entire PAOK offense, while Becirovic was doing his usual thing, with 17 points.
The defenses took over in the third quarter, but center Primoz Brezec squeezed in a couple baskets for Olimpija. More importantly for the visitors, however, Liadelis cooled down amid the general lack of scoring. Or at least it seemed that way until his three-pointer tied the game 52-52 heading into the fourth quarter. Now came the time of Sigalas. The captain of the Greek National Team, seeing Olimpija up by 1 (56-57 minute 32), scored 12 points in a row and let PAOK breath quietely and travel to Ljubljana keeping the home court advantage.
"It was a matter of heart and will," PAOK coach Kostas Flevarakis said after the game. "We played very hard on defense, but I think on offense my players were stressed because of the game' s importance and missed a lot of easy shots. We had to risk a lot in the fourth quarter, by putting Sigalas with four fouls to play as power forward, but the result was exactly what we wanted.
On the other side, Olimpja's coach, Zmago Sagadin was upset with the referees: "I want to congratulate PAOK for their victory, but I think the referies did not see both teams on the same eyes, he said. Liadelis was overprotected and there was no way to play defense on him, as it seems from the 16 free throws he shot. There is still a long way in this series and I hope we will be much better in the 2nd game and come back to Thessaloniki."
Thursday, February 1, 2001