Defending champion Panathinaikos has stepped strong into the 2002-03 Euroleague, not only beating Buducnost by 87-71 but doing it with a certain dominance and flair that inspired a lot of enthusiasm in its fans. The fans in Athens welcomed home Antonis Fotsis, and he reciprocated by leading the Greens with a career-high 25 points and 9 rebounds while keying the fourth-quarter run that put the game out of reach for Buducnost. Darryl Middleton added 15 points and Arriel McDonald 10 for the winners. In the opposite side, Ivan Koljevic scored 18 points, but only 3 in the second half and Zarko Cabarkapa added 14. Buducnost made a game of it in the middle quarters with a zone defense, and even took a lead midway through the third. But when push came to shove in the fourth, the experience and leadership of the Panathinaikos veterans paid off with a smart easing away and what turned out to looke like an easy victory in Group B.
Thanks to great defense honed in a three-day-old win against Olympiakos, Panathinaikos didn't allow Buducnost any easy shots to start the game. Led by Arriel McDonald and using a lot of double teams and traps, the Greens took an early double-digit lead and looked to dominate the game. Frangiskos Alvertis hit a three-pointer to make it 10-2, after 3 minutes of play and Antonis Fotsis added another ofor a 15-4 score halfway through the period. Vlado Djurovic tried to change the rhythm of the game and put some reserve players, including giant 228-centimeters Slavko Vranes, but nothing special happened. Panathinaikos was always leading and Zeljko Obradovic took had the opportunity to play both with a typical center, such as Lazaros Papadopoulos, and with three forwards, keeping always two point guards in his lineup. The end of 10 minutes found the defending Euroleague Champions ahead 27-16.
By the beginning of the second period, Buducnost put a 2-3 zone defense which didn't cause any serious problems to the Greens. At the same time Djurovic decided to play with two short and fast guards, Ivan Koljevic and Gavrilo Pajovic, who took advantage of the absence of McDonald and managed to change the tempo of the game, in favor of Buducnost. Even though Obradovic has used 10 players in 14 minutes and Panathinaikos built a 12-point gap, 33-21, the Montenegrins didn't rise their hands up in surrender. The zone defense started to operate in an excellent way, Koljevic was unstoppable on offense and Buducnost cut the margin, first to 35-32 and then to 36-34, with 2 free throws made by Kojevic. Panathinaikos led by five points, 39-34, but the talented Zarko Cabarkapa hit a three-pointer at the buzzer for 39-37 at the end of the first half. Koljevic has already scored 15 points, being the top gun of the first half. Darryl Middleton led the Greens with 8 points.
The third quarter started with the same zone defense by Buducnost and the same problems for Panathinaikos. The visitors managed to keep a slow down tempo and Sinisa Kovasevic tied the game immediately at 39-39. After 25 minutes of play, Pajovic sank a three-pointer which gave Buducnost its very first lead, 44-45. Panathinaikos tried to play better defense and to create fastbreak opportunities and to offensive options other than from three-point range. The result of this strategy was a 6-0 run, for a 50-45 lead. Fotsis was the key player for the recovery of the Greens, who took a nine-point lead, 58-49, a minute before the end of the thir quarter. Before it was done, Fotsis was up to 16 points and Panathinaikos was leading by 60-54, which would have been more if not for another buzzer-beater, this by Buducnost's Dejan Milojevic.
Early in the fourth quarter Panathinaikos found solutions and started locking up defensive rebounds, a problem that had allowed Buducnost to stay alive so far. With 7 minutes left, Fotsis sank a three-pointer to give the Greens a double-digit lead, 66-56, which McDonald added to with a fastbreak layups. Buducnost soon returned to a zone defense, but Panathinaikos didn't waver. The Greens found the way to the basket and they didn't allow Buducnost to recover once again. At the end, as the victory was locked, the Greens found the opportunity to tranform the game in a showtime, thanks to the impressive leaping ability and the spectacular play of Antonis Fotsis, who offered to the fans two outstanding slam dunks. Panathinaikos deserved to win and so it did, by 87-71.
Wednesday, October 9, 2002
Vassilis Skountis, Athens