Defending Euroleague champion Panathinaikos flirted with trouble at home in Athens against last-place Zalgiris before pulling away to a solid 98-84 victory that cements the Greens' standing in Group B. Panathinaikos improved to 6-3, and after co-leaders Tau Ceramica and Union Olimpija finish tomorrow, will be part of a two-way tie for second place with one or the other. Rodney Buford was the big gun for the Greens, scoring half of his team-high 24 points in the first quarter. Jaka Lakovic added 17 points for the winners, Arriel McDonald 14 and Ibrahim Kutluay 13, including the key three-pointers near the end, when the Greens finally escaped what had been successive hits by Zalgiris, which only trailed by a point entering the final quarter. For the guests, whose record fell to 2-7, Kornel David again led the way with 21 points, while Gintaras Einikis and Saulius Stombergas put up 14 points each.
Buford started the game despite rumors about his future with Panathinaikos and was on fire from the very first moment. He led Panathinaikos from the beginning, scoring in every possible way: three-pointers, jumpers, drives, free throws. Greens coach Zeljko Obradovic decided not to start Antonis Fotsis for the first this season, but that was not a problem. Buford led Panathinaikos to an early 17-6 lead. He finished by scoring 12 of his team's 23 points in the quarter and keeping the Greens at or near double-digit margins. Zalgiris coach Antanas Sireika tried to change the rhythm of the game with a zone defense, but Panathinaikos had the proper answer. Buford sank another three-pointer. Zalgiris tried to stay in the game, changing both defenses and players, but Panathinaikos resisted until, at the end of 10 minutes, the home team was already 8 points ahead, 23-15.
To start the second quarter, Zalgiris managed to play its game and to make it pay on the scoreboard. Ed Cota penetrated and cut the margin to 28-23, Einikis added another basket, good for 28-25, just before a spectaculr slam dunk by Buford made it 30-25. The Panathinaikos guard already had 14 points, but his teammates didn't follow him yet. Panathinaikos lost its defensive balance and Darryll Middleton missed four consecutive shots from the field. Zalgiris took advantage of the opportunity as Vidas Ginevicius brought his team within a single point, 30-29, after 16 minutes, forcing Obradovic to call timeout. Still, the Lithuanians created fastbreak opportunities, played much better defense than in the first quarter and extended their run to 9-20, good for a first lead, 32-34, on a basket by Mindaugas Timinskas. The Greens needed someone to step up, and that person was Lakovic. The young point guard scored 7 consecutive points for a 37-34 Panathinaikos lead, but Zalgiris reacted immediately. Saulius Stombergas finished off another fastbreak for a new Zalgiris lead, 37-38, while Middleton was hit with his fourth personal foul. David made 1 for 2 free throws, for 40-41, but on a foul at the buzzer by Cota, Frangiskos Alvertis made 2 for 2 from the line to give Panathinaikos the minimum lead at the end of the first half, 42-41.
Nothing changed by the beginning of the third quarter. Panathinaikos tried to run the floor and to build a margin, but Zalgiris didn't allow it. The Lithuanians jumped ahead again, 45-48, and the Greens counterpunched with a 6-0 run good for 51-48. But neither could manage to go any further. Zalgiris responded by tying 54-54, then Buford hit his fifth three-pointer, 57-54. That was followed by another three-pointer from Lakovic and 2 free throws by Fotsis as the Greens went up 62-57. Ariel McDonald opened the gap to 6 points, 65-59, but Gintaras Einikis hit a three-pointer for Zalgiris. When Lakovic gave Panathinaikos a six-point lead, 71-65, Zalgiris and the unstoppable Kornel David were there once again. A run by the Lithuanians of 5-0 to finish the quarter cut the difference to 1 point again, 71-70.
Then came Kutluay time! The Greens' shoting guard, with just 4 points in the first three quarters, returned to play against a zone defense of Zalgiris and became the player to decide the game. Panathinaikos led by 75-70, Zalgiris cut the margin to 75-74 and to 81-78, but then Kutluay pushed the Greens on a 9-2 run that created a double-digit margin, 90-80, and sealed the victory. Kutluay sank 2 consecutive three-pointers that made it 87-78, then Lakovic made a basket-plus-foul, for 90-80 and the virtual end of a thrilling game that was much better than its final score, 98-84, might indicate.
Wednesday, December 18, 2002