The Greens are alive and well, thank you very much, and Group G is alive and kicking again. Panathinaikos blitzed its previously undefeated archrival, Olympiakos, by a healthy 88-78 on Thursday to forge a first-place tie and assure that the race for the Final Four will go to the wire in Athens. Panathinakios and Olympiakos are now locked up at 3-1, while AEK won at Union Olimpija to improve to 2-2. Panathinaikos, which had faced elimination if it and AEK both lost Thursday, never let Olympiakos up for air. Darryll Middleton was the man of the match for Panathinaikos, scoring 23 points and spearheading the defense that kept the Olympiakos big men silent for most of the game. Dejan Bodiroga added 18 points, Damir Mulaomerovic 16 and Ibrahim Kutluay 11 for the Greens. For Olympiakos, Alphonso Ford was unstoppable again, scoring 33 points, but he was his team's only offensive threat until the final quarter. Stephane Risacher finished with 11 points and Patrick Femerling 10, all of them important as Olympaikos kept the final difference below 18 points, their margin of victory when the teams first met. In the event of a two-way tie at the end of the Top 16, Olympiakos would advance on a better point differential in head-to-head results with Panathinakos.
Panathinaikos took a significant early lead of 8 points, 12-4, after 6 minutes of play, behind consecutive baskets by Bodiroga. Olympiakos coach Lefteris Subotic decided to change the defense on Bodiroga, using Nikos Boudouris instead of Theodoros Papaloukas. Ford scored his first basket to make it 12-6 four minutes into the action as both teams paid more attention to defense than offense. If not for horrible free-throw shooting, however, Panathinaikos may have been headed for a blowout. The Greens missed 11 of 15 attempts from the foul line, which not only put in doubt their hopes of winnning by more than 18, the margin of their defeat in the first meeting, but allowed Olympiakos to get right back in this game. As Panathinaikos missed free throws, Ford hit a pair of three-pointers good enough to tie the game 18-18 with 40 seconds left in the quarter. Panathinaikos needed a layup by Mulaomerovic in the late going to get out of the quarter with a 21-18 lead. Ford had scored 12 of the visitors points in just 5 minutes, 30 seconds.
At the beginning of the second quarter, Panathinaikos skipped ahead by 5 points, 23-18, but Olymopiakos came up big to obtain its first lead, 23-24, with a jumper by Ford at the 15-minute mark. Now, however, Boudouris, who was playing great defense on Bodiroga, committed his third personal foul, and Subotic tried Mican Nikagbatse, the hero of the first round game. But Olympiakos had more than Bodiroga to stop, and Middleton went over 10 points himself in a 16-4 run that would prove to be the big push for Panathinaikos. Suddenly, the Greens were ahead by 11 points, 39-28, and Olympiakos had plenty to worry about. Most costly to the Reds now was a complete lack of scoring options besides Ford. Panathinaikos shut down everyone else, but others were stepping up for the Greens. With 1:30 left until halftime, Ibrahim Kutluay sank a great three-pointer to boost the lead to lead 42-29. The Reds tried to defend in zone, but Mulaomerovic punished them by hitting another three on the way to a 47-34 halftime lead for the hosts.
Nothing changed during the third quarter. Things only got better for Panathianikos and worse for Olympiakos. Kutluay hit another three-pointer and Johnny Rogers joined him to give Panathinaikos its first 18-point lead, 54-36, after just 90 seconds. Olympiakos tried to change the situation by using three perimeter players and twin towers Patrick Femerling and Alexei Sevrasenko, but failed to keep up on defense or offense. Middleton was really unstoppable in the paint and with consecutive baskets and an outstanding defensive performance led the Greens to a 60-38 edge after 24 minutes. That gap peaked at 66-42 a few minutes later, Papaloukas and Ford scored back-to-back threes for the Reds to cut the margin to 17 points, 66-49, at the end of the third quarter. By that time Middleton was up to 21 points for the Greens, while Ford led the floor with 23, but was the only Olympiakos player to have scored more than 5 points.
The question going into the final quarter was whether Panathinaikos could equal or better the 18-point margin Olympiakos held from their first meeting. Frangiskos Alvertis seemed to say yes by hitting another three-pointer to put the Greens up 20 points, 69-49. But Ford was still on the floor, and with 7 minutes remaining, he had scored half of the total Olympiakos points (27 of 54). But now, with Risacher and Femerling joining in, Olympiakos cut it to 72-56. Mulaomerovic sank a three-pointer for 75-56, but the Reds made a 0-6 run to get it down to 13 points at 75-62. Mulaomerovic hit another three-pointer for 80-62, but a James Forrest dunk brought it down again. Soon, the game went to the foulline, where Panathinaikos shot in 6 of 8 free throws and Olympiakos 11 of 11, good enough to cut the margin to 88-78 and to keep the advantage in case of a tie finish between the two.
Thursday, March 28, 2002
Vassilis Skountis, Athens