Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Panathinaikos
In what is expected to be the closer of the two semi final games, Euroleague titleholders Maccabi Tel Aviv matches up with Panathinaikos, the most successful European team of the past decade. The two teams have a long history of matching up in title games (Panathinaikos won in 2000, Maccabi in 2001, while in 2002, the Greens beat Maccabi in the semi-final game of the Final Four, before taking the title versus Kinder Bologna).
This year, history repeats itself, but Maccabi is the favorite. Having already won the title last year in a more than dominant fashion versus Climamio Bologna, the Israeli team has proven during the Regular Season and especially the Top-16 round that even though the Final Four takes place in Moscow and CSKA has only lost once this year, Maccabi should definitely be considered the second team to beat in Euroleague. Led again by three of the most complete players in the World, Lithuanian Point Guard Sarunas Jasikevicius (15.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 5.2 apg), American Swingman and Euroleague MVP Anthony Parker (30, 6-6, 18.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg), and Croatian Power Forward/Center Nikola Vujcic (27, 6-11, 14.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.8 apg), Maccabi presents a stormy offensive game, which is difficult, if not impossible to follow during a 40-minute game. And this is the bet for coach Pini Gherson, who has seen his team go undefeated in both the Top-16 and the Quarter-Finals, after a 10-4 record in the Regular season. The team has hardly had hard times finding a way to score and when Jasikevicius and Parker are on fire, then there is no way for Maccabi to be stopped by any opponent defense.
Maccabi scores 92.2 points per game in a 40-minute competition, and although they usually face difficulties versus strong, defensive teams, the odds are still in favor of them when games go over 90 points per team. Also, all-around wing player Tal Burstein (6-6, 25, Israel, 7.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.4 apg), veteran Derrick Sharp (6-1, 34, Israel/U.S., 6.7 ppg) and Nestoras Kommatos (28, 6-8, Greece, 3.7 ppg) often come off the bench and spark the perimeter in a way that the offensive tempo is not interrupted when the starters are tired.
Concerning some difficulties that the team is going to face during this Final Four, they will first of all miss useful big man Dion Thomas (34, 6-10, U.S.), who was injured two weeks ago and now Vujcic and especially big man Maceo Baston (29, 6-10, U.S., 14.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg) will have loads of work to do both in the Semi-Final game versus Panathinaikos and also in the Final game (if Maccabi makes it) versus either CSKA or Tau.
It was mentioned before that in order to have some chances to beat Maccabi, you need to be a strong defensive team, and Panathinaikos is exactly that. Carrying many years of maturity and experience, coach Zeliko Obradovic has created a very strong and physical group, which had the second best defense in the Euroleague this season. In a memorable quarterfinal series versus the best defensive team in Europe, the Turkish team Efes Pilsen, Panathinaikos got the last ticket for the Final Four and is now ready to return to what was projected as "heaven", after two years of absence.
This season, Obradovic is relying on many players throughout the game, looking for a balanced team offensively that pays more attention on the defensive end, pressing relentlessly with a harsh three-guard system, led by Slovenian Combo Guard Jaka Lakovic (27, 6-2, 15.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.8 apg), Greek Point Guard and Euroleague Defensive Player of the Year Dimitris Diamantidis (25, 6-4, 7.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.9 spg), and the athletic Serbian Wing Guard Vlado Scepanovic (30, 6-6, 9.3 ppg).
The pressure that these three players create on the perimeter usually drives opponents to make consecutive turnovers, which end up as easy baskets, by the quick forwards Kostas Tsartsaris (26, 6-10, Greece, 7.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Mike Batiste (28, 6-9 U.S., 11.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg). Look for Maccabi to try and break this press with their three outstanding ball-handlers, Jasikevicius, Parker and Burstein.
The main difficulty of Panathinaikos concerns its frontline, as there is not a real center on the roster, except for the German Patrick Femerling (30, 7-1, 5.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg), who is used sparingly, which forces Panathinaikos to press on defense and sometimes overly rely on Lakovic's, the Euroleague's Player of the month in February, excellent long shooting touch. However, in a Final Four, a player like Lakovic, who can either take or lose games by himself, might end up being the Greeks downfall if he is guarded well by opponents, so Obradovic often uses veteran Wing role players like Ibrahim Kutluay (31, 6-6, Turkey, 7.2 ppg) and Frankiskos Alvertis (31, 6-9, 8.5 ppg), as soft Power Forwards, who can both press inside and take the long-range shots when needed.
The game of both teams looks and is completely different; however it is surely going to be a close game. If Thomas hadn't been injured, then Maccabi would be the favorite, but now things are confused, as the advantage in the frontline is not clear. However, Maccabi, the titleholders, are still better and slightly more experienced, as Panathinaikos' stars Lakovic and Diamantidis has never participated in a final four, in comparison to Parker and Jasikevicius, who are already Champions.
However, the perimeter defense of Panathinaikos has proven to be a winning one throughout the season, while Maccabi might face some difficulties in guarding so many shooters at the same moments.
CSKA Moscow vs. Tau Ceramica
In a very interesting second semi-final game, two teams of high quality, whose rosters include some of Europe's real superstars match up, immediately after the Maccabi-Panathinaikos game. CSKA and Tau (as well as Panathinaikos) belonged to the same Group C, the best and toughest one during the regular season. CSKA won both games, although the Spanish team came close both times, creating positive feelings for this second semifinal's outcome.
Although Tau battled the Russian powerhouse in both those matchups earlier in the season, CSKA won both times, making it clear which was Europe's stronger and steadier team during the past six months. The Russians have only had one loss throughout the year and will expect all three other teams in Moscow for their third straight Final Four, where all projections have them as not only the favorites, but also the winners. The game that Serbian veteran Coach Dusan Ivkovic has implemented is absolute. Everything in CSKA's offense runs in perfection, as a splendid guard line, led by gifted American scorers Marcus Brown (31, 6-4, 15.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.1 spg), Euroleague's Player of the Month for April, and J.R. Holden (29, 6-2, 10.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.7 apg) take over the offense, while Greek Point Guard Theo Papaloukas (28, 6-7, 7.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.3 spg), Euroleague's Player of the month in January, comes off the bench to provide unique leadership. 29-year old American Small Forward Antonio Granger (6-6, 10.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg) is as useful as anyone for a role player.
The frontline is equally balanced with center David Andersen (25, 7-0, Australia, 12.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) coming off an extensive streak of great games earlier in the season and especially during the Top-16 round, while Dimos Dikoudis (28, 6-9 Greece, 9.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Martin Muursep (31, 6-9, Estonia, 8.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg) share time at Power Forward and create many mismatches with their efficient inside-outside game and nice shooting skills.
CSKA, a team which also includes the talented Portland draftee, Russian Small Forward Sergey Monia (22, 6-8, 5.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg), is not lacking any leadership and there are no flaws evident in its game. Their one and only loss during the season in both the Euroleague and the Russian Superleague came against Barcelona, and their dominant streak could not be stopped, even when only one of their star players (especially Brown and Andersen) is having a good game.
This task makes Tau's job very difficult. CSKA, even with everything else aside, is a very deep and perfectly organized team. A team that every player knows exactly what they will do in any moment of the game. Tau, on the other hand includes the most powerful two player combo in today's European basketball, in Lithuanian shooting guard Arvydas Macijauskas (25, 6-4, 17.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.4 spg), Euroleague's Player of the Month for March, who is considered by many to be the best shooter in the world, and Argentinean Power Forward Luis Scola (25, 6-9, 15.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.3 spg), a tough and technically superior player, who rarely gives up and can contain any big man in Europe, concerning his offensive skills.
Given that the team relies heavily on those two players, it would be a surprise to find a real standout among the rest of the roster. However, as good of a shooter as Macijauskas is, his life would be much more difficult if he didn't have Spanish wonder kid, the mature Point Guard Jose Manuel Calderon (24, 6-3, 11.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.5 spg), one of Europe's finest and best Point Guards, who has stepped up during the season. Also, athletic youngster Tiago Splitter (20, 6-11, Brazil, 7.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and especially veteran banger Kornel David (6-9, 34, Hungary, 11.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) provide Scola with immense help inside, when the Argentinean can't carry the load by himself. In the Small Forward spot, role players Travis Hansen (27, 6-6, U.S., 6.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg), Sergi Vidal (6-7, 24, Spain, 5.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.8 apg) and Robert Conley (28, 6-7, U.S., 6.5 ppg) often step up when the team's stars are tired, while Pablo Prigioni (28, 6-4, Italy, 4.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 3.0 apg) provides some moments of rest for the perimeter players.
There were moments during the season and especially during the Top-16 and the quarterfinals against Benneton Treviso that Tau was playing the best basketball in Europe. The ball was moving quickly from the hands of Calderon, Macijauskas was absolutely unstoppable, being your perfect lethal three-point shooter and Scola was as dominant as ever, even when being double-teamed by the opposing frontline. Flashes of great basketball, one level above their opponents, gave Tau the ticket to the Final Four, despite a difficult Regular Season and a stressful Top-16.
What is odd in their game is the fact that despite Tau often having the two best players in any given game on its roster, Dusko Ivanovic's team was betrayed many times, especially during the regular season, for depending mainly on them, while CSKA is as deep as any other team in this season's Euroleague. So, if Macijauskas and Scola can carry the Spanish team, then the win over CSKA won't be considered a miracle. But, the Russians are closer to be characterized as the favorites of this game and despite the boost that Macijauskas' treys can give the Spanish team and the strong performances that Tau has provided lately, most people believe that the edge is still on the hosts' side.