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Take your pick. Anybody's guess. No favorites. Who knows? This weekend's Euroleague Final Four basketball tournament, which opens at 6:30 p.m. this evening in Prague with a pre-Shabbat battle between Maccabi Tel Aviv and TAU Cermaica, is simply up for grabs.
Beginning tonight, Maccabi Tel Aviv will try to become the third team in European history to take the continental championship 3 times in a row, preceded by ASK Riga (1958-60) and Yugoplastika/Pop 84 Split (1989-91, with Toni Kukoc and Dina Radja).
Most of the Israeli press has spent the year bemoaning the loss of guard Sarunas (Saras) Jasikevicius to the NBA's Indiana Pacers (where he has averaged 6.5 minutes in their first 2 playoff games), and what they see as the selfish play of his replacement, former Clemson guard Willie Solomon.
The truth, as always, is somewhat more complicated. Saras was for certain a great offensive threat, a fabulous passer and most of all, a competitor par excellence (which also made him one of the all-time great pains-in-the-butt for referees wherever he went). But in their wistful thinking, the pundits have all but forgotten those games where coach Pini Gershon sat him down for his sloppy play and "matador" defense - i.e. he simply waved the proverbial cape while players blew past him to the basket.
Solomon also has his sloppy moments, but he's quicker than Sharas, a better defensive player and he, too, is also a winner, evidenced by his championships at Aris Saloniki (FIBA Champions Cup 2003); Hapoel Jerusalem (ULEB Cup 2004) and Efes Pilsen (Turkish Championship 2005).
The Euroleague Final Four champion - like the Israeli league - will depend a lot more on how Solomon plays and what Maccabi team shows up, than it will on the other teams.
Oh sure, we can talk about TAU Ceramica's Luis Scola - who would be plying his wares at San Antonio in the NBA (56th pick, 2002) if it wasn't for a draconian buy-out clause in his contract - and his Argentinean running mate at point guard, Pablo Prigioni, who together run the best pick-and-roll in Europe, but to paraphrase Ben-Gurion, whether or not Maccabi wins a third title in a row depends a lot more on Maccabi than it does on anyone else.
Whatever Maccabi's woes were this year - including some seemingly unhappy ballplayers and lots of nagging injuries - they still have the best player in Europe (Anthony Parker), the best passing big man (Nikola Vujcic), a premier shot blocker (Maceo Baston) and a bench that can go 10 deep if necessary.
They also have a big advantage on the bench in the form of Coach Pini Gershon. He may have a history of racist remarks (which in a normal country would have ended his career; see: Al Campanis), boorish insults and unending claptrap, but he is no doubt one of the great game coaches of all time.
That was no more self-evident than in the third and deciding quarter-final game against Olympiakos. Maccabi was in the doldrums, in foul trouble and nobody was picking up the load, when Gershon called on his New Zealand and former University of Wisconsin guard Kirk Penney. After pulling the splinters out of his backside from sitting for so many months on the bench, Penney proceeded to hit a three-pointer, dish an assist to Solomon for three and ended up with 10 totally unexpected points. I don't know of any coach who would have the "intestinal fortitude" to make that call.
Gershon and the Maccabi coaching staff will also seemingly have a decided advantage over TAU and their coach, Velimir Perasovic, whom, to make things really interesting, was one of the stars of the Split team that won three championships in a row. Perasovic has also "been there" as a player, but as a firstyear coach, this might be a different story, though TAU did beat Panathinaikos in Athens in order to get to the semi-final.
Maccabi also has the crowd. At least half of the 18,000 spectators will be from Israel - it will feel a lot like a home game at the Nokia Arena in Yad Eliahu. No wonder that Israeli newspapers led off with headlines after the victory over Olympiakos that the Euroleague must be breathing a sigh of relief (from an economic point of view) that Maccabi once again made the Final Four.
The Euroleague has assigned eight referees to the games. They are a mixed group of some solid veterans along with some younger, less-experienced refs, some of whom have a tendency to overcall the game (a general Euroleague officiating problem) and making too many ill-advised decisions. Young officials in situations like this can also tend to overcall the game in order to compensate for their insecurities - and this will also play to Maccabi's advantage of having a deep bench.
Maceo Baston has been the main victim of European (and Israeli) referees' penchant for blowing the whistle, but TAU's star, Scola, was also well-ensconced in the Euroleague's top ten of fouls committed. Maccabi will take that trade-off any day. Should the foul total for the Maccabi game hit 45 or more, the Israelis will definitely have the advantage.
We could dwell on Barcelona or CSKA Moscow, one of whom may be Maccabi's opponent in the finals on Sunday night, should they get past TAU; we can talk about Barcelona's Shammond Williams and Ed Cota; CSKA's experienced coach, Ettore Messina and former Duke star and Cleveland Cavalier Trajan Langdon (and the fact that their star big man, David Anderson, is out for the season) - but does it really matter? It all comes down to which Maccabi shows up - if it's with a rested Anthony Parker, a rejuvenated Tal Burstein, a healthy Nikola Vujcic, a good shooting night for Solomon and Derek Sharp, support from the bench and lots of team defense, then Coach Gershon can retire - as he keeps repeating everywhere he goes - a happier man. We will no doubt never hear the end of it from him.
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