Maccabi Tel Aviv falls just short in Barcelona

Panathinaikos conquers Europe with 78-70 win; Maccabi coach Blatt: "Not every story has happy ending."

Euroleague Final 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Euroleague Final 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s dream European season ended with a rude awakening on Sunday evening witha 78-70 defeat to Panathinaikos in the Euroleague final at the Palau Sant Jordi Arena in Barcelona.
No one expected Maccabi to reach the Final Four at the start of the season, but Sunday’s defeat was still bitterly disappointing for the yellow- and-blue, which came tantalizingly close to lifting a sixth continental title in club history.
Tel Aviv struggled to display the thrilling basketball that had got it this far against Panathinaikos, and despite remaining within striking distance of the Greeks until the final seconds, it trailed throughout almost the entire game and never seemed to be in control of its destiny.
Maccabi had no answer for Euroleague and Final Four MVP Dimitris Diamantidis, who picked Tel Aviv apart time and again, and Pana proved why its defense is regarded as one of the best in Europe by limiting the yellow-andblue’s competition-best offense to just 36.9 percent (24 of 65) from the field.
The Greeks held just a three-point lead (33-30) after a nervy first half, but established a double-digit margin (54-43) by the end of the third period and were never going to lose after Diamantidis opened a gamehigh 61-47 gap with over seven minutes still remaining.
After beating Maccabi coach David Blatt in his first Final Four appearance in the 2001/02 semis, Pana’s Zeljko Obradovic got the better of Tel Aviv once more, remarkably winning his eighth ring, the last five with the Greens.
Nevertheless, Blatt remained proud of his team after an unforgettable campaign.
“Panathinaikos was the justifiable winner in this final,” he said. “For us I can say only that basketball is not Hollywood and not every story has a happy ending. But it doesn’t make the story bad.
“No one gave us a chance in the Final Four or even to win in the playoffs after the Top 16. We just did great things all season. We put a team together that played hard, wanted to win and have fun. Even if in the end we didn’t win, the story here was very good for us.”
After shining in Friday’s semifinal win over Real Madrid, Chuck Eidson was Maccabi’s best player once more on Sunday, leading the team with 17 points and seven rebounds.
David Blu scored 14 and Jeremy Pargo added 12 points and nine assists, but Maccabi was suffocated by the Greeks’ swarming, scrappy defense, and was never going to win a game in which it failed to score more than 15 points in each of the first three quarters.
Sofoklis Schortsanitis, Richard Hendrix, Milan Macvan and Lior Eliyahu were held to a combined five points in the first 30 minutes, and with such a minimal contribution from its big men, Tel Aviv was always kept on the back foot and never gained control.
Panathinaikos, on the other hand, hit 62.1% (23 of 37) from two-point range, and despite converting just 14 of 24 free throws and playing far from exciting basketball, looked like a team with the experience of winning the title in 2007 and 2009.
Diamantidis led the Greeks with 16 points, nine assists and five rebounds, with Mike Batiste scoring 18, Drew Nicholas adding 14 points and Romain Sato contributing 13 points.
“Diamantidis was the MVP of the Euroleague and he sure played like it today,” Blatt said. “He’s one of the great European players, maybe of all time, because he impacts the game in so many areas and he does it seemingly the right way all the time.
“He has calm in the face of battle that allows him to see the game more slowly than the rest and to make better decisions than the rest.”
Obradovic was understandably delighted with another continental triumph.
“We had a bad first half, where we didn’t hit open shots and played poorly, but we improved in the second half and controlled the game until the last stretch, when we made some stupid turnovers and allowed Maccabi to think that they could come back,” Obradovic said. “At the end, I think we deserved to win, because we were excellent in clutch moments.”
After a tight start, Blu’s free-throws gave Maccabi its first of only two leads in the game (13-11), but Panathinaikos answered with an 8-0 run and held a 22-15 margin after 10 minutes.
While Pana hit 10 of 13 two-point attempts in the first quarter, Tel Aviv scored just one of 10, but it still had everything to play for at halftime, holding the Greeks to a mere 11 points in the second period to trail by just three (33-30) at the break.
Sofo’s first points of the evening gave Maccabi the lead (36-35) at the start of the third quarter, but an 8-0 run, capped by two Sato threes, put Pana in the driving seat yet again and another triple by the guard opened a 54-43 gap with 10 minutes to play.
The margin grew to 14 points (61- 47) after Diamantidis’s points from the line, and despite never giving up, Maccabi came no closer than four points (74-70) before falling to a heartbreaking defeat.
“We didn’t surprise ourselves at all by making it this far, so not winning the trophy is disappointing,” Pargo said. “We wanted to win it and believed we could.
“We’ll focus from now on the Israeli league and try to finish this season in good style. We’re a team, and every time someone else needs to step up or cover for the other that’s what we try to do, today as well, but it just wasn’t our night.”