Panathinaikos begins new Final Four quest

Three-time European basketball champion Panathinaikos and Turkish club Efes Pilsen, both front-runners in their respective domestic competitions, clash in Athens tonight in the opening game of a best-of-three Euroleague quarterfinal playoff for a Final Four berth in Munich. «We managed to secure the home-court advantage and, now, with the support of our fans, are ready to reach even higher,» Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic, appearing optimistic, told a news conference yesterday. Should a third game be necessary in the best-of-three quarterfinal, Panathinaikos will play at home. Judging by ticket sales ahead of tonight’s game, Panathinaikos is expecting at least 10,000 fans at its 18,000-capacity stadium. Attendance figures in Greek basketball have been subdued in recent years. Despite his confidence of a Final Four spot for Panathinaikos, Obradovic warned of the Turkish opponent’s strength. «Efes Pilsen is a team that commands great respect. Its game is based on teamwork. Its tall players are the team’s strength, as are the two American outside players [Henry Domercant and Willie Solomon],» noted Obradovic. «[Ender] Arslan is also a big contributor, especially when he plays with Solomon. This team plays attacking defense and keeps the score low. We mustn’t get carried away by their game’s rhythm… and impose our rhythm,» Obradovic added. The Greek team’s coach refused to accept his team being labeled as the quarterfinal playoff’s favorite, but admitted that Panathinaikos was now playing better than earlier in the competition. «That’s because some players competing in this tournament for the first time needed some time to adjust and we also made some changes along the way,» said Obradovic. With three European titles under its belt over the past nine years – coming in 1996, 2000, and 2002 – as well as six Greek league titles over the past seven years, Panathinaikos ranks as the continent’s most successful club of the past decade. Efes Pilsen, a dominant side in Turkey with eight league and six cup titles in the last 13 years, has reached the Euroleague’s Final Four just once, in 2000, and lost to the eventual champion Panathinaikos in the semifinals. In the competition’s other three quarterfinal playoffs, Maccabi Tel Aviv was drawn against Scavolini, CSKA Moscow against Ulker Istanbul, and Benetton Treviso against TAU Ceramica. These three pairs all played their opening games late last night. The Greek-Turkish encounter will not be without a touch of irony. Included in Panathinaikos’s roster is Turkish guard Ibrahim Kutluay, the first-ever Turkish athlete to play with a first-division sports club in Greece. Kutluay, who recently rejoined Panathinaikos after a brief tenure with NBA club Seattle Supersonics, had begun his career in Greece at AEK. Panathinaikos player Vlado Skepanovic expressed confidence in his team’s capabilities and chances of yet another Final Four appearance. «Efes is a tough opponent, but I think we’re a better team and the only thing we can do about that is to prove it on the court,» said Skepanovic. «But we respect Efes because they have the Euroleague’s best defense and lots of good players, so we’re going to have to play in organized fashion to confront them successfully. The home-court advantage is very significant. Whoever wins the first game will have the greatest chance of qualifying,» he added. The absence of Turkish international Alper Yilmaz due to injury ranks as the biggest concern of Efes Pilsen coach Oktay Mahmuti ahead of tonight’s match. «Both teams are aiming high, for the Final Four» Mahmuti said yesterday, adding that «both will fight hard to win.»

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