Amazing doesn’t begin to describe Olympiacos’ unbelievable run at the 2011-2012 Euroleague championship. Down 19 points to CSKA Moscow with a little over 12 minutes remaining, the Greek club then went on a furious 28-8 run to win it on a Georgios Printezis floater with 0.7 seconds remaining. It was a comeback of such historical proportions by the Oly that I’m admittedly personally incapable of finding words to describe the feelings of those watching on that moment the game ended. So I won’t try.
This is the Reds’ second Euroleague title in club history. After so many years of disappointment with a squad built with high profile names such as Milos Teodosic, Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Ioannis Bouroussis, it makes sense Olympiacos finally wins it all with a team built with one single star in Vassilis Spanoulis and around him a couple of young prospects in Kostas Sloukas and Kostas Papanikolaou, players acquired on the cheap in-season in Joey Dorsey and Kyle Hines and Pritenzis, who after a couple of years away returned to the club where he first arrived at age 15 to hit the shot that brings the club back to relevancy.
Both teams got off to a tough start offensively. CSKA led 10-7 at the end of the first as both teams couldn’t control their emotions and were erratic on offense, combining for 13 turnovers on 33 possessions. CSKA led 34-20 at halftime as Teodosic took over in the second-quarter, at one moment hitting back-to-back-to-back three-pointers and then no-look feeding Darjus Lavrinovic below the rim for a layup. It looked hopeless for Olympiacos at that point.
And it did more so early in the third as Oly continued to turn the ball over at an absurd rate which kept them from putting any sort of comeback attempt together. Meanwhile CSKA was doing just enough to remain in control and when Alexey Shved broke away for a layup to put the Russian club up 19, the game looked all but over.
But it was a 13-point game at the start of the fourth when Olympiacos went on a furious 8-0 run during a three-minute stretch to reenergize its crowd that changed all momentum. Dusan Ivkovic’s crew just never gave up. The frontline featuring Hines and Printezis just started outhustling CSKA’s taller, stronger and more skilled frontcourt. They created havoc below in the paint, generating second chance opportunities to fuel Oly’s run.
CSKA simply went through the motions during all of this. It’s tough to know what exactly was going through the players’ and head-coach Jonas Kazlauskas’ minds but the easy assumption is they checked out too early and even when Olympiacos made the push early in the fourth, they believed they had already won, and could no longer match Olympiacos’ intensity and adrenaline.
Leading by three with under two minutes to go, Teodosic went to the foul line and missed one of two free throws. On the other end, he fouled Papanikolaou. But in the end it didn’t matter. CSKA’s Ramunas Siskauskas went zero for two at the line after Papanikolaou hit his, then Spanoulis drove the length of the court and magnificently fed Printezis on the baseline when Kirilenko cheated to help too soon. And the rest is history.
Spanoulis was named the Final Four’s MVP but the ballots were passed out during the third quarter when it looked like CSKA was going to run away with this game. Printezis, the pure heart of the comeback, was the true most valuable player for the team’s win in the championship game. And while Spanoulis fueled their arrival to that moment, he isn’t the one that will forever live in history.
Head-coach Dusan Ivkovic was terrific for managing to make his players continue to play hard when it looked like there was no more reason for it. And then when they did, he rewarded those, Hines & Printezis, who made a difference by keeping them out there throughout the comeback.
Papanikolaou goes as the unsung hero. The 22-year-old did not have a fantastic season and at times, it seemed he was more involved on last year’s team compared to this year’s. However, he stepped up big this weekend, hitting big time shots in the semifinal against Regal FC Barcelona. Then he gave the league’s MVP a run for his money in the championship game. They were matched for most of the night, and Papanikolaou outplayed him with 18 points on 5-5 shooting from the field and 5-6 from the foul line with just two turnovers compared to 12 points on 4-5 shooting and four turnovers by Kirilenko.
Papanikolaou is automatically eligible for the 2012 NBA Draft and up until Thursday, he was projected to go undrafted after failing to build up on last year’s arrival to the scene. But after this weekend, he will possibly be a commodity in the second round. He’s shown a neck to perform in the grand stage against elite class competition with his combination of terrific defensive hustle and instincts and an offensive skill set of intuitive cutting and quality shooting that NBA teams are always looking for. At a minimum, a handful of teams must already have called Olympiacos’ front office to familiarize themselves with the status of his buyout situation.
Olympiacos put together one impressive stretch of five wins in six games, overcoming Montepaschi Siena, Barça and CSKA on their way to the title. As far as legitimacy of a championship goes, they are in the pantheon after surviving three of Europe’s most dominant powerhouses. After so much disappointment over the last decade or so, the red part of Athens can smile, drink and celebrate again. Their Cinderella story has a happy ending.
Thanks to our media partner, the Euroleague for the photos. Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘The Basketball Post’. More of his work can be found here and he can be followed on twitter @rafael_uehara.