On this day 15 years ago, Panathinaikos Athens defeated Efes Pilsen Istanbul 84-76 behind 22 points from Jaka Lakovic in Game 3 of the first EuroLeague Playoff series of the century that went the distance and advanced to the Final Four in Moscow.
Euroleague Basketball reintroduced the playoff format ahead of the 2004-05 season with the top two teams from each of the four Top 16 groups advancing to the stage. Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow won their respective groups and swept Scavolini Pesaro and Ulker Istanbul, respectively, to clinch their spots at the Final Four. Tau Ceramica Vitoria-Gasteiz placed second in Group F behind Panathinaikos with a 4-2 record, but advance without the homecourt advantage by sweeping Benetton Treviso. In the fourth series, Lakovic shined with 26 points in Game1 as the Greens prevailed 102-96 after overtime. Game 2 moved to Istanbul, where Willie Solomon went for 24 points to lead Efes to a 75-63 victory, thus forcing Game 3 on April 14, 2005, in the Greek capital.
Lakovic ices the game for the Greens
A sellout crowd of 18,000 packed OAKA for the do-or-die clash. The Greens made 12 of 16 triples over 25 minutes starting midway through the first quarter to take a 25-point lead near the end of the third. Efes, however, Solomon caught fire for Efes and led a 0-13 run as the visitors rallied back to within 76-71 with just over a minute left. With a chance to cut it further, however, Ermal Kuqo was called for an offensive foul just before he sank a basket that didn’t count. At the other end, Patrick Femerling sealed the outcome with a tip-in that made it 78-71 and Lakovic took care of the rest with a long two-point jumper and 4 free throws to wrap up an 84-76 victory.
Game 3 by the numbers
Four different Panathinaikos at least 2 triples, including Lakovic, who led the winners with 22 points and scored 6 in the final 90 seconds to hold off Efes. Ibrahim Kutluay added 15 and Fragiskos Alvertis 11 for Panathinaikos. Henry Domercant led Efes Pilsen with 17 points, Dusan Kecman added 15 and Will Solomon had 12 for the visitors, for whom three players – Mustafa Abi, Kuqo and Nikola Prkacin fouled out. Two key numbers that aided Panathinaikos were its 13 offensive rebounds – 3 more than Efes – and the 20 turnovers by Efes, which were 4 more than the hosts. Those extra seven possessions made the difference.
What happened next
This game was as close as Efes would get to the Final Four until 2019 when it reached the championship game. In between Efes got to the playoffs four more times, including in 2013 and 2017, both of which it lost in Game 5s in Greece to Olympiacos Piraeus. Panathinaikos lost to eventual champion Maccabi 91-82 in the semifinals in Moscow before taking out host CSKA 91-94 after two overtimes on the strength of 28 points and 10 rebounds in the third-place game. The Greens would get back to the Final Four again in 2007 at OAKA and win the title.