Ricky Rubio and Theo Papaloukas lead their teams to Euroleague basketball final
PARIS -- One was a precocious and flashy talent who was playing professionally in Spain at age 15 and, four years later, has a pop-star aura that should translate well to the NBA when he makes the move across the Atlantic. The other was considered a moody underachiever as he bounced around Greece for several years before emerging as a top European player; he studiously avoids the limelight and turned down several overtures to play in the United States.
The differences between the once and future kings may be obvious, but the link between Ricky Rubio, 19, and Theo Papaloukas, 33, is far greater. Papaloukas has slowed a bit and is still inconsistent, but he was Europe's top playmaker for several years; now Rubio owns that distinction. They are ingenious creators, and most of all they are winners. So it is no surprise that Rubio's Barcelona team and Papaloukas's Olympiacos squad will meet Sunday in the much-anticipated championship game of the Euroleague Final Four.
Each team is loaded with talent, thanks to the generosity of their free-spending owners, and the rosters run deep. The thinking in the NBA is to keep a playing rotation to eight players, but the top-tier European teams regularly use 10 or 11, which is why many American observers find it incomprehensible that Rubio averaged only 20 minutes (out of 40) a game. But this approach also means Barcelona and Olympiacos can play all-out from start to finish, wearing down the opposition with sheer numbers as well as superior talent.
In Friday's semifinals, Barcelona overcame a shaky start and ousted CSKA Moscow, which was nearly as talented and was playing in its eighth straight Final Four. In a ragged 64-54 victory, Rubio had 10 rebounds and eight assists, and he provided direction when Barcelona uncharacteristically was lacking any.
Papaloukas played much the same role in Olympiacos's 83-80 overtime victory over upstart Partizan of Belgrade. Former NBA players Linas Kleiza (19 points) and Josh Childress (17, including the dunk with 2.6 seconds left that sent the game into overtime) were the leading scorers, but Papaloukas steadied the team when it was struggling and his numbers (10 points, five assists) do not indicate his impact.
Barcelona is considered a slight favorite because of its more consistent performance over the season and its stellar back court of Rubio and Juan Carlos Navarro, the former Wizards draft pick who, like Papaloukas, was recently voted to the Euroleague's all-decade team. Barcelona also plays a swarming, hyper-aggressive defense that takes most opponents right out of their game -- CSKA Moscow was held to 21 points in the first half.
"It was a tough game, just as we expected it to be," Navarro said. "We didn't have a very good start, but we played very good defense and our offense improved right when it mattered, in the second half."
Rubio's playmaking was crucial. The big men started getting the ball down low and Barcelona's shooters on the wings had it delivered right in their hands. One pass in particular showed both his flair and his ability to make just the right play.
After Trajan Langdon, the former Duke star, hit a three-pointer with 15 seconds left in the third quarter, CSKA Moscow trailed just 45-41. But with seconds left in the period, Rubio came up with a crusher.
He was holding the ball on an out-of-bounds play on the right sideline when he spotted Boniface Ndong under the basket. Ndong had two defenders on him, but they were not looking at Rubio, who saw an opening. Rubio's perfectly placed pass found Ndong, who scored easily.
As Alesandro Gonzalez, a Spanish basketball scout who has watched Rubio's development closely, saw it, that play exemplified his growth.
"He sees the passes that are available, but he also has the ability to make the passes entirely appropriate, so that the receiver doesn't have to do very much," Gonzalez said.
Rubio's flirtation with the NBA has been well-documented. He was drafted in the first round last year by the Minnesota Timberwolves but signed a two-year-deal with Barcelona. Most observers here say his time with Barcelona has helped him. Playing against excellent competition in the Spanish league and the Euroleague, he has become stronger and a better floor leader.
Papaloukas, on the other hand, is in the last years of a glorious career.
This is his eighth straight Final Four -- six with CSKA Moscow and the last two with Olympiacos -- and his résumé includes directing a stunning upset of the United States in the 2006 World Championships in Japan. He was never a great scorer; his highest average in any Euroleague season is 9.8. And he has always preferred playing as the sixth man. This insistence on flying under the radar can be maddening, particularly when Papaloukas seems overly passive when his team really needs him.
But when he is on, he is a skillful passer who, like Rubio, instinctively gets his teammates involved. He still seems at times the reluctant participant, whether on the court or off. At news conferences, he comes off like a distracted poet -- no one-game-at-a-time boilerplate for him, as evidenced by his comments after the semifinal victory.
Asked for his assessment of Olympiacos's performance, he responded somberly, "I think everybody deserves a piece of cake."
Sunday night, he may just get another slice.