As expected, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos are fighting for another Greek Basket League championship. Since the 1992-1993 season, either Panathinaikos or Olympiacos has been crowned champion of Greece, with the lone exception being in 2001-2002 when AEK won it. In that time span, Olympiacos has won the GBL title 8 times, while PAO has won it 15 times, with a string of dominance coming from 1998-2011 where they were crowned champions of Greece 13 times in 14 seasons (this was when legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic was coaching the Athenian squad).
However, Olympiacos has been the stronger team as of late, as the Red and White won the past two GBL titles, and currently holds a 2-1 series lead after a 64-62 comeback win over their Athenian rival in Piraeus. In the third game of the series (the GBL does a 1-1 home-away alternating format over a five-game series), PAO made a valiant effort to steal the road win in Piraeus, as they led with less than 3 minutes in the game. However, some big free throws by Serbian center Nikola Milutinov, and some key stops by Olympiacos ended up saving the game for home team in a physical, wild and intense contest, typical of what is expected in this Greek basketball rivalry. As you can see in the highlights below, this game was full of physicality, high emotions, and big moments; exactly what should be expected from a championship matchup.
The series in the two previous games have followed the same format: Olympiacos won game 1 at home in a 63-58 slugfest, while PAO won in OAKA 84-80 in a bit more faster-paced, offensive-oriented contest. It is quite clear how both teams needs to play in order to capture the GBL title: PAO needs to settle in their offense, shoot well, and push for more offensive opportunities through steals, turnovers and increasing the pace; Olympiacos wants to ugly it up, use their physical frontcourt to establish the tone, and open up their offense through the pick and roll.
In games 1 and 3, Olympiacos got to play their style. In game 2, it was PAO who dictated how the game was to be played. Thus, it’s not surprising the series sits at 2-1 in the favor of Olympiacos. And with home court advantage in this series, the signs may not be good for PAO, especially considering the lost opportunity in game 3.
For Olympiacos, a third-straight GBL title would be a nice little consolation prize after falling short in the Euroleague Final Four championship game in Istanbul. A nice development has been from Milutinov, who has emerged as Olympiacos’ go-to post player this series. Khem Birch, who has been the glue to Olympiacos’ defense this year, has gradually faded out this series, as Patric Young, through his physicality and hustle buckets, has usurped Birch’s minutes in the rotation. In game 3, Young played 11 minutes and had 7 points, while Birch played only 3 (and only had 1 point).
As for Milutinov, despite being only 22 years old, he has emerged as Olympiacos’ second-best frontcourt player (behind only Georgios Printezis) and practically saved the game for Olympiacos. In 25 minutes of play, he scored 14 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and posted a PIR of 20, which was a game-high. Furthermore, Milutinov was a key reason why PAO struggled to score in the paint, as they shot only 12-32 from 2 point shots, and took almost as many 3 point shots as 2 pointers (27 3-pt attempts). And lastly, Milutinov and the Olympiacos frontcourt made it difficult on Chris Singleton and James Gist, who posted PIR totals of 5 and negative-1, respectively in game 3.
How PAO can handle the Olympiacos frontcourt in game 4 (and perhaps game 5 if they win in OAKA while facing elimination) will be a key factor in whether or not Xavi Pascual’s squad can pull of the comeback. Because, when it comes to the perimeter, PAO probably holds the edge. Vassilis Spanoulis hasn’t been a 100 percent this series, as he sat game 2, and was held relatively in check in game 3 with only 5 points and a PIR of 7. Spanoulis and other perimeter players such as Evangelos Mantzaris, Thomas Zevgaras, Erick Green and Ioannis Papapetrou have showed trouble at times trying to slow PAO’s perimeter offense. After a relatively quiet game 1, Nick Calathes has been a consistent machine, helping PAO in other categories than just scoring. KC Rivers had a big game 1 where he scored 16 points. Mike James has been the kind of explosive guard that has not only given PAO a boost off the bench, but has given the Olympiacos defense fits. And they have gotten some good contributions from Nikos Pappas, who parlayed a 16 point, 20 PIR performance in game 2 to a starting role in game 3, and Kenny Gabriel, a combo forward who stretches out Olympiacos, and provides PAO with some spot up shooting as well as defensive versatility.
When PAO gets out, pushes the ball, or is able to get the ball moving quickly out of their sets, they look like a championship team. But, as Olympiacos has done to many teams this year both in the Greek Basket League, when things get physical, the PAO offense stagnates, and things tend to result into poor, low-percentage ISO situations. That is evidenced in the box score, as Olympiacos has won the assist battle every game in this series by far, a sign that Olympiacos is playing better team basketball on the offensive end than their opponent. If PAO wants to win, that differential has to be closer, and they need to get into their offense quicker to make it happen. Too many times, PAO wastes time off the clock trying to get in their sets, and it often works to their detriment, resulting in bad or rushed shots or forced ISO situations late in the shot clock.
One question that could determine whether or not PAO can keep this series alive is whether or not Ioannis Bourousis will be able to play. Bourousis went down hard with an injury in game 3 and did not return, only logging 14 minutes of play. Maybe Pascual was just trying to be safe, but Bourousis is the only player with the size, physicality and skill to match up well against the Olympiacos bigs. “Small ball” with Singleton and Gist has done okay at times, as it allows PAO to push the pace a little bit more and stretches out the Olympiacos defense, thus opening up more lanes for PAO offensively. However, they struggle to match with the muscle of Milutinov-Young-and Birch in the paint, and they don’t offer Bourousis’ low-post scoring ability as well. If Bourousis is out in game 4, that could be the difference in terms of Olympiacos capturing another title.
Olympiacos and PAO are two teams in different situations, despite the fact that they remain (and will remain) at the top of the Greek basketball world. Olympiacos has been the model of consistency in GBL and Euroleague play. They have been a team of continuity, as Ioannis Sfairopoulos has been the coach since 2014, and they have surrounded star players Spanoulis and Printezis with similar player each and every year. Yes, Olympiacos will probably lose some players from this Euroleague runner-up squad over the summer (Milutinov is now suddenly a hot prospect, and with the Spurs owning his rights, they may bring him over if they can negotiate a buy-out). But, Olympiacos will find the right replacements who will fit into Sfairopoulos’ system and the GBL and Euroleague success will keep on humming for the Red and White.
As for PAO, they are at a bit of crossroads in terms of where they go in terms of building their team for 2017-2018. There’s no question that this season was for the most part successful. Despite injury issues, an early coaching change, and some roster shakeups (Alessandro Gentile being the prime one), they finished 4th in the Euroleague with a 19-11 record, and finished with a 25-1 regular season mark in the GBL, all sterling accomplishments. But then again, this is PAO. For these fans and management, only championships are acceptable, nothing less. That was on full display in the Euroleague playoffs after the club got swept by Fenerbahce in game 3 in Istanbul, as team president Dimitrios Giannakopoulos made the team take the bus back from Istanbul to Athens rather than travel back by plane. The expectations are extremely high for this team considering the money they spend on payroll, and if PAO falls to their hated rival once again, it is expected that more changes will be made to this roster over the summer.
That being said, one has to wonder if the bus incident will have lasting effects on this PAO squad this offseason. Four players (Antonis Fotsis, Kenny Gabriel, Chris Singleton and Mike James) refused to get on the bus, and the effects are still somewhat felt from the incident. Fotsis is no longer on the team, and Gabriel, Singleton, and James all could leave this off-season, opting for a new basketball home without the headaches caused by ownership. And if they do leave, one can imagine that the “recommendations” from these three to other American players about playing for PAO management will probably be “less than stellar”.
So, it will be an interesting dilemma for PAO this summer. Of course, a championship could change all that. If PAO pulls off the comeback and wins the GBL title, maybe everybody is back, and they can build on this for next season, with a healthy James and Gist available from the start rather than in the last third of the season. Maybe Pascual will have a full offseason and get this club to fully understand and buy into his philosophy in the preseason rather than on-the-fly. PAO has the money. It has the fanbase. And in reality it has the players and coach. Management and ownership just need to trust in these factors to allow this club to be successful.
A GBL title would help PAO ownership be more patient, more trusting. But another loss? Another defeat to the Red and White from Piraeus? Another image of Kill Bill holding up the GBL trophy?
Well, we’ve seen what happened before in Istanbul…who knows what could happen if PAO loses in Athens in Game 4.