Panathinaikos completes comeback; Olympiacos fans unravel; and the uncomfortable reality of ‘ultra’ culture

Yesterday was a big day in European basketball. Fenerbahce, as expected, took a two-game lead over Besiktas in the Turkish BSL finals. Brose Bamberg won their third straight German title, and eighth domestic championship in nine seasons. And, Valencia pulled off a huge upset in Madrid to even the up the series in the ACB Liga Endesa finals.

However, all of those games deferred to the last big game of the day, which was the deciding Game 5 of the Greek Basket League championship between heated rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in Piraeus.

If you follow European basketball (or just basketball in general) on Twitter, you probably heard about the incident in Piraeus that resulted in a wild, but dangerous ending. I will talk about that part later, and some of my own thoughts about the “ultra” culture.

However, I want to talk about the game first, for what PAO did seems to get lost in the discussion due to the events that happened in the last two minutes.


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Make no mistake, what PAO did wasn’t easy. While PAO took care of games 2 and 4 in Athens, they struggled immensely all year in Piraeus. Going into game 5, they were 0-4 for the year on Olympiacos’ home turf, which also includes their matchup in the Euroleague. The Red and White’s extremely physical style of play proved to be difficult for PAO, as their 90’s New York Knicks approach to basketball seemed to throw PAO off rhythm, especially on the offensive end. With a Greek Basket title on the line, and the Olympiacos ultras going to be in full, ridiculous and intimidating force, it seemed unlikely that PAO would be able to pull off Game 5 and come back from a 2-1 deficit in the series.

And yet, PAO not only beat Olympiacos in Peace and Friendship stadium, but absolutely dominated the game from the five minute mark of the first quarter on. Olympiacos put up an early 11-3 lead, but the wheels came off for the defending champs after the hot start. Though Olympiacos led 17-14 in the first quarter, PAO won the second quarter 10-22 and then the third quarter 10-21 to go up  37-57, which was too insurmountable for the home team to overcome, as they lost 51-66 to the Athenian visitors.

One could credit PAO head coach Xavi Pascual for adjusting his offense in the critical game. A coach who depends on his big playbook and heavily patterned offense, Pascual ceded control to his ball-dominant point guards Nick Calathes and Mike James. Calathes and James hurt the Olympiacos defense all game long, whether it was in isolation, drive and kicks for open threes (especially to KC Rivers who hit three 3-pointers), or in the pick and roll. For the game, Calathes put a line of 12 pts, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and James, the MVP for the game, put up a line of 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, good for a game high PIR of 19. If you watch the highlights below, you will see Calathes and James come up time and time again making big plays on the offensive end.

On the defensive end, PAO took away drives and the paint from OLY and forced their rival to beat the Greens from deep. The strategy worked, as OLY shot 25 percent from beyond the arc on 28 shots. Add that with 12 turnovers committed (in comparison to PAO’s 7), and it made sense that PAO won by such a large, and comfortable margin. Center Ioannis Bourousis took away scoring opportunities in the paint from OLY, as he had two blocks, a steal, and neutralized Nikola Milutinov, Khem Birch and Patric Young in the block, as they only combined for 8 points combined.

The disappointment in the finals for OLY could somewhat be contributed to stars Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis failing to come through in the big moments. One could blame fatigue or PAO’s depth and defensive focus just getting to them in the final game of the year. However, the fact of the matter is OLY depends on their top two stars to win, and when they don’t play well, the game become very difficult for the club, especially on the offensive end. Spanoulis went 2-for-11 from the field and had 4 turnovers, good for a PIR of 5 (9 points total). Printezis was even worse, as he went 2-for-14, scored only 4 points, and had a 0 PIR. A combined 13 points from your two biggest players is not a formula for success, and OLY learned that the hard way in the title game.

This season is a bit of validation for Pascual, who was fired last summer from Barcelona despite his history of success with the club. In his first season in Athens, Pascual won a Greek title (snapping Olympiacos’ title streak) and made the Euroleague playoffs as a 4 seed (19-11 overall) despite taking over after the season started. That is a stark contrast to Barcelona, who finished 11th overall in the Euroleague (12-18 overall), lost in the first round of the ACB playoffs, and is now looking for a new head coach after firing Georgios Bartzokas after one season.

As Barcelona shuffles again for another head coach (and apparently being rejected by Sarunas Jasikevicius, who is apparently staying with Zalgiris), Pascual is once again on the top perch with the best coaches in Europe. Quite a turn of events in less than a year.


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I am still new to European basketball, as I have been following European ball on a regular basis for about 2.5 years now. When watching domestic leagues, it is refreshing to see how styles are different from country to country. The ACB is a more wide open style, with a bigger focus on offense and games being called more tightly. The Greek Basket league on the other hand is 80’s Big East Basketball: physical, no-holds barred, and not a lot called (and not just Olympiacos; I watched some AEK, PAOK, and Aris games and they all played the same way). I can appreciate both styles, as diversity in the game is always fun to see from a fan’s perspective.

However, the big difference between Europe and American NBA fans is the “ultra” culture. Though it’s pretty well-known in soccer circles, it does carry over to basketball, especially in Greece. In the last two minutes, with the game obviously going to end in PAO’s favor, the Olympiacos ultras showed their “dissatisfaction” with the result around the two minute mark, as evidenced below.

For a fan that’s used to NBA fanbases, who switch their team allegiance depending on what club LeBron James is on, this was quite the sight. I mean, fireworks, flares, explosions and for a good 20-30 seconds, the players didn’t seem fazed, as if this was just normal for them. Even on Twitter, as I remarked my shock, I was brought back to earth by people quite familiar with the Greek basketball scene:

Yep. I still have a lot to learn about Greek, and perhaps even European, basketball in general.

Overall, even though I imagine this kind of stuff is going to be expected on my end in the Greek League, it shows how different and ugly “ultra” culture can get. Sometimes, as Americans, “ultra” culture can be seen as “wow, these fans are so much better than American ones” or “it’s like a college environment!” And yes, when the focus is on the games, the “ultras” can give off that impression to us “outsiders”. It’s easy to see the positive when you only look at the surface.

However, between this incident, and my viewing of a recent documentary “Forever Pure” which looks at the La Familia “ultra” fan base of Beitar Jerusalem, I definitely have a modified view of “ultra” culture. It’s not just a bunch of fans coming together to be loud and cheer. There’s deep politics to these groups, as “ultra” groups can be vessels for extreme politicians who know they can mobilize people and an agenda better at a sporting event than a rally. And unfortunately, these “ultra” politics sometimes can be racist and hateful. There can be violence. There can be demonstrations of slurs that would make most people in America cringe. I mean, take a look at some of the photos below:

Can you imagine if a scene like that broke out in America? Can you imagine what Adam Silver would do? Hell, could you imagine what senators would come out of the woodwork and claim that as an act of terror? Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock (or even Donald Trump, that ever-opportunistic bastard)  would be spewing conservative nonsense for weeks. This made “Malice in the Palace” look like a middle school lunchtime scuffle.

I’m not referring to all Olympiacos fans as responsible for this incident. I know many Olympiacos fans and they are practical basketball people who don’t get wrapped up in the politics or antics of “ultra” culture (like the people who run Courtside Diaries who are good knowledgeable basketball people and excellent writers not to mention Olympiacos fans). And yet, honestly, my view of Olympiacos and perhaps Greek basketball clubs as a whole has changed because of this. I am not a fan of this shit in any sport, and it’s a big reason why I don’t embrace soccer as much as other people. This is not fandom. What happened was outright dangerous for everyone involved.

I love European basketball, and I do love the Greek game, and will continue to love both going forward. It’s physical, heated on the court and amongst fan bases, and when things are in control, the fan environments can be the best in Europe, maybe the best in the world. But it’s important to understand the depths of “ultra” culture, and it’s not always positive, and it shouldn’t always be duplicated. Even in America we see MLS fans try to “duplicate” this behavior in their own fan sections and stadiums without knowledge of what these “ultras” are really about, which isn’t always about the game, but rather politics.

I am not totally discouraging “ultra” culture. I know it can enhance the game experience. And I know it’s not just a basketball thing, as it is more pronounced in soccer. However, I got a new perspective on European basketball this weekend. There’s a dark side, a reality that isn’t really all that comfortable to witness. I have to admit, I felt uncomfortable watching the last two minutes of that game. I felt something horrendous was going to happen. I felt as if I was watching something from a movie, not a live game.

We shouldn’t feel that way when watching sport, especially basketball.

We should just enjoy the beautiful game. And we shouldn’t expect chaos because the road team won on a hated rivals home court. It shouldn’t be “well…it wasn’t that bad all things considered.”

But it’s going to be that way from now on. I am going to expect shit to go down now in certain matchups from here on out. And that’s sad considering how much I love European basketball.

It’s amazing how one event can scar or desensitize you so easily.

Can Panathinaikos come back and snap Olympiacos’ streak? (And if they don’t, what next?)

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.


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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.


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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.