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.

 

ELJ’s “Key Five-And-One” Playoff Preview: Olympiacos (3) vs. Anadolu Efes (6)

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Two previews down; two to go. If you missed it or unaware of how these previews are formatted, check out part 1 of the preview (Real Madrid vs. Darussafaka) and part 2 (CSKA vs. Baskonia) so you’re caught up.

Okay, now onto part 3, the 3-6 matchup: Olympiacos Piraeus vs. Anadolu Efes Istanbul.

(Also, major H/T to YouTube user MyBasketballTV who uploads these awesome Euroleague player highlight videos that I mostly embed on here; please subscribe to him/her/them if you haven’t already.)

Vassilis Spanoulis

Nobody is more crucial to this Olympiacos team and their Final Four chances than Spanoulis, the long-time Greek point guard. At his best, he is the engine of this Olympiacos offense thanks to his versatile scoring ability, as well as flashy and spectacular passing and playmaking. Furthermore, Spanoulis is one of the craftiest players in the continent, able to draw fouls, and do the little things to get to the line and help Olympiacos earn extra shots as well as extra points.

In Round 2, the 34-year-old point guard demonstrated why he has been voted a Euroleague and Greek MVP, putting up a masterful performance in a 90-66 win over Anadolu Efes at home in Piraeus. He scored 17 points on 5 of 9 shooting from the field, dished 9 assists, had 3 rebounds and accumulated a PIR of 26, the highest for a winning club that week and the highest mark of the season for him. The dominating demonstration by Spanoulis earned him Euroleague MVP for the week, as showcased in the video below:

But, as great and legendary as Spanoulis can be (I mean, christ, the Euroleague made a special documentary on him and he’s still active in the league), he can be his own worst enemy at times. He can be a black hole if his shooting is not on, as well as a turnover machine, forcing unnecessary passes at seemingly poor times. And as of late, Spanoulis hasn’t really finished the year on a good note, which correlates strongly with Olympiacos’ poor finish (they finished 1-4 in their last 5 games). After putting up a PIR of 24 in a big 79-77 win in OAKA over Greek rival Panathinaikos in Round 8, Spanoulis hasn’t reached the 20 PIR mark since, and has only put up a PIR in double digits six times from Rounds 9-30. Those are not impressive marks considering how much he has the ball in his hands and is depended on for offense in Ioannis Sfairopoulos’ system.

Luckily, despite Spanoulis’ regression after a hot start (Rounds 1-8), they have been able to get over his cool down period. But, this will be a tough matchup for Spanoulis (vs. Thomas Huertel, who’s been one of the best point guards since February), and Olympiacos is dealing with many injuries as well. For Olympiacos to punch their Final Four ticket, they will need an early-season Spanoulis (or past-season, MVP-esque one) over the next three-to-five games.

Nikola Milutinov

After an injury in a Greek Basket League game on April 10th, Khem Birch will be a serious question mark this series for Olympiacos. That is a huge blow to Olympiacos’ front court, which has depended on him as a powerful rim runner and anchor to their defense, which has been one of the Euroleague’s best this season. While Patric Young has experience with this Olympiacos squad and offers the same kind of physicality as Birch, 22-year-old Serbian Nikola Milutinov will be the more important player in the post and could be the key difference this series, especially if Birch misses games or is not 100 percent.

Milutinov has surged as of late, with his strongest performance of the year coming in Round 28 against Real Madrid, whose front court is stacked with NBA-caliber bigs such as Gustavo Ayon, Anthony Randolph, Othello Hunter, Felipe Reyes, and Trey Thompkins. The Serbian rising star and 2015 first round “draft and stash” pick of the San Antonio Spurs put up a line of 18 points,4 rebounds, and a PIR of 24 (a season high) in 21 minutes of play (also tied for a season high). Milutinov, who formerly played for Partizan Belgrade before coming to Piraeus, has soft touch and good skills and touch around the rim for a near seven footer, as evidenced in this highlight video of his performance against Madrid below:

However, consistency has been a problem for Milutinov this season. He has five games this year where he posted negative PIR marks, and he can be a non-factor on the floor at times as well. In the last game against Efes, he barely played, logging less than three minutes before being primarily regulated to the bench. Unlike Birch, whose springy and physical, Milutinov is a more “to-the-ground” big, lacking the athleticism or physicality of the newly acquired Canadian center. With Birch’s status a game-to-game issue, Sfairopoulos is going to need to trust the young Serbian star with more minutes on the floor. And consequently, Milutinov needs to capitalize on that coach’s trust with a big series as well.

Derrick Brown

Much like Spanoulis, Brown has been a bit of a life force for this Efes squad this season. When he plays well, Efes hums on the court and looks like one of the Euroleague’s best teams. When his play wanes, Efes looks as beatable as any of the other non-playoff teams. For Efes to have a chance to pull off the upset, head coach Velimir Perasovic and this Efes team will need a big series from Brown.

The 29-year-old, 6’8 former Xavier Musketeer is an explosive player on both ends of the court. The lefty forward can drive the ball and score strongly around the basket thanks to his high-flying athleticism, but he can also pull up and hit the mid-range with ease. He has a great ability to block shots and initiate the Efes fast break off of turnovers, an area they excel in considering the bevy of athletic guards and forwards on their roster. Brown demonstrated this ability and then some in a masterful performance in Round 21 against Red Star, where he scored 20 points, had 11 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists and accumulated a PIR of 33 in a 86-72 win in Belgrade. The dominating performance on the road, in a hostile Kombank arena environment, earned Brown MVP of the week honors, as seen below.

Brown most likely will be matched up with forward Georgios Printezis, who has been Olympiacos’ most consistent (and perhaps best) player this season. Brown hasn’t been great this year against Olympiacos, as he has only put up PIR marks of 8 and 11 in both contests. For Efes to pull of the upset, they need their best and most dynamic player to step up and win the matchup against “King George”. If he doesn’t, the chips will be heavily stacked against the Turkish squad in terms of making their first Final Four since 2001.

Thomas Huertel

If Brown is Efes’ most important player, Huertel may be their most dynamic. Though he is a sixth-man off the bench, Huertel is the team’s primary playmaker, leading the team in assists at 5.8 apg. Huertel is a crafty playmaker, able to beat defenders off the dribble and find open teammates for good, high-percentage shots. But Huertel is no, Ricky Rubio-“pass first and second; shoot third” guard. He can get to the rim and can find his stroke from the outside, as evidenced by him shooting 51.8 percent on 2-point shots, and nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc, both solid marks from a point guard.

During the month of February, no player was more crucial to his squad than Huertel was to Efes during that month of play. Huertel averaged over 16 ppg and over 10 apg, good for a PIR average of 23 during that time span. His stellar play, which helped Efes get back in the playoff picture after a poor start to the season, earned Huertel MVP of the month honors, as seen in the video below:

The French guard doesn’t get as much attention at times because he shares point guard duties with Jayson Granger, who normally starts for this Efes squad. But Granger is more of a combo guard who is depended on for shooting and scoring, not as much for playmaking, like Huertel. Without a doubt, the matchup between Spanoulis and Huertel will be a fascinating one, and if Huertel can outduel the Greek Euroleague legend, that could mean not only a return to the Final Four for Efes, but a boost to Huertel’s stock as a player not only here in Europe, but abroad as well.

Tyler Honeycutt

Tyler Honeycutt is not the team’s best player. That honor probably belongs to Brown, or maybe Huertel. But there is no player that is more complete or well-rounded than Honeycutt, who has been a Draymond Green-esque player for this Efes squad. Honeycutt doesn’t average double figure points this year (only 9 ppg), and he has only started 1 game as well, but his 13.6 PIR is third-highest on the team, and that is due to his multi-faceted game on both ends of the court.

Just look at the other categories Honeycutt excels in: he averages 7.1 rpg, a team-high and 0.9 bpg, the second-best mark on the squad. But, he also averages 1.1 spg, also the second-best mark on the team. And he is primarily a wing player that can play four positions on the floor. If that’s not Draymond Green-esque, than I don’t know what is. He put on his best Green-like performance in Round 5 against Panathinaikos, as he scored 15 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and dished 4 assists, good for a game-high PIR of 28, as illustrated in the video below.

Honeycutt is a nightmare matchup for Olympiacos on both ends of the floor thanks to his superb athleticism, strong skill set, and long 6’8 frame. Olympiacos will have to find a way to neutralize him, which will be easier said than done, especially considering the former UCLA product can beat teams in so many ways on both offense and defense.

Series Wild Card: Can Olympiacos stop the bleeding?

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Olympiacos is team trending downward and fast. They lost sharp shooting Matt Lojeski late in the season, which has limited their outside shooting effectiveness as a team as of late. Birch may or may not play this series, and even if he does, he won’t be a 100 percent. Spanoulis hasn’t quite played as well down the stretch, and that is worrisome considering his age and the miles on his body odometer as a player. Erick Green, who looked mid-season like the boost Olympiacos needed to make the Final Four, has totally disappeared from the Olympiacos rotation for whatever reason. Other than Printezis and Kostas Papanikolaou, this team has been a mess during the last third of the season and goes into the playoffs as a bit of a wounded dog of sorts.

Which begs us to ask the question: can coach Sfairopoulos stop the bleeding and turn Olympiacos’ fortunes around?

Olympiacos will have the home court advantage. And they certainly have the playoff experience advantage over Efes. But there are a lot of question marks about this Olympiacos squad entering the playoffs, and Efes is no slouch. Perasovic took Baskonia to the Final Four last year. Huertel has some playoff experience during his time with Baskonia (when they were Laboral Kutxa). Efes beat Olympiacos just recently in Round 29, so this Turkish club knows they can match up with the Greek basketball power. And Efes can run and gun with the best, and that will test the depth of Olympiacos, which is looking a little sketchy at this moment.

Olympiacos will need to make a statement in game 1, a statement that the last third of the season didn’t mean shit, and they’re ready to prove why they finished third in the Euroleague and that they can add another Final Four to their illustrious history. I know Olympiacos fans are telling themselves this, and believe Spanoulis and Printezis will help turn around this Olympiacos ship.

Game 1 will tell…because if Efes’ surprises in the opening playoff game…well…fans of the Red and White might need to start planning for next season rather than next month.