By Rodhig of in-the-game.org / @rodhig7 

For our first preview of the 2013/14 Euroleague playoffs, ELA hooked up with the Euro-Hoops-Internet’s most analytical Olympiacos fan to take a look at what should be an epic series.

At this point it could be argued that Olympiacos simply love a good narrative. That which we perceive as struggles, inconsistencies or drama in the months leading up to the knockout stage of the season is merely the prelude to the final act where the world shall be shocked once again. If everything goes according to the scenario, then the Vassilis Spanoulis buzzer beater that beat Panathinaikos was only the beginning. In other words, it could be argued that, for the second season in a row, Real Madrid find themselves in more trouble than game tape or numbers indicate.

This is a comforting thought for Olympiacos fans. It is also a rationalization. The surge of the champs in the spring of 2012 and 2013 was unexpected but can be explained. A young team grew up together, gained confidence and, in the case of the London final four, took advantage of favourable matchups against supposedly superior opponents. Unfortunately that team is no longer around, as the Reds went through a mini-rebuilding phase last summer.

Which Olympiacos is this anyway?

Right now, it’s hard to say which Olympiacos team will take on Madrid. Constant roster changes, along with a flurry of injuries, have forced coach Bartzokas to try quite a few unconventional lineups. With Giorgos Printezis suspended or injured for a good part of the season (not to mention less than fully fit going into the playoffs), Stratos Perperoglou and Bryant Dunston have seen a lot of minutes at power forward. The former has been ridiculously efficient offensively; the latter has been a dynamite on defense, getting a bunch of steals and creating much needed transition opportunities as a four. However, neither option looks like a long-term solution. Perperoglou cannot defend as the second big man and Dunston does not spread the floor. Also, the more minutes the American plays at this position the more Olympiacos have to rely on the enigmatic Cedric Simmons or the raw Vassilis Kavvadas at center.

Similar questions have been raised on the perimeter. With Acie Law done for the season, the champs are less dangerous in transition and more vulnerable against dribble drives. Both problems are particularly concerning against a Madrid team that often fails to defend properly in transition (here’s an opportunity for Dunston to outrun Giannis Bouroussis) and is loaded with dangerous slashers. The incomparable Vangelis Mantzaris can only carry so much load on his own. Spanoulis will not help on defense. Kostas Sloukas remains a deadly shooter but has been uneven as a creator and a defender. Last season, Olympiacos found themselves in a similar predicament after Mantzaris tore his ACL. What most people remember is Law stepping up big time. However, the offensively challenged Dimitris Katsivelis had also some major contributions on the defensive end, which often provided the foundation for those trademark Olympiacos comebacks. This season Katsivelis has not been able to build on his promising finish in 2012-13, while Mardy Collins, signed as a replacement to Law, seems to raise the blood pressure of every Olympiacos fan with each dribble that he takes.

Return of the Sherm

Of course it’s not all bad news for Bartzokas. Giorgi Shermadini looks like a mid-season steal for the second year in a row, providing an upgrade over Mirza Begic. Ioannis Papapetrou has emerged as versatile weakside threat, hitting threes at a remarkable rate and attacking the basket of the dribble with great confidence. Spanoulis recovered in time from a knee injury. And Brent Petway has been playing his best ball of the season recently. And if you think that this core of Olympiacos players will not be ready or confident come playoff time, then you haven’t been paying attention to the narrative.

Setting aside intangibles, though, Olympiacos will have to answer one major question in their series against Madrid: how do you hide Spanoulis on defense? The questionable fitness and potential absence of Jaycee Carroll certainly provides some relief, but having to choose between the two Sergios running the pick and roll and Rudy isolated on the wing is no walk in the park, as it was established in the first quarter of the London final. Unless some unexpected zones scheme is implemented, Spanoulis should start on Rudy, with Mantzaris fighting through screens set for Llull or Rodriguez. If that arrangement doesn’t work, however, there are not much adjustments to be made. This means that help defense from Oly bigs will be crucial. Dunston has been a dominant shot blocker and matches up well with Felipe Reyes as an old school PF, but his footwork and positioning often leave a lot to be desired. The same goes for Petway. Shermadini is a very effective hedge out defender, but also very foul prone.

Underdogs with an incentive

In other words, Madrid will provide the most serious test for Olympiacos’ pick and roll defense, which has often been exposed and even flat out humiliated at times (most notably against Barcelona and Milano). In fact, the only positive defensive performance against an elite offense in the top 16 occurred against Unicaja Malaga. This simply won’t do. The Reds may have won their second straight Euroleague title by outscoring their playoff opponents in a memorable offensive exhibition, but they remain a defense-first team: Olympiacos need to generate transition opportunities and get by the dry spells which are often unavoidable for a group that lives and dies with Spanoulis and three pointers. Simply put, the champs do not need a miracle. They need to defend.

And they have a pretty good incentive to do so. Madrid wanted to play them. Given Olympiacos’ injury woes and the inexperience of a bunch of key players – Dunston, Petway, Collins, Simmons, Papapetrou and Matt Lojeski will all make their playoffs debut in this series – it doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Then again, discrediting conventional thinking is a great  way to create an exciting narrative.