By George Rowland / @georgerowland
It took a stroke of luck for Neptunas to even be in Euroleague this year. Finishing with the same record as Zalgiris at 14-6 they snuck into third place in the LKL on the head-to-head, crucially keeping them away from both Zalgiris and Lietuvos Rytas in the playoffs until the final. Prevailing over Preinai in the semi-finals they sealed their first ever Euroleague season.
Being drawn into the so called “Group of Death” with a roster consisting of many players who had only ever played domestically in Lithuania very few expected them to even win a game, let alone compete with the might of Olympiacos, Crvena Zvezda, Laboral Kutxa, Galatasaray or Valencia. But with only one round to go they sit on the brink of qualification to the top 16.
Where fellow Group D team Crvena Zvezda possess one of the most dominant big men of recent years, Neptunas lack a true centre, with Simas Galdikas, Keith Benson and Egidijus Dimsa holding down the middle in Klaipeda. However, it was on the Baltic coast that the imperious Boban Marjanovic posted his worst performance of the season; 11 points on 3-of-6 shooting with three turnovers. Galdikas, perhaps deserves the highest praise for Neptunas’ interior defence, while he looks like a lead footed stiff, his sheer determination to meet guards over a screen and charge back to his man drives the Neptunas defense; and when he is found to be recovering to slowly, there is always help coming from the right spot to at least foul to stop any easy basket. The Neptunas D has been most stingy at home, with no team shooting above 50% from two point range, and only Crvena Zvezda edging past 40% from three at 40.9%.
For all of the credit due to Galdikas, it seems that at times Neptunas simply want it more than any other team on defence. With their 6,000 strong crowd geeing them on they will tirelessly run shooters off the three point line, and have no fear helping across to the middle, knowing that there will always be another player to sprint across to challenge on any kick-out. Where Galdikas holds down the middle, Mustafa Shakur has been the tempo setter for Neptunas on the perimeter. It is Shakur’s ability to fight through screens that enables Galdikas to crash around inside, and consequently sets the cadence for the ancillary defensive players to energetically freelance in their help positions.
The chaotic defence translates onto the Neptunas offence. Where players fly around defensively, the ball flies around offensively, with Shakur as the primary instigator along with a raft of willing ball movers on the wing and inside. This is why it is so easy for their elite shooters to free themselves up, with defenders having to make snap decisions and Neptunas happy to patiently move the ball they know that eventually one of Deividas Gailius, Donatas Zavackas or Arnas Butkevicius will be left open to let fly from behind the long line.
With all the flash of Gailius, it is the ageless Zavackas who has been Neptunas’ best offensive player. Currently shooting 60% from both two and three point land; Zavackas imbues a patience amongst the chaos for Neptunas. Where Zavackas has an old school appearance (surely he’s just a Fred Perry polo shirt away from being an extra in This Is England?) his game fits squarely into the realm of the modern stretch four, though dusted with the patience, treachery and guile that only comes with age and experience. While his shooting numbers and silky smooth stroke are the easiest things that grab the eye; it is the small things that Zavackas does that really help Neptunas: His willingness to reset the play rather than take a bad shot, his ability to seal a smaller defender on a switch and his crafty hands around the bucket to finish or dish off to a teammate.
What must truly be praised about Neptunas is their success despite their relatively meagre 1.5m Euro budget. Building their squad around Lithuanians who were either cast off from Lietuvos Rytas or Zalgiris or those they have grown themselves. Coach Kazys Maksvytis cannot rely on one dominant player with his budget, what he relies upon is the trust his players have in one another and the trust he has in them, with 11 players averaging above 9 minutes a game they are one of the few teams that can boast a full rotation. And that rotation is always happy to pass up their own shot for a better one for a teammate, always happy to put in extra effort to help over and contest an open player.
The victory against Galatasaray has put Neptunas in the driving seat for a Top 16 spot, and the game summarises their home court success perfectly. They rode their luck offensively with Zavackas having a quiet one, and it was Gailius and Shakur who took on the offensive load. With Gailius nailing five threes, and Shakur feeding off Galatasaray’s turnovers in the open court they built a handy lead. With Galatasaray coming back midway through the second half it was Shakur who took the game out of their hands, culminating in a shot-clock beating pull up three over the outstretched hand of Vladimir Micov.
In a game where Galatasaray needed him more than ever Carlos Arroyo was anonymous, with Shakur sticking to him and forcing him into his worst game of the season. Neptunas themselves weren’t perfect, when Ataman went to a super-sized line-up of Arsalan-Micov-Erceg-Gonlum-Vougioukas they found they couldn’t cover Erceg, whether they lost him on the perimeter or couldn’t match him in the post, and at times their super aggressive defence allowed Patric Young an open dunk, or an easy putback. But these are a necessary failure for them; the occasional missed assignment will result from the amount of effort that is put in to cover every open shot.
To make the Top 16 Neptunas will have to either beat Valencia at La Fonteta or hope that Olympiacos beat Galatasaray behind closed doors in Istanbul. If they do make it will be underdogs once again, facing teams far stronger than their Group D contemporaries. But if they do stun some teams, it won’t be luck, Neptunas make their own luck through sheer effort.