By Rob Scott / @robscott33

Panathinaikos managed to grab homecourt advantage last season, with a stellar 14-1 record in the friendly confines of the OAKA. That didn’t save them from an ignominious playoff exit via sweep and all the long-distance bus travel-related shenanigans that followed. It didn’t seem like ‘chemistry’ was really a word you’d use around the Greens, unless immediately preceded by the word ‘toxic’. Anyway, that’s my main excuse for predicting a season of struggle in Athens this time around. But then again, soothsaying the future is hard. At least I’m not in poor company… Yikes, Mike.

In fact it’s been anything but a season of torment for PAO, as Nick Calathes has put up a case for the first half MVP – even stronger if you emphasise the ‘valuable to the team’ angle – and they still haven’t lost at home. That’s 21-1 in the new Regular Season era if you’re still counting, which is frankly absurd.

10-5, third place in the standings, and everything seems to be coming up Pascual. There’s a real swagger to this team when they play in front of 10,000+ Green-clad sociopaths (I mean that affectionately….), none more so than when they came back from a 19-point deficit to beat Real Madrid back in November. Panathinaikos just doesn’t lose at home anymore.

And yet… I still have a nagging doubt that this team is for real. I’ve already been trolled repeatedly – and justifiably – by PAO fans ever since the summer, so how about setting out both sides of the argument? What if this team is for real, and what if it isn’t?

REAL

The structure of the team is coherent: Calathes sets up a group of great three-point shooters and uses the spacing they create to throw lobs to high-fliers like James Gist and Chris Singleton. Calathes to Gist is the second-most prolific assist combination in the league despite Calathes missing three games, and plays like this are part of PAO’s bread-and-butter. Even when there hasn’t really been a defensive breakdown, Calathes and Gist’s telepathic connection creates points out of nothing:

Calathes is putting up a 58/24/57 line through 15 games, and the fact that he essentially can’t shoot outside of 12 feet hasn’t stopped him from nailing the shots he can make, at a prolific rate. He lives and thrives in that space beyond the first line of perimeter defense and outside the paint, either tossing up lobs or flicking up a delicate floater that never seems to miss.

Calathes leads the league in assists per game at 7.92, and having played with most of these teammates for a few years, he just knows where to find them all. Especially against drop-back big men in pick-and-roll defense, he either nails that floater or punishes a late-step up by tossing the ball up to the rim for a dunk.

Calathes won EuroLeague MVP for November, and it was fully deserved. During that month’s six games he dished out more assists than anyone else in competition history in the same span, set the season record-to-date for PIR, and tossed out a 5.2 assist to turnover ratio. He flat out ran the show.

Outside of the playmaker role, Chris Singleton has started giving a little bit more of a damn about defense and is shooting 49% from three-point range. Matt Lojeski has been worth the injury gamble, and Nikos Pappas has stepped up to hit game winners – although his overall shooting numbers have tailed off lately. PAO is first in three-point field goals made (147-of-366 in 15 games) and fourth in three-point percentage (40.16%).

Defensively, they have bodies to throw at your leading EuroLeague playmakers and points-getters. Thanasis Antetokounmpo picked up Alexey Shved during their 93-65 win over Khimki, in which the Russian star was limited to 7-of-19 field goals and only one free throw attempt, scoring most of his points in garbage time, guarded by others. Antetokounmpo faceguarded Shved even to the exclusion of closing out on other shooters, often denying the ball to one of EuroLeague’s most uncontainable scorers. Shved is a slippery character, often jinking into the one micro-space where the defender can’t block his shot, but Thanasis danced with him, using his 2.14m (7’0″) wingspan to recover for a block when he did make a mistake on a backdoor cut.

Singleton can also step out and check perimeter stars, and in fact he might be better there than battling in the paint. If Xavi Pascual can throw this kind of defensive scheme at Shved, what’s to stop PAO shutting down the likes of De Colo, Rodriguez or Doncic?

Calathes probing, shooters shooting, Pappas big-balling, unbeaten at home with eight more OAKA dates to come, it all adds up to another homecourt playoff spot, right?

Well….

NOT REAL

Slow down there, homeboy. Last season PAO was a pretty good three-point shooting team, and they finished the year at 35.38%, third highest in both makes and attempts. Though the first half this time round they’re making long-bombs at a 40.16% clip, which feels unsustainably high. Gist (45% vs 35%), Singleton (49% vs 39%) Lukas Lekavicius (47% vs 39%), Lojeski (47% vs 43%), Pappas (37% vs 34%) and KC Rivers (43% vs 39%) are all exceeding their career three-point shooting marks by varying amounts, and while it’s not at all inconceivable that some of those guys have career years, for them to all coincide seems like a reach.

But it’s not just the hot three-point shooting that might cool down. Calathes fell off big time in the second half last season, with only 4.6 assists per game compared to 6.8 in the first 15. His turnovers went up from 1.73 to 2.33 and his already limited three-point shooting disappeared, with an overall second-half split of 8-of-49, or 16.3%.

It’s not that Calathes forgot how to play, but the workload seemed to wipe him out. I’m not saying Calathes is definitely going to turn back into a pumpkin from round 16 onwards, but the possibility of a fall-off from MVP candidate to merely-pretty-good or even not-great could be very bad news for PAO:

Calathes has missed the last three games, and while PAO has a 2-1 record without him, the defeat at Valencia was, in my opinion, quite instructive about what they miss without him directing traffic. Marcus Denmon handled the rock during crunch time at the Fonteta and played like a bucket-chaser making the most of his rare chance to get acquainted with the ball. Which is… kinda what he is? A few no-pass offensive possessions at crucial moments, and….

Now I’m not saying a heat-of-the-moment expression of frustration is going to kill the season, but it is a reminder of the possibly fragile chemistry around this squad. Denmon hit an efficient 24 in the win over Khimki, so it’s not that he’s awful or can’t play it’s just that a scorer who blows hot and cold isn’t the same as an MVP-calibre playmaker who sets up everyone else and carries the team on his back. Pappas, likewise, is who he is – as I’ve said pretty consistently this season. A streaky shooter who can look really good and really bad and you more or less have to take the rough with the smooth at this point.

So far results have been good, so there hasn’t been any notable insanity from the man they like to call Preznit either. But I can’t get away from the feeling that we’re two or three bad results away from a Prasini front-page diatribe.

So, real or not, from a personal point of view I have at least bought decent Take-Insurance after the event. Hands up, Panathinaikos have strongly exceeded my expectations. How long they continue to do so is anyone’s guess. Even a record of, say, 7-8 in the second half would still give them 17 wins and very probably a playoff spot. Maybe Calathes will have an historic full season rather than just half of one. I’d certainly be nervous about heading to OAKA in a series even if I had three home games. This isn’t to say that PAO will regress to being a disaster. Just that this possibly isn’t the third best team in EuroLeague in reality.

But if they do fall away, don’t say we didn’t warn you…