by Rob Scott / @robscott33

The Facts

Olympiacos: #3, 19-11. Offensive rating 108.7 (16th) / Defensive Rating 107.1 (1st)

Zalgiris Kaunas: #6, 18-12. Offensive rating 114.9 (5th) / Defensive Rating 113.5 (9th)

Zalgiris Kaunas 74-68 Olympiacos, Round 15, December 28th
Olympiacos 85-86 Zalgiris Kaunas (OT), Round 30, April 06th

(all statistics courtesy of the excellent Stats.Li)

The Preamble

Olympiacos takes on Zalgiris Kaunas as the higher seed but lost the season series 0-2. However, both games took place without Georgios Printezis and Week 30 saw only a slim chance of the Reds slipping out of their #3 seed before tipoff. You certainly won’t be able to hear the sneakers squeak again come Game 1 at SEF.

That first game at the end of December was a physical battle with some real needle. Zalgiris forward Edgaras Ulanovas was cut above his eye going for a rebound, their coach Sarunas Jasikevicius picked up a tech and there was an unsportsmanlike for Oly’s Kostas Papanikolaou. Tempers never quite flared up but over a possible five games there is a real possibility that these teams will get sick of each other.

The Reds were rolling at the halfway point, with an 11-3 record as they flew into Kaunas. Counting that game, they were 8-8 in the second half of the season, and haven’t looked anything like as coherent or consistent as they did early on. Rarely has a team’s strengths and weaknesses been so obvious in their statistics. The worst offensive and the best defensive rating combine to make this a tough team to beat at their best – unless their anaemic attack gets shut down for longer than the defense can hold the line.

Saras’ squad has already exceeded most expectations by making the playoffs, but that just shows how stupid most people (OK, I’ll just speak for myself here) are. Disciplined defensive rotations, a phenomenal work ethic and the prettiest halfcourt offense this side of Moscow got them this far, and they beat their playoff opponents (twice) as well as CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahçe already. They enter this series with no fear. ‘Just happy to be here’ isn’t in the Jasikevicius vocabulary.

Zalgiris Strengths

Zalgiris’ offense is built around the delightful, inventive playmaking of Kevin Pangos and his telepathy with Paulius Jankunas from mid-range. That pair was amongst the top assist combos in the Regular Season, and when Paulie Walnuts gets rolling from 18 feet it’s pick your poison time. Send two defenders to Pangos (or, sometimes, Vasa Micic) and it’s mid-range money time. Stick arms-length to the popping Jankunas or send help and Pangos can either find a cutter from the weak side or finish off either foot from a variety of angles, and is a master of deceptive hesitations and off-kilter floaters.

Pangos is a master of probing into the defense, reading the scheme and then sensing the exact fraction-of-a-second when a defender has his weight on the wrong foot or is cheating too far off his man, firing off a pass with perfect timing. He shot 48.75% from 3-point range in 30 Regular Season games, and is equally happy pulling up off the dribble as curling off screens for catch-and-shoot. The latter is a real weapon when he takes an off-ball position for some of Micic or Udrih’s time on the floor.

One matchup-specific takeaway from the first game back in December was how Olympiacos struggled to hide Vassilis Spanoulis when Zalgiris played sharpshooter Arturas Milaknis as a big two-guard alongside Ulanovas on the wing. Milaknis shot 4-of-6 from three-point range that night, and Spanoulis had trouble chasing him round screens all evening. One wrinkle is throwing in that elbow back screen you can see hanging up Hollis Thompson in the last clip. Even though Milaknis missed the shot, it was relatively open.

Clearly, Oly’s defensive rating shows they have little to worry about on that end, but as important as Kill Bill is to their entire identity -and chances of winning this series – every year brings another little slip in speed and the need to take a breather to concentrate on the offensive end. For a team that offers little to its opponents, this is one potential open door for Zalgiris to get their foot behind.

Elsewhere, Axel Toupane offers a little secondary playmaking and a dynamic athletic threat to crash in from the wings, particularly alongside fellow high-flier Aaron White. The latter has a nice line in alley oops with Pangos. Let’s just take it as read that everyone has chemistry with Pangos. Antanas Kavaliauskas is from Lithuanian Big Banger Central Casting in the middle and Brandon Davies, recently extended to 2020, is a powerful, bouncey pick and roll target and skilled finisher.

Notably, Zalgiris attempted by far the fewest three-point attempts in the league, with 500 – a full 62 fewer than Maccabi in 15th, and 104 fewer than Fenerbahçe one place higher. Percentage-wise they sit in 3rd spot, fitting in perfectly with their philosophy of only taking good shots.

Low on threes, kings of mid-range, this truly is the team to root for if you’re sick of the smug neophyte orthodoxy of the Moreyball revolution.

Zalgiris Weaknesses

The one Achilles’ heel on this team is the lack of a reliable second playmaker to give Pangos a breather or step in if he gets into foul trouble. They began the season with Dee Bost and Vasilije Micic but the former left in early December after injuries prevented him from cementing a place in the rotation. His replacement, Beno Udrih, has been less than convincing, particularly his welcoming Maître D’efense. Micic wouldn’t be a bad third option but he still suffers from the Heurtel disease of pounding the ball looking for the sure-thing assist. He isn’t terrible, he’s just not as reliable as I’d like for a genuine Final Four contender, which is what this team is. My Kingdom for a Steady Hand Off The Bench…

Other than that, there’s not a lot not to like. Saras reacts like a man given a €500 parking ticket for being 10 seconds late whenever anyone misses a closeout, and it doesn’t happen often.

Olympiacos Strengths

There’s this guy who hits big shots in big games, you might have heard of him. The core of this 2012 squad is still here with Spanoulis – Printezis, Papanikolaou and Mantzaris are battle tested, experienced, et cetera, et cetera, you know the rest. As a squad, Oly has missed only two Final Fours since the first trip to Istanbul six years ago, losing only one playoff series in that time.

They went 12-3 at home, albeit one of those L’s was the final game vs their playoff opponents. As mentioned above, they were missing Printezis and the game didn’t mean a whole lot. The best power forward in EuroLeague should give whoever’s guarding him – Jankunas and Aaron White, in all likelihood – fits in the post and his mobility across the floor should help in cutting off those pick and pop looks.

Oly will slow the game down, control the glass – with the second best defensive rebound % behind Baskonia – and reduce late possessions to a battle of wills. They know how to do this, and more or less everyone on the roster has been there before. Brian Roberts and Vangelis Mantzaris are the kind of disciplined attack dog perimeter defenders who might be able to cut off Pangos’ angles and force Zalgiris into unassisted shot attempts.

Kyle Wiltjer has been a successful midseason addition. It’s a tough job to come out of the G League and into the EuroLeague fire, but he’s knocked down threes at a 42.2% clip and is a hugely valuable pressure release valve.

That league-leading defense is the Piraeus team’s main strength, and it is a true team effort, relying on such un-sexy but vital aspects of defense like making fast, precise rotations and not getting beaten off the dribble. As a team they rank 14th in total blocks, and 13th in steals. This team doesn’t play highlight reel defense, it just stops you getting the shot you want in the first place, and probably not your second choice either. They held opponents to an Effective Field Goal percentage of 50.3, comfortably the lowest in the league.

In the name of balance though, here’s video of defensive anchor Nikola Milutinov making some nice plays against Real Madrid and Zalgiris. Although some would jump on Doncic’s inability to shake a big centre like Milutinov as the most enlightening takeaway here, the Serbian’s impressive footwork and balance for a man of 2.13m allow him to keep the potential #1 pick in front of him. He applies that blessed principle of verticality to protect the rim and can hedge as well as switch. This versatility allows Sfrairopoulos the option to tailor his team’s defense to the opponent and situation, which could be critical across a five-game series.

Olympiacos Weaknesses

Wiltjer’s marksmanship has been particularly useful as the team sits 16 out of 16 from three-point range at 33.38%. Brian Roberts also sits above the 40% mark at 42.2%, but the team mark has been dragged down by Hollis Thompson’s 27.1%. The American wing promised much but has delivered little, other than willingness to go inside when his shot deserted him. Late addition Bobby Brown brings a wealth of experience and shotmaking but will want to improve his 1-for-15 mark from deep in six games.

Clearly from their offensive rating, putting the ball in the basket isn’t this team’s strong suit, getting bogged down too often in halfcourt but not really ready to run either. They were one of the slowest teams in the league in terms of pace, but will try to use that to their advantage by slowing down Zalgiris in transition and banking on their defense to stifle the opponent.

Conclusion

All of the above points to Zalgiris having a super chance to knock off a higher ranked opponent. Olympiacos is no longer the upstart underdog, now they’re a fully signed-up member of the establishment. Saras’ team is the insurgent candidate here, but they’ll face a battle to win in Piraeus, something they’ll have to do to progress. The heart says that Pangos’ All-EuroLeague playmaking can elevate yet further, but history reminds us that the Reds have only lost one playoff series in six attempts with the core of this team. Everything will have to fall into place for Zalgiris to make it to Belgrade, so in deference to the recent past, Olympiacos to just about avoid being made history. Roberts and Mantzaris could keep Pangos in check and despite their struggles, there might just be enough shotmakers who won’t shrink from the moment on the Greek club.

When it comes down to the big possessions, it’ll take something incredible to knock off Printezis, Papanikolaou and Spanoulis.

Prediction

Olympiacos in five