Olympiacos look ominous again. They beat Fenerbahçe 72-61 at home to close the first half of the season at 10-5, tied for second seed. Zeljko Obradovic’s visitors could only manage 21 points in the first half, and only eight made field goals.

Don’t let the fact that this was a four-point game late in the fourth quarter, the key message from this game was twofold: Firstly, Olympiacos’ defense gives them a basis on which to compete with any team. Second, and most importantly the way the offense has sometimes stagnated as a frantic Spanoulis searches for options, key supporting players can put points on the board and let Kill Bill take a conductor’s role.

Birch flowering

Khem Birch has been an impact defender since he joined in the summer after a maiden European campaign with Usak Sportif in Turkey and his rookie year in the D-League. Third in Euroleague in rebounding per 40 minutes, tied for fourth in total blocks, the jumping jack Canadian has the athleticism of a modern NBA centre, but the intel on him going into his debut Euroleague season was more mental than physical.

Could he maintain concentration long enough to clean the glass and block the hell out of everything at elite level? Halfway through this new 30-game schedule, the answer is clearly yes.

The video compilation below comes from last week’s Fenerbahçe game, and shows pretty much everything Birch can do on defense. He’s a dangerous rim runner and has great instincts on the offensive glass, but his real value is in protecting his own painted area.

First he switches onto Kostas Sloukas and dismisses his layup. Sloukas might not be in the Larkin/McCalebb/James tier of sparkplug guards but he’s more than capable of sliding his way to the rim against the best. Next he stands up to Ekpe Udoh in the post, recovering quickly once he loses a sliver of ground to one of the toughest covers in Europe.

The third clip is my favourite, as he uses his 7’1″ wingspan to poke the ball away, breaking up Sloukas and Vesely’s screen and roll. The timing needed to pick that pocket without fouling is extremely impressive. Lastly, he disrupts another drive in the middle of the paint, knocking the ball away from Dixon.

Coach Ioannis Sfairopolous has caught some flack, particularly since last season when the Reds missed the Euroleague playoffs. That was an injury-hit campaign, with Spanoulis, Patric Young and Georgios Printezis all missing meaningful time. Even as they rode to a tie for second best record at the halfway point this season, nagging doubts persisted, particularly in defeats to CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid.

Lojeski and Green Step Up

Was there enough movement around the edges of the Spanoulis high pick-and-roll offense that has been the basic recipe for two titles and a runners up medal in four years? Spanoulis finished the Fenerbahçe win with seven points and seven assists, albeit with five turnovers. But at least the supporting cast stepped up to score.

Matt Lojeski played his usual stealthy weak side-lurking role, stepping into corner threes, posting up Dixon and knocking down shots when needed. Erick Green is a more flashy, one-on-one scorer, who can create his own shot when everything slows down in the half court. He’s also doing a fine job sprinting to the corners on fast breaks and canning the three ball.

Lojeski is shooting 46.6% from deep, Green at 42.6%. Spanoulis up top, a pair of rim-running big guys and reliable deadeye shooters on the wings – it’s a familiar recipe, when combined with miserly defense. Now that Birch and Young can switch out to the perimeter, rather than relying on Sfairopolous’ regular high-hedging scheme, this year’s Olympiacos is beginning to look a little bit more like the Final Four regulars from 2012-2015.

Notes from elsewhere

Before the Red side of Athens celebrated victory, their Green neighbours threw away a double-digit lead at UNICS Kazan, surviving a last ditch Demetris Nichols jumper that would have send the game to OT, although by my estimation it was after the buzzer.

They were the latest team to feel the burn from Keith Langford’s hot hand. The veteran scoring wizard won Weekly MVP for the second time in a row, giving him his third of the season. The 33-year old has scored 20+ points in 13 of 15 games this season.

But there was an interesting non-call in the final 30 seconds that might have turned the game the other way.

Langford took an inbounds pass with around 28 seconds remaining, pivoted, then held the ball with Nick Calathes in a guarding position for a full eight seconds. Calathes was appealing for a five second call, and it looked like he had a case.

It looks to me like Calathes is in a close guarding position, which suggests that Panathinaikos should have got the ball back with a lot more time on the clock. As it was,  beyond Langford’s sick shooting display, enormous credit should go to two lesser-heralded Russian role players on the final play, once Chris Singleton had rebounded the ball with around 7 ticks to go: Evgeny Voronov held up Mike James in the backcourt for a crucial moment and Pavel Antipov made a great closeout to Nichols in the corner on the final shot.

On last week’s podcast we recognised UNICS’ (then) two-game winning streak, but doubted they had the momentum to carry that through to a playoff position. At 6-9 they are only one win off the final playoff spot, but with four teams above them. Even with Langford and Art ‘Bergkamp’ Parakhouski making sweet pick and roll love to Quino Colom’s expert feeds, it’s not clear whether they can snag enough wins to get that eighth seed, but the longer this goes on, the more we might have to consider it a possibility.

Crvena Zvezda sent another one of Europe’s giants away from Belgrade with an L.  CSKA shuffled out of Kombank Arena with a 78-67 loss, and they were the latest team to shrink away from the fevered atmosphere. The champs missed a bunch of layups during Crvena Zvezda’s 13-0 start, which included Charles Jenkins ruining Milos Teodosic’s evening before it had a chance to get going.

Where CSKA lost the ball, they were tentative. Jenkins and his teammates were merciless, pouncing on loose balls and sprinting down the floor to plunge the knife into their opponents time after time.

The American with the suavest beard on the continent finished with 11 points, six assists and six steals. His performance, along with the rest of the team, warrants a full investigation, but for now suffice it to say nobody will want to go to Belgrade for a playoff series. That’s right – Crvena Zvezda are just as much of a playoff threat as Anadolu Efes, Darüşşafaka or Barcelona. To be doing that on Euroleague’s reportedly smallest budget, is testament to the tenacity of Serbian talent and their in-demand coach Dejan Radonjic.

The play below wasn’t crucial to the outcome of the game, but it was damn feisty. Nate Wolters has had to ease himself into the pace of the game at Euroleague level, but how good is this crosscourt, fallaway lob to Lazic for the dunk, in response to a halfcourt trap?

I think the momentum caused by the home crowd is what gives the players the confidence to pull off these kind of passes and put extra points on the board. Wolters in particular seems to feed off the Delije’s fervour, a symbiotic relationship that leads to downright cool stuff like that.

Finally….

Luka Doncic is 17 years old. Happy New Year, friends.