When Xavi Pascual took over the head coaching job at Panathinaikos just two games into the Euroleague season, it seemed like he had a big job on his hands. He still does, but it hasn’t taken long for him to put his own imprint on the team.
An expensively assembled roster has finally come together. Mike James is back from his self-inflicted pre-season arm injury, and the other new additions already look like far more of a cohesive unit under their new boss.
Their 86-80 win over Darussafaka Dogus showed exactly how Pascual is putting the pieces together, and why he is already composing a Final Four contender.
Double trouble at the five
In particular, the centre tandem of Ioannis Bourousis and Chris Singleton have given the Catalan playcaller two potent weapons to deploy in very different ways. Panathinaikos fans should be glad he didn’t have an athletic, versatile omni-defense like Singleton at Barcelona the past few years, or he’d likely still be there. In Bourousis he has to trade off some weakness stopping the other team for one of the only legitimate double-team covers left at the top level in Europe.
When Singleton is on the floor, he can step into any defensive role: perimeter, low post, on-the-move, you name it, he can stop it. At his best, the big Greek grizzly bear turns the PAO offense into a Plasma Globe – wherever the help comes from, that spot receives a burst of energy and lights up as the ball finds the open player’s hands. Together, they give Pascual 40 minutes’ worth of headaches to give his opposite number.
Look first at these clips of Singleton’s defensive flexibility.
First, he smothers a really neat 4/5 pick and roll that Clyburn and Slaughter run. The play’s initial action succeeds – Clyburn, one of the quickest smallball fours in Europe, attacks the five downhill, but unfortunately that five is Singleton. He uses his quickness and length to disrupt Clyburn’s attempt and forces the miss. Then he switches onto Wilbekin in a high screen and roll, contains, recovers back to Slaughter and alters his layup. Lastly, he uses quick lateral movement and great concentration to force a miss by Erden on the block. There aren’t many bigs in Europe who can do all of this so effectively.
Singleton is also a really useful stretch option at the offensive end, so it’s not like the choice of which big man to play is an offense/defense question. Both he and Bourousis finished the game, and if that is something Pascual is interested in, they can certainly co-exist. But the last game at least showed what the Greek offers, and Daçka coach Blatt tried and failed to stop him, with ever-decreasing success.
The original Greek Freak
First, Daçka tried single coverage, but neither Aldemir nor Erden could even hold their position on the block without fouling. Bourousis drew 13 fouls in 17 minutes, and it was pretty obvious that wasn’t going to work. The trouble is, if you throw him a double team, this is what happens:
In all of the plays above, PAO scores eventually because the defense can’t rotate and react quick enough to the player they help off to double Bourousis. Even though the rotations were quick, they weren’t quite enough. He just has that impeccable timing and vision to make the right read and burst the bubble of pressure sent by the second defender.
In his annus mirabilis at Baskonia last season, Bourousis lived at the elbow as much as on the block, machine-gunning assists to rotating cast of cutters. So far in green he hasn’t spent as much time in that position, perhaps as much a result of Pascual’s more pick and roll-heavy playbook as the change in teammates – although James’ return leaves that prospect tantalisingly close. In previous games this season he hasn’t looked as comfortable in the low post; more sluggish, less effective, at least by the imperfect ‘eye test’. If he can keep facilitating without drawing a double, Panathinaikos’ offense could be explosive.
The one pact you have to make as a coach with Bourousis is a certain willingness to live with defensive weakness. He’s a workhorse – when you show confidence in what he does do well – but his physical limitations are obvious. He has to drop back in pick and roll, which makes it easier to take the jumper. Clyburn played all 40 minutes (Adrian Moerman was injured) and he shot 5-of-7 when Bourousis was on the floor; 5-of-10 against Singleton.
Although he did have one huge defensive contribution, chasing Wilbekin all around the arc and baseline, funnelling the pacy PG into Singleton at the rim with barely 90 seconds remaining as PAO protected a three-point lead. He played more of the the third quarter when Daçka made their comeback, outscoring PAO 26-18.
There are certain doors Borousis just can’t close on defense, but when he clicks at the other end like he did last week, Pascual will definitely live with that. At crunch time he can bring back Singleton, or more likely combine the two in a ‘death lineup’ of sorts: Singleton’s range and mobility forming like Voltron with Bourousis’ plasma burst distribution.
Pascual’s changing plans?
At least initially, it looked like Pascual the defensive disciplinarian might not tolerate the Greek totem’s relative immobility, cursing him to sit on the bench while he tried to wreak havoc with James Gist and Singleton as a two-headed switch-everything monster in the middle. That might have been his intention, but Gist’s untimely injury last week put him on the shelf for at least three months. Kenny Gabriel arrived as a stretch-four replacement but there’s no way he can play the five.
As harsh as it is for a fellow teammate’s horrible luck and the uncertainty that comes from a long recovery, that opportunity might be all Bourousis needed to reclaim his place. Or it might just be chance that the first time the all-Euroleague centre from last season looked back to his best was when his notoriously demanding coach had no option but to let him play.
After seeing Pascual’s Barcelona tenure fizzle out, it could be thrilling to see him build something with the raw materials on offer in Athens. Going from frontcourt terrifiers like vintage era Boni NDong and Fran Vazquez along with defensive cornerstones like Terrence Morris and Pete Mickeal, to guys like Justin Doellman and Ante Tomic – hard-working, talented but frustratingly limited in different ways – maybe Europe has forgotten what this man can do. The meek, listless Barcelona of the worst days of his final campaign should be forgotten.
Both the Green hordes in the OAKA stands and their new coach both have a rich history of going to the Final Four. Carried by two big men who were there just last season, and must be aching to go one better, an immediate return looks entirely possible.