By Rob Scott / @robscott33
As the ball reached the apex of its arc, from the hands of Vassilis Spanoulis near the right sideline, a good eight metres out, it seemed inevitable that it would splash through the net. Olympiacos led this Athens derby for only 0.8 ticks of the fourth quarter, but they chose the right fraction of a second. Beating Panathinaikos is a prize in itself, whatever the stakes, and for around 24 hours it seemed that the bonus attached to this win would be avoiding Real Madrid in the upcoming playoffs, not that heading to Moscow to face CSKA would be much of a reward.
Olympiacos gave up a 10-0 run either side of the third quarter break to trail 54-46, but the familiar narrative of this three-year era in Piraeus is that this team can never be counted out. Trailing late? No problem. They find ways to win the big games, whether it’s a young Kostas Papanikolaou shooting 100% from the field in the 2012 final, Pero Antic dragging the team back above water in last year’s, or Kostas Sloukas and Evangelos Mantzaris hitting the clutch shots to haul the Reds back into this one. Ever since Sloukas swished that three-quarter-court heave against Galatasaray in 2012’s Top 16, this has been a team with ‘destiny’ on its side.
How many times can this happen though? It’s a question that all but the most faithful Thrylos devotees must have asked themselves, particularly this season. The champions were only in the position of having to pick their poison in the playoffs due to a four-game losing streak. Spanoulis was absent for three of those defeats, and he returned to lead his team to four straight wins. Cracks in the façade appeared last season too - see Joey Dorsey’s early-season exit - but this year injuries have taken more of a toll. Acie Law will miss the rest of the season, Giorgios Printezis missed the derby game and Stratos Perperoglou has been hampered lately.
The core of proven winners left from the back-to-back champion squad appears to be shrinking. Papanikolaou, Hines and Antic are all wearing different colours. Printezis and Law injured. The number of variables keeps rising. Matt Lojeski, Bryant Dunston, Brent Petway and Cedric Simmons are new to this. There is no guarantee that they can maintain this improbable triumph against the odds.
Against Panathinaikos, at times it seemed more like the Greens were literally throwing the game away, with eight fourth quarter turnovers. But just as PAO’s inability to diligently execute their halfcourt offense seemed scripted, so did Sloukas hitting a pair of threes over desperate, out-stretched hands just to set up the MVP for his signature tune. Plays like this have been instrumental in the Red reign over Europe, showing that their offense does not begin and end with Spanoulis. Just as most of the comeback in that 2012 final happened with Kill Bill on the sidelines, the Olympiacos offense sometimes benefits from the breathing space of not looking to their maestro for direction. This time, again, when he returned, those super-role-players deferred.
Against a team like Panathinaikos, with the bodies to defend him one-on-one without having to rotate, that can cause stagnation. James Gist did everything right in the final minute but got burned on the last two plays. A driving, hang-time layup and a ridiculous stepback prayer. Gist did no wrong, but still lost.
But doesn’t it seem weird that once again, somehow the repeat champions go into a big Euroleague moment as underdogs? Every time, there is a different reason. This edition of Olympiacos vs The World is dripping with narrative tension. Did Madrid self-sabotage against Zalgiris? As scary as the Panathinaikos defense is, with its ability to switch any screen and shut down the space in which players like Rudy and Chacho love to operate, choosing to play the defending champions is surely asking for trouble.
Perhaps Coach Laso and company were petrified of losing another one-off battle with the kings of backs-to-the-wall survival? With five games to assert their superiority, three at Palacio de los Deportes, their depth of talent should rise to the top. If the Blancos’ brain trust really did set out to choose their opponent, it’s a higher stakes gamble than any of Rudy’s pirouette step-back threes.
On paper, putting aside the psychology of last year’s final, Olympiacos is a tough matchup for Madrid. Spanoulis handling the ball with shooters like Lojseki and Petway flanking him ready for kickouts can be a pick-your-poison situation, and we have already seen how poorly Madrid coped with Maccabi’s spread-pick-and-roll attack a couple of weeks back. On the other hand, if Dunston stays as the main man at the five spot, Laso should have no matchup issues in playing Marcus Slaughter, who can kill ball screens stone dead, a talent Ioannis Bourousis does not share. If this weak spot can be shielded and its influence minimised, Sloukas, Mantzaris and Spanoulis will have to make those killer shots on a more regular basis. That’s a lot to demand.
The best part about this whole crazy situation? We could have five whole games of the defending champs thinking the overwhelming favourites just called them out. Sit back and enjoy the fight.
Programming note: ELA will preview all four quarter-final series before the first tip on Tuesday. Check in and tell us how right, or wrong, or crazy we are. Make sure you don’t miss a thing by following the site on twitter - @Euro_Adventures