Testing the Potential of Euroleague Contenders

Testing the Potential of Euroleague Contenders
Sep 28, 2006, 05:47 am
In their first official match-up of the season, the Greek cup, two teams that could very well be considered among this season’s Euroleague early favorites, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, were drawn to play an early game which would knock one of the two out for the rest of the cup competition.

Panathinaikos, three-time Euroleague winners over the past decade and a perennial Final Four contender, is a well-built powerhouse, under a long-term plan of keeping star players happy, well paid and led by legendary coach Zelimir Obradovic. Olympiakos is a newly built franchise, filled with talented and athletic guys with some great potential. They are led by ex-Maccabi Tel Aviv Coach Pini Gershon, who has brought over experience, passion for the quick, up-tempo game and three Euroleague titles.

Although it's too early to tell here, but there are some first assumptions that can be drawn for the sake of both teams. Given that the Euroleague Final Four will take place in Athens, both squads want to be ready in May, but they will need to be good enough to qualify and for that continuity is needed to reach their full potential.

Olympiakos, initially looking like a scary and dangerous team with the perimeter shooting capability and athletic ability, still lacked the experience, chemistry and chemistry to push this game into a full-time run-and-gun affair. Not necessarily taking full advantage of post scoring machine Sofoklis Schortsanitis and with the rest of the big men not being creative enough for coach Gershon’s squad, it was obvious that the perimeter guys would be seeing most of the action.

While the shot of versatile Alex Acker and super scorer Henry Domercant was falling with accuracy and the perimeter defense was motivated and aggressive in the first 15 minutes of the game, Olympiakos had no problem to even push the margin into double digits by running the floor well and earning easy baskets and open shots in the open court. However, it was then that coach Obradovic’s defensive game started to operate, at least partly. Panathinaikos was the top European defensive team last season and, despite having lost guards Jaka Lakovic (to Barcelona) and Vasilis Spanoulis (to Houston Rockets), newly acquired perimeter stars Sani Becirovic and Ramunas Siskauskas upgraded their team defense game and aided defensive specialist Dimitris Diamantidis in cutting the margin by the end of the half, freezing the tempo and winning the game 79-71. Tony Delk just played for 3 minutes, not being fit enough.

Of course, Panathinaikos’ game isn’t only defensive oriented and there are also the big men who can contribute here. We are talking about a really accomplished team, with some very recognizable names in the European basketball scene. Diamantidis, for example, a two-time Euroleague Defensive Player of the Year, is more than just a stopper, adding yesterday 8 assists to his 10 rebounds and 4 steals. The fact that Panathinaikos amassed a great number of assists in the half-court and took advantage of its big guys, while all perimeter players (Diamantidis, Siskauskas, Becirovic) distributed the ball well, helped the less impressive and still unprepared Panathinaikos control the game when it mattered most.

At the end of the day, coach Gershon should find a way to get the ball more often to the hands of the big guys. It is – of course – obvious that he is no longer coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv, thus he won’t be having a point guard like Sarunas Jasikevicius to create or a big man with the passing abilities of Nikola Vujcic, but all four power forwards/centers of the team can be effective in the set game and more patient ball movement, mainly by big-time signee James “Scoonie” Penn can probably work for them. That is, when the up-tempo rhythm isn’t enough to kill the opponent early in the game.

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