Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens and Real Madrid are the two of the most successful clubs in European basketball history, and their first post-season meeting this century promises to be an extremely closely fought encounter.
First post-season battle
For two powerhouse clubs boasting such glittering histories of high-level achievement, it’s surprising to learn that the impending series will be the first time this century that Panathinaikos and Real Madrid have gone head to head in the post-season. They have never met at the Final Four or in the playoffs until now. Furthermore, only four of their 18 meetings even took place in the old format’s Top 16, with the other 14 games all coming in the regular season. However, the story of those games suggests that this series will be every bit as closely fought as most people are expecting, with the teams winning nine games apiece. In the last few years, neither team has been able to dominate the other with victories being almost perfectly alternated: the winners of their last 10 games have been, in chronological order, Madrid, Panathinaikos, Madrid, Panathinaikos, Madrid, Panathinaikos, Madrid, Panathinaikos, Panathinaikos, Madrid. So it seems clear that trying to select a winner between the two teams – which also finished the regular season with identical 19-11 records – is extremely difficult. But the Greek champion can certainly draw encouragement from the fact that home-court advantage has been extremely significant in recent meetings, with the last six games between the teams all being won by the hosts. When you also consider that Panathinaikos won 13 of its 15 games in Athens during the regular season, the odds start to look even better for the Greens. But then again, Panathinaikos was similarly strong at home last season to earn home-court advantage in the playoffs against Fenerbahce, but ended up losing that series 3-0. So nothing can be taken for granted and, between these two closely-matched teams, no confident predictions can be made.
Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated aspect of this series will be the head-to-head battle between two of the true superstars in this Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season: Nick Calathes and Luka Doncic. The Panathinaikos playmaker is the runaway league leader in assists, averaging 8.2 dimes per game to set a new single-season record by a huge distance (with at least three games still remaining), as well as recording the highest per-game assists average this century. Doncic, of course, has enjoyed a similarly superb statistical season in performance index rating, with an average PIR of 22.7 allowing him to lead the league – and the teenager’s per 40 minutes PIR of 35.33 is the second-highest (over more than five games) in the last decade, beaten only by Boban Marjanovic’s 37.62 in the 2014-15 season. The dynamic duo can also be counted on when the game is on the line, with Calathes scoring a sensational coast-to-coast game-winning layup to defeat Zalgiris Kaunas in Round 20, while Doncic netted a buzzer-beating game-winning triple against Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade in Round 29. Clearly, the outcome of this series will depend to a great extent upon whether Calathes or Doncic shines more brightly, but don’t forget about the presence of two more backcourt stars who also possess the potential to become decisive: Panathinaikos’s Mike James has averaged 14.8 points per game since returning to Athens in mid-season and Madrid’s Facundo Campazzo recorded a PIR of at least 24 in four of his team’s last six games.
Former teammates battle in the paint
Both teams also have an array of big bodies to call upon, with Panathinaikos ready to send Zach Auguste, Kenny Gabriel, James Gist, Adreian Payne, Chris Singleton and Ian Vougioukas – all listed at 2.05 meters or taller – into battle against Madrid’s Gustavo Ayon, Anthony Randolph, Felipe Reyes, Walter Tavares and Trey Thompkins. One of the most-physical clashes will be between Singleton and Randolph, who know each other very well after starring as teammates for Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar during the Russian team’s unexpected charge to the 2016 Final Four. Randolph and Singleton took turns to dominate that season’s playoffs series against FC Barcelona Lassa: Randolph was the star in his team’s first two victories, combining 17 points and 10 rebounds in Game 1 and then netting a career-high 28 points in Game 4, before Singleton came to the fore in the decisive Game 5, recording a double-double of 16 points and 12 rebounds – including 12 points in less than four minutes at the start of the fourth quarter. Now these two versatile big men will match up and they are both extremely important players for their respective teams. Singleton spent more time on the floor than any other Panathinaikos player this season, averaging 30:14 minutes per game, while Randolph showed his immense ability with a towering performance in the final game of the regular season, earning the MVP of the Round honor with 23 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 steals in his team’s emphatic win over Brose Bamberg. Two years ago Singleton and Randolph were teammates in a march to the Final Four; now, only one of them will make it.
Pascual’s defense versus Laso’s offense?
There will be no secrets between the two coaches in this series, because Panathinaikos’s Xavi Pascual and Madrid’s Pablo Laso have gone head to head maybe more often than any other pair of coaches in EuroLeague history following the latter’s long spell in charge of Barcelona. These two sideline generals are both identified with specific styles of play: Pascual has always been known for excellent defense, while Laso stakes his faith in free-flowing offense. Those contrasting approaches have again been evident this season, with Panathinaikos ranking third in points allowed (76.4 points per game), while Madrid scored more regularly (85.9 points per game) than anyone other than CSKA Moscow. So the series could be summarized as a battle between Pascual’s defense versus Laso’s offense, especially as Madrid needs to claim at least one victory in Athens to prevail. Panathinaikos will have to be particularly prepared for Madrid’s prowess from long-range – the Spanish team led the league in three-pointers made during the regular season, averaging 9.83 triples per game. Campazzo, Jaycee Carroll, Doncic, Rudy Fernandez and Trey Thompkins all averaged more than 3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, so Pascual’s men need to be ready to face a long-range barrage. And the signs are that Panathinaikos will indeed be happy to defend the perimeter, because nobody held its opponents to fewer three-point shots attempted during the regular season than the Greens’ average of 19.7 per game.
Winning the close ones?
In a battle that is expected to be closely fought, the outcome of individual games and the series as a whole could well be decided by efficiency in the crucial final moments when the game is on the line. Both Panathinaikos and Madrid have had plenty of practice in nail-biters this season. No less than eight of the Greens’ games were settled by a single possession, with Panathinaikos coming out on top in six of those battles and losing just two (against Kirolbet Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz and Olympiacos Piraeus). Madrid, meanwhile, was rather less successful in close contests, taking a 3-3 record from games which were decided by 3 points or fewer. Perhaps, then, Panathinaikos will prove to be better ‘closers’ when the outcome is in the balance – and Pascual’s troops will certainly feel confident in that scenario after winning two of their last three regular season games by just 1 point: beating Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv 75-76 in Round 28 and overcoming AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan 95-96 after overtime in the final round. On the other hand, it’s not long since Madrid celebrated a buzzer-beating victory as Doncic’s step-back triple downed Zvezda in Round 29, so that’s probably just another area where there is very little to choose between these two teams.