When green teams meet

Dec 07, 2017 by Frank Lawlor, Euroleague.net Print
When green teams meet

Both wear green jerseys, but it might as well be green armor.

The one thing you know for sure when Zalgiris Kaunas and Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens take the floor together, as they do in tonight's Game of the Week, is that neither has any intention of giving an inch to the other.

It used to be that Panathinaikos ruled this rivalry between former EuroLeague champions. For almost 13 years starting in 2002, the Greek powerhouse won 12 times and lost only once to the Lithuanian one. That included a 10-game unbeaten streak over a solid decade.

Since Zalgiris broke that spell in January of 2015, however, it has won two out of five, including their previous meeting last March, also at Zalgirio Arena. That would have been the first home game that Zalgiris boss Sarunas Jasikevicius coached against both his former team and his former coach, Xavi Pascual, with whom he coincided at FC Barcleona Lassa in the 2012-13 season, when they reached the Final Four together.

Panathinaikos arrives as the hottest team in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, boasting a five-game win streak that would become the competition's longest this season with another victory tonight. They are led by Nick Calathes, the MVP for November, who dished more assists (57) in the last six-game span than any player in EuroLeague history, and his alley-oop partner, James Gist, who is much more than a high-flyer now.

Nonetheless, the visitors' fourth-place record, 7-7, is just two victories ahead of Zalgiris, 5-5. That assures impact from tonight's result, one that could carry good vibrations forward no matter which team wins.

In the case of the home team, Zalgiris has been no better or worse at home (2-2) than on the road (3-3) so far. It can also be said that Zalgiris has yet to defeat any team that has been regularly above it in the standings, going 0-4 in those games.

Winning tonight, then, against Panathinaikos would kill two birds with one stone, as they say. Considering that Zalgiris plays the bulk of its home games - 7 out of 15 - in the next two months, changing its home-court momentum against the hottest team in the competition right now by beating Panathinaikos could pay dividends in confidence going ahead.

The situation is almost the opposite for Panathinaikos, which has dominated at home (5-0) and been merely good (2-3) on the road, with one victory and one loss by a point each away from home. To consummate its growing status as a major contender, Panathinaikos has to beat lower-ranked teams away.

The presence of Lukas Lekavicius in the Panathinaikos traveling party will be something to watch tonight. It marks his first time home since leaving Zalgiris, where he grew under Jasikevicius for three seasons, and his comfort on the Zalgirio Arena floor and with his former team's philosophy and system could help the visitors.

The key player for the hosts could be his former backcourt mate, Kevin Pangos, whose mix of three-pointers and assists is going to be even more crucial to strike a balance to keep the aggressive Panathinaikos defense from striking. If Panathinaikos can rebound or steal and run, it's going to be a long night for the hosts. But if Zalgiris can keep Panathinaikos guessing with quick strikes and long possessions, the hosts can get stronger as the game progresses.

Of course, Pangos will have to help put the brakes on Calathes, too, which is easier said than done. It involves keeping Calathes from driving, but at the same time not playing so far off him that he has passing space to float easy lobs to Gist and others. Expect Zalgiris to use Paulius Jankunas, if he's recovered from injury as expected, to play behind Gist and force him to make post moves rather than volleyball at the rim.

Many other players could decide things, hot-shooting K.C. Rivers for Panathinaikos or all-around Edgaras Ulanovas for Zalgiris, but the leaders are essential to both of these teams, and Lekavicius is the wild card who will have to remember which players he should pass the ball.

There will be no lack of determination or tactical strategies at work with Jasikevicius and Pascual on the sidelines, but when these two teams meet, it's all about hearts that beat and bleed green, and which one has a little more of it tonight.