Panathinaikos OPAP Athens registered its third consecutive win and this victory was extra special for all the fans at OAKA. Head coach Rick Pitino, who became a fan-favorite last season, returned to the team's bench and Panathinaikos immediately delivered, winning all four quarters against KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz for a convincing 100-68 victory. To put things in perspective, it was Baskonia's third-worst road loss in the EuroLeague ever. Baskonia had only lost by more than 32 points twice - 82-45 against Zalgiris Kaunas on November 23, 2012, and 98-64 against Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul on February 14, 2013.
Panathinaikos came off back-to-back road wins, led by interim head coach Georgios Vovoras, but what allowed Panathinaikos to do so much better and dominate a powerhouse like Baskonia the way it did? Coach Pitino believes that pressure can be channeled and have a positive impact.
"Tonight, my motivational message before the game was this: I am going to apply a lot of pressure to you but I have done it about seven-eight times in my life, with good basketball teams, and I told them pressure is the best friend you have in life. Pressure is a privilege because when you put on that Panathinaikos uniform, you are under the influence of pressure and you are going to overachieve," Pitino said in the press conference room after the game. "You are going to give maximum effort, focus on scouting, play defense every possession when you have pressure on you. With no pressure, you are not going to take every possession as if it is the last one on Earth, so pressure is the greatest thing any athlete can have."
Panathinaikos took better care of the ball in this game. Through their first 10 games, the Greens averaged 18.9 assists and 10.4 turnovers. Against Baskonia, Coach Pitino's team had 21 assists and 7 turnovers. Sharpshooter Jimmer Fredette had a season-best 5 assists to go with 21 points. Defense made the difference, as Panathinaikos forced Baskonia to shoot with low percentages (46.3% 2FG, 25.8% 3FG) and pulled down 29 defensive rebounds, its second-best mark this season, which allowed the hosts to run and find easy points.
And of course, if you have Pitino back on Panathinaikos's bench, you know he will talk about deflections, a subject he gives vital importance to. "The other thing I want to talk about is, if you remember, I was so repetitive last year with deflections, trying to get 35; I think we got it one time. Tonight, we got 34," Pitino said after the game. So expect Pitino's team to annoy its opponents on defense and to get a lot of freedom on offense.
Fredette could already tell the difference after the game: "Coach just wants us to take what the defense gives us and what he wants is to get it out quick, so if Nick [Calathes] is not open, available, I will get the ball on the other side and I can run the pick-and-roll or anything in transition. I think that really makes us really lethal in transition breaks when two guys can handle."
Panathinaikos is now 7-4 and deep into the playoff zone, but Pitino is ambitious and sent a message to every other team out there. "We are going to get a lot better."