On the day that Olympiacos Piraeus learned that scoring king Vassilis Spanoulis could be done for the season with a foot injury that will require surgery and with Georgios Printezis still sidelined, the other remaining player from the Reds' last championship season, Kostas Papanikolaou, set the tone in a 72-59 victory over reigning Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion CSKA Moscow.
Coming into the game with just nine healthy players – one of whom was 17-year-old guard Alexandros Nikolaidis, who made his EuroLeague debut earlier in the week, it was clear that several things would have to break right for Olympiacos to win this game. However, in the end, there was only one thing that was required... Nonstop hustle and desire. Led by Papanikolaou, the hosts stuffed CSKA in the hustle categories.
"We needed to fight for every possession, defensively and offensively," Coach Georgios Bartzokas, who was on the bench in that magical 2012-13 championship season, said of his charges in the post-game press conference. "In every hustle part of the game, like we had 19 offensive rebounds and we had 6 blocks, we had 14 steals, we forced CSKA into 21 turnovers. It's obvious that every part of the game where we needed to fight, we did it."
Papanikoloau was at the heart of the fight with 19 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 steals and 3 blocks in compiling a performance index rating of 27. His excellent defense and great hustle plays made all the difference.
"Everybody gives his soul today for the game and played for the guys who were not here today," Papanikoloau said. "We were short and we showed character and mentality and great sacrifice for each other for the game."
"I think this is our best game this season," was the thought shared by center Nikola Milutinov, who also posted monster numbers with 11 points on 7-of-8 free-throw shooting plus 12 rebounds for a PIR of 24.
Mike James was CSKA's only player with a PIR above 10 on the night and he gave credit to Olympiacos’s play, too: "We got punked. We got hit in the mouth and we didn't respond and we just kept on getting hit," James said. "They outhustled us, outrebounded us, shared the ball better, played more as a team and we turned the ball over way too much starting with me."
The analysis was universal. Olympiacos wanted it more and fought harder. And at the final buzzer, the Reds had 10 wins, which is one less than the team in seventh place, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul. Going forward, Olympiacos may still need to make roster adjustments now that Spanoulios is out long-term. However, if Papanikolaou and co. are able to reproduce the levels of hustle they showed on Thursday, a playoff run could be in the cards and a team like that is one that no other wants to face in April.