Past greatness and future potential clashed at the end of the opening-night showdown between Olympiacos Piraeus and Zalgiris Kaunas on Thursday at Peace and Friendship Stadium. Ultimately, it was the youthful Rokas Jokubaitis out-dueling a player twice his age – the legendary Vassilis Spanoulis – and getting Zalgiris the narrow victory.
Olympiacos was clinging to a one-point lead when Marius Grigonis of Zalgiris missed a shot in the waning seconds. The 19-year-old Jokubaitis took the rebound right under the basket and was fouled by the 38-year-old Spanoulis to earn 2 free throws with 3.5 seconds left. After a timeout, Jokubaitis calmly knocked down both and Zalgiris left Greece with a 67-68 win.
Jokubaitis showed all game long why his age is less of an issue than his 23 games worth of EuroLeague experience already.
"I think he had a very impactful game," said new Zalgiris head coach Martin Schiller, who is just six months older than Spanoulis and was making his EuroLeague debut.
Jokubaitis showed his stuff right away in the first quarter. Entering after Zalgiris fell behind 8-2, he soon stole and raced downcourt for a fastbreak basket. After a three-pointer, Jokubaitis made a nice hesitation move and exploded to the rim for 7 points in a 2-15 run that put Zalgiris ahead 12-18.
Following two quiet middle quarters in which Olympiacos built a 58-47 advantage, Jokubaitis showed up again with 5 minutes left in the fourth and Zalgiris behind 62-57. He assisted Joffrey Lauvergne to make it 62-60 and then saw his shot blocked by Aaron Harrison, but retained possession. Far from intimidated, he immediately drove past Harrison and then fended off shot-blocker Hassan Martin for an and-one three-point play to keep Zalgiris close, 64-63. Spanoulis followed with his own spectacular three-point play, but Thomas Walkup matched that with one shot. Both Jokubaitis and Spanoulis missed threes after that, as did Kostas Sloukas for Olympiacos. That left the game needing someone to decide it down the stretch. That someone was the youngest player on the court, Jokubaitis, with his heady offensive rebound after a miss by Grigonis that would likely have lost the game for Zalgiris.
Jokubaitis finished with career highs of 12 points and 15 PIR to go with 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal in less than 16 minutes of playing time.
"It's an amazing feeling this comeback win," Jokubaitis said afterwards. "Amazing emotions."