Through four games, no team has been better this season than Zalgiris Kaunas, which leads the EuroLeague with a 4-0 record after defeating Anadolu Efes Istanbul, the team with the best record in the 2019-20 EuroLeague season, 89-73 in its home opener. Zalgiris has overcome the odds for its fine start. After all, the team has a head coach who is new to the EuroLeague and started the season with three straight road games.
How impressive has Zalgiris been so far? No less a figure than Efes Coach Ergin Ataman said after the game: "I saw a Zalgiris team that really played perfect… Zalgiris is the best team that I saw in the first four games."
Many of the same factors that lifted Zalgiris past Efes are the same that have made the team so impressive in its earlier wins at Olympiacos Piraeus, Khimki Moscow Region and Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade. The team plays tough and with great energy and the players and coaches believe in one another.
The first part of the plan for this game was to start strong: "The start of the game and the start of the second half were extremely important for us. Efes has played extremely strong in the first quarters, so we had to be sharp there," Coach Martin Schiller said afterward. Zalgiris led 25-16 after 10 minutes. Check.
The second part was to take away Efes's offensive strengths, as Nigel Hayes, Zalgiris's leading scorer on the night with 17 points, explained: "The coaches did a great job of keying in on specific plays, the way the guys like to play and what they look for. We did a great job of not allowing [Vasilije] Micic primarily as the main ball-handler, to drive and create. He can score and pass, play defense, So we wanted to limit his ability to get everyone involved in that helped us a lot."
Micic, a former Zalgiris player and an All-EuroLeague guard in 2018-19, was held to just 7 points and 3 assists. Check.
The energy Zalgiris played with was not from a simple rah-rah speech Schiller made before the game. It was a calculated use of players and rotations. To limit Micic, he relied on three players: Thomas Walkup, Lukas Lekavicus and Rokas Jokubaitis. "It was important to put three bodies on him to give different, how should I say it, energy. Like three guys kind of sharing the duty on the defensive end was very important," the coach detailed. Check.
The last of those three players is still a teenager who has already played more minutes this season in four games than in either of his first two seasons with Zalgiris's senior squad. Moreover, Jokubaitis is not a player who was known for his defensive prowess heretofore. That has changed and Schiller explained why. "[He has good physical attributes. He's strong, he's pretty tall and he's fast. So he brings a lot with him to be able to defend good offensive players. That gives me the confidence that we can have him on those matchups."
The coaching staff getting a young player to buy into the team concept and become a factor at both ends while playing against one of the best guards in the EuroLeague? Check.
Finally, the Zalgiris players have been working hard and together: "The guys work really well. They are really focused in practice," Schiller added. "They are extremely capable of doing the things that we ask them to do. By putting those things together and then getting a win and then getting a second one, then the confidence rises in what they are doing. And if you add all those things up, you give yourself a chance to compete in these games against these good teams and get some wins."
If we add all these things up, we find a Zalgiris team that is first in the standings and is causing teams across the continent to take notice.