Two teams that finished the regular season trending in opposite directions, Olympiacos Piraeus and Anadolu Efes Istanbul, now face each other in the playoffs for the second time in four years in a series starting on Wednesday, April 19.
Of pace and points
Two great teams; two very different styles. This is what this series offers fans. On the one hand, Olympiacos had the best defense in the EuroLeague this season. The Reds held opponents to the lowest performance index rating (75.7 per game), fewest assists (14.6 apg.), lowest two-point accuracy (46.7%) and second-fewest points (74.2 per game), while collecting to most rebounds (37.1 rpg.) in the league. Olympiacos stands out so mush in these areas for two reasons; it is a truly outstanding defensive team and it also plays at a slower pace, which limits possessions for both teams. Efes finished the regular season among the top three offenses in the league. It led the league in offensive rebounding (12.7 orpg.) and was third in average index (93.8), scoring (84.0 ppg.), steals (tied, 7.1 spg.), blocks (tied, 3.3 bpg.). Olympiacos stands out so mush in these areas for two reasons; it is a truly outstanding offensive team and it also plays at a faster pace, thanks to many fast break and transition opportunities as a result of its defense. The stories the numbers tell reveal that both teams excel at both ends, but primarily when the pace of the game is to their liking. And that is not just an issue of point guards pushing the action, but also of big man controlling the paint and rebounding. Take note: when Olympiacos held opponents below 70 points this season, it went 10-1. When the opponent scored at least 80 points, its record was 2-8. On the other hand, when Efes failed to score at least 80 points this season, its record was 3-6. And when it scored at least 90, it was 8-1.
A fresh new start
With the exception of the fact that Olympiacos finished the regular season with a better record than Efes and thus enjoys the home-court advantage in the playoffs, nothing else that happened until this point really matters as the playoffs represent a fresh new start. That is true unless the teams recent momentum carries over. No playoff team had a worse record than Olympiacos(1-4) over the last five games of the regular season and Efes was 4-0 until it ran into a red-hot Jaycee Carroll in the fourth-quarter of its regular season finale in Madrid. The concern for the Reds is its slippage on defense; though Coach Sfairopoulos’s charges held teams to the lowest performance index rating in the league all season, over their last three games Olympiacos allowed its opponents to accumulate the third-highest index rating in the league. In their defense, those games were against the top three offenses in the league (Real Madrid, Efes and CSKA Moscow). We will soon see if the Reds’ rough finish was a factor of a tough schedule coming when the team had little to play for, or if high-powered offenses have unlocked the secret to defying the Olympiacos defense.
Point guard greatness
This series features two of the top assist men in competition history! Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos is ranked second on the EuroLeague’s all-time charts in assists – and first among active players – with 1,108. Thomas Heurtel, who enters the series in ninth place with 790 career dimes – and could conceivably be sixth (currently Nikos Zisis of Brose Bamberg with 809) by the time the series ends, is the career leader in assists per game with 5.6. The two share many traits, which could make them key figures in the series. Both like to have the ball in their hands, but can also serve as scorers in two-point guard lineups. Both look to set up their teammates, but are never afraid to shoot when open. And because of their respective scoring abilities, it is risky to ever double team either of them. In their head-to-head meeting so far this season, Spanoulis shined with averages of 14 points and 9.5 assists, while Heurtel posted 18 points, 5 assists and 2 steals in Efes’cRound 29 victory, but had 3 points and 4 assists in its Round 2 loss. Of course the backcourt matchups will not revolve solely around these two; Vangelis Mantzaris and Erick Green will play big roles for the Reds as will Jayson Granger, Brandon Paul and Dogus Balbay for Efes, but the tried and true assist men will feature prominently.
Four years ago…
The new era of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague ensures that all the top teams face each other every season. That’s nothing new for Olympiacos and Efes. These teams have met in six consecutive seasons, but never more – nor did the games ever matter more – than in the 2012-13 campaign. In that season, the teams met seven times – twice in the regular season and five times in the playoffs – and the home team won each and every game. Olympiacos used great defense in the opening two games alongside a great offensive night from Georgios Printezis in the opener (26 points) and Vassilis Spanoulis in Game 2 (15 points, 8 assists) to take a 2-0 series lead. Jamon Gordon flirted with a triple-double (13 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists) as Efes stayed alive with a Game 3 victory and then tipped in the game-winner with 2 seconds left in Game 4 to even the series. The deciding contest was at Peace and Friendship Stadium, where Spanoulis led Olympiacos back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to claim an 82-72 victory and a spot in the Final Four in London, where the Reds would successfully defend their EuroLeague crown. Three current Olympiacos players featured prominently in that series: Spanoulis (10.4 ppg., 6.6 apg.), Printezis (13.6 ppg.) and Kostas Papanikolaou (6.8 ppg., 5.2 rpg.). And a fourth, Vangelis Mantzaris, was with the team, but sidelined due to injury. For Efes, only Dogus Balbay, who appeared briefly in Game 5, remains from that series.
Familiar faces in the paint
No player has stronger ties to both teams in this series than Efes big man Bryant Dunston, who debuted in the EuroLeague with Olympiacos in 2013-14. He went on to play two seasons for the Reds and helped the team reach the 2015 EuroLeague Championship Game. Dunston made a name for himself with Olympiacos and was named EuroLeague Best Defender after each of his seasons there. In that period, he played under Coach Giannis Sfairopoulos, and was a teammate of six current Olympiacos players: Vassilis Spanoulis, Ioannis Papapetrou, Georgios Printezis, Vangelis Mantzaris, Dimitrios Agravanis and Matt Lojeski. On the other hand, there are two Olympiacos big men who know a thing or two about Efes; both Patric Young and Khem Birch arrived in Piraeus after successful stints to begin their European careers in Turkey. Young played for Galatasaray Istanbul in 2014-15 and Birch led Muratbey Usak Sportif to the Turkish League playoffs last season.