Peace and Friendship Stadium, time running out. Olympiacos Piraeus is trailing by 3 points and has one last possession to score a triple and force overtime. But miracles seem to happen on a regular basis in this arena and the Reds once again pulled level with an incredible off-balance shot from way beyond the arc by Vassilis Spanou…oh, wait, hold on. For once, no it wasn't Spanoulis who was responsible for pulling out a piece of magic to turn defeat into victory. This time, it was Kostas Papanikolaou.
With Spanoulis restricted to just 11 minutes – one of the lowest tallies of his career – and staying on the bench during the final stages as Olympiacos attempted to come back against KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz on Tuesday night, Papanikolaou was ready to step into the leadership role and take responsibility for his team's fate by tying the game with just 3 seconds remaining.
He had been doing the same all night, finishing up with no less than 6 triples for a career-high 22 points in addition to 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocked shots. In a game that even after overtime was decided by 4 points, Papanikolaou lifted his team to outscore the visitors by 15 points in the 36 minutes he played.
After the game, Coach David Blatt hailed his game-winning hero and expressed his happiness that somebody other than Spanoulis was capable of stepping up at the hour of need: "You can't expect always the same person to make the same play," he said. "It's too easy to prepare for that, too predictable. The shot that Kostas made was exceptional, but I also felt his attitude and his fight made the difference in the game, not just that one shot. Everyone remembers one shot, but that's not always the most important thing, especially in that kind of game when you have to fight back."
However, Blatt was also eager to emphasize that doesn't mean we should expect to continue seeing Spanoulis inactive during the crucial final stages, explaining: "We didn't plan on playing Billy for only 11 minutes, it was a decision I took during the game. They were playing line-ups which required us to have more size defensively... I've coached some very great players in my career, and he is truly one of the greatest. But if I feel I need to sit him or anyone else down in order to win the game, that's what I'll do. But that's something you won't see a lot, I can guarantee you that."
So Papanikolaou perhaps won't receive too many more chances to play the role of the clutch game-winning hero in the near future. But he made the very most of this opportunity and Olympiacos fans won't forget it in a hurry.