Two proud teams in the bottom half of the standings aim to stay in touch with the top half when Zalgiris (3-5) hosts Panathinaikos (4-4) in the very first game of an action-packed double-round week on Tuesday. Panathinaikos dominates their series this century, having won 16 of the 22 games, however Zalgiris has prevailed in four of the last five and only lost the fifth one by a point in Athens. Panathinaikos, on the other hand, actually owns the better record between them in Kaunas, 6-5.
The Panathinaikos bench
After a 105-106 double-overtime home loss to undermanned ALBA Berlin last week, Panathinaikos let go of head coach Argyris Pedoulakis. Going into this double-round week, assistant Giorgios Vovoras is slated to coach the Greens. He has been on Panathinaikos bench since 2016 as an assistant, but was there from 2012 to 2014, as well, and helped the Greens win Greek League titles in 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Back at you
Zalgiris guard Lukas Lekavicius spent the last two seasons as an apprentice to Panathinaikos superstar Nick Calathes as his backup point guard with the Greens. Lekavicius returned home this summer to Zalgiris, where he had played his first three EuroLeague seasons. He has been more effective coming off the bench than in his three starts so far, but there is little doubt that Jasikevicius will rely on Lekavicius to apply some of what he learned in hundreds of practices against Calathes to help Zalgiris on Tuesday.
Panathinaikos small forward DeShaun Thomas is where his Zalgiris counterpart, Nigel Hayes, wants to be soon. Though only three years older, Thomas is in his sixth EuroLeague season, and his best yet, putting up 14.4 points for the Greens. Hayes is getting the lay of the land as a EuroLeague rookie, but earning more than 25 minutes per night from coach Sarunas Jasikevicius is a sign of his potential. In games like this one, such potential is earned, as Thomas knows, but the veteran will plan to use all his hard-won experience to show his younger opponent how it's done.
Keys to victory: Zalgiris
Zalgiris would like to improve in almost all offensive metrics, but the key to all that is what Panathinaikos does much better: assists. From better passing comes better shots, higher percentages and more points. Zalgiris's top four passers average just 10.8 assists as compared the 9.3 by Calathes alone on Panathinaikos. The defense on him, but also those Zalgiris passers creating better for their teammates, is essential for the hosts. Zalgiris needs to be careful of the fifth-ranked Panathinaikos shot-bockers, too, while working overtime to protect the rim itself, because the visitors are the best EuroLeague team at making two-point shots.
Keys to victory: Panathinaikos
Panathinaikos may lead the EuroLeague in performance index rating, but three one-point defeats have brought change to the bench because its defense couldn't do the job. The Greens, who give up a league-high 13.1 offensive rebounds, must find a way to finish defensive possessions better on Tuesday, especially since Zalgiris grabs the second-most of any team, 11.9 per game. The hosts are masters at drawing fouls, getting to the foul line and making free throws, too. Extra possessions and free throws win close games, and with more of both, Panathinaikos could be 7-1.