Can the Greens do without home-court advantage?
This is the sixth consecutive season the six-time Euroleague champions have qualified for the playoffs, and in those six seasons they have done it with five different coaches. In each of the past four campaigns, Panathinaikos has had a different head coach lead the team in the playoffs. Zeljko Obradovic coached the Greens to their sixth title in 2011, and made a Final Four appearance the following year after beating Maccabi Tel Aviv in a memorable five-game series. Since then, Panathinaikos has not have home-court advantage in the playoffs, and has not returned to the Final Four. After Obradovic stepped down, Argiris Pedoulakis took over and led Panathinaikos into the playoffs, where they lost in another five-game classic series against FC Barcelona. In 2014, Fragiskos Alvertis was the interim head coach that got Panathinaikos into the playoffs, only to lose in five games against CSKA Moscow. The same opponent, CSKA, ousted Panathinaikos last year in four games when Dusko Ivanovic led the team. This year it is Sasha Djordjevic, and he will try to overcome what no other Panathinaikos coach has done before him – make the Final four without the home-court advantage in the playoffs. He and his players are 5-7 on the road this season.
The Elliot Williams effect
In seven games in Top 16 since his arrival, the Greens went 5-2 after posting a 10-7 record prior to that. The Greens then had a 3-5 mark on the road and since Williams’s arrival Panathinaikos has won two more road games. The entire Panathinaikos offense started to evolve a lot around Williams, who on average takes 10.1 field goal attempts and 5.7 free throws per game. He ended the Top 16 as Panathinaikos’s leading scorer (14.4 ppg.), and despite playing in only seven Top 16 games, he made more free throws (37 of 40) than all but one of his teammates and attempted more two-point shots (29 of 58) than all but three other Panathinaikos players (Nick Calathes, Miroslav Raduljica and James Gist) had over the course of the 14 games. More importantly, he scored the game-winning or game-sealing baskets in three of the four wins that paved Panathinaikos’s road into the playoffs. In a 76-71 win against Fenerbahce, Williams sealed the game with 4 points in the final minute. He also scored 6 points in a game-sealing 10-0 run to beat Lokomotiv 84-79. Even in the 69-67 road loss against Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade, Williams led Panathinaikos’s fourth-quarter rally and with 15 second-half points sent the game into a thrilling finish. He outdid himself against Darussafaka, when he hit a game-tying triple with 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter, then grabbed a decisive defensive rebound and hit a pair of game-winning free throws with 2.2 seconds to go, at the time improving Panathinaikos to 8-4 and bringing it within one win from the playoffs.
Coaches with winning pedigree
The heads of benches at Laboral Kutxa Vitoria Gasteiz and Panathinaikos Athens are former Euroleague champions as players and teammates on the Yugoslav national team that won the gold medal at the 1991 Eurobasket. The 49-year old Sasha Djordjevic is in his first season with Panathinaikos, as he returned to the bench of a Euroleague a decade after he coached EA7 Milan in three regular season games during the 2005-06 campaign. With only 27 Euroleague games under his belt, he has the least Euroleague coaching experience among the coaches in this year’s playoffs. However, even if he lacks minutes spent on the bench, Djordjevic makes it up for that with the experience he gained and great leadership he displayed during a great playing career. He led Partizan Belgrade from his native Serbia to the 1992 Euroleague title, and as a player won three Korac Cups, three Eurobasket golds, a World Championship gold, and an Olympic Games silver medal. Perasovic is two years older and in his seventh Euroleague season. This is his second stint with Baskonia, the team he guided to the Euroleague Final Four in 2006 with a playoffs win over Panathinaikos, and also helped lead it during a Final Four run the year after before stepping down for health reasons. Perasovic coached Valencia Basket to the 2014 Eurocup title, and like Djordjevic, his playing career was nothing short of impressive, and his collection of trophies includes winning three consecutive Euroleague titles with Jugoplastika Split of his native Croatia from 1989 to 1991.
Perasovic’s history against Panathinaikos
When this series tips off, it will be exactly 10 years since one of Laboral’s greatest playoff wins, one that has the signature of head coach Velimir Perasovic all over it. Perasovic was on the sidelines in his first stint with the club back in April 2006. Panathinaikos, led by Coach Zeljko Obradovic, took Game 1 on its home floor, 84-72, behind 15 points from Mike Batiste, but the then-called Tau Ceramica Vitoria responded with an 85-79 win at Fernando Buesa Arena in Game 2 as Travis Hansen netted 21, Luis Scola had 20 and Tiago Splitter 17 points. In the deciding Game 3 (the playoffs in those years were best of three), in front of a packed Olympic Sports Center Athens, Perasovic and his men came out as 71-74 victors led by 24 points in 25 minutes from Serkan Erdogan. To this date, it is the only time in the Euroleague that the Greens have lost a playoff series in which they held the home-court advantage.
Good defenses, different tools
No team in the Top 16 had a better defense, in terms of holding opponents to low shooting percentages than Laboral Kutxa. Over 14 games, Laboral held opponents in Group F to a league-low 48.4% on two-point attempts and only 34.2% for three-points. Laboral also allowed the second-lowest true shooting percentage (45.3%). The latter two numbers are that more impressive knowing Laboral played the opposition that featured three highest scoring offenses and the best three-point shooting teams in the competition – CSKA Moscow, Khimki Moscow Region and Real Madrid. While Laboral has held opponents to low shooting percentages and 76.8 points per game, Panathinaikos troubled its opposition by forcing turnovers, especially during the final 10 games in the Top 16, a span during which the Greens went 8-2. In the first four games in the Top 16, the Greens forced a combined 50 turnovers (12.5 average) and were 1-3. In the final 10 games before the playoffs, Panathinaikos forced 16.2 turnovers on average and registered eight wins. During that streak in February and March, Panathinaikos forced 22 turnovers in a road loss over Crvena Zvezda, 19 turnovers in a road win over Darussafaka, and 18 apiece in road wins at Unicaja Malaga and Cedevita Zagreb. In one of its most dominant defensive quarters of the season, a home win against Cedevita, Panathinaikos forced 10 turnovers and allowed only 5 points in first quarter alone. Forcing turnovers helped a great deal for the Panathinaikos defense to finish the Top 16 allowing the second fewest points per contest (73.4 ppg.).
Home court in Fernando Buesa
Laboral Kutxa has traditionally been good at home, but this season team is tied for the second-best home record in the competition with 11 wins and only one loss, against Olympiacos Piraeus in Top 16 Round 2. Laboral has won six straight at home since then. Its home wins this campaign included two overtimes (against Olympiacos Piraeus and Anadolu Efes Istanbul during the regular season), six wins of 10 or more points - including a 36-point blowout of Limoges CSP and 26-point win over Brose Baskets Bamberg. Then there was the most memorable of them all, the classic against the defending champ Real Madrid. It was first time ever that Laboral hosted Madrid in a Euroleague game, and Coach Velimir Perasovic’s men came back from a 15-point second-quarter deficit (and 10-point halftime deficit) to edge the visitors 89-88 on a Davis Bertans triple with 2.3 seconds left. During the Top 16, Laboral at home scored 82.8 points, making 9.6 triples per game at 40.9% accuracy, compared to 75.7 points and 7.9 three-pointers on a mere 29.7% accuracy on the road. The team’s top scorer and rebounder, Ioannis Bourousis, also loves to play in Fernando Buesa Arena, where he has an average performance index rating of 27.4 this season with a double-double average of 17.9 points and 10.7 rebounds. Away from home he posted 11.8 points plus 7.8 rebounds on an index rating of 17.1.