Zalgiris learned to love triples in downing Baskonia

Dec 16, 2020 by Print
Zalgiris learned to love triples in downing Baskonia

Not unlike in recent seasons under a different head coach, Zalgiris Kaunas came into Tuesday night's home game against TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz with an unusual paradox: it ranked second in three-point accuracy at 40.9% and yet launched fewer of those shots than all but one other Turkish Airlines EuroLeague team through 13 games.

This was not new, either. In the last full EuroLeague season, 2018-19, Zalgiris ranked sixth in three-point accuracy, at 38.1%, but dead last in attempts, just 16.6 per game. The season before that, 2017-18, it was first in making threes, at 42.1%, and last at trying them, with just 16.5 attempts.

There was no such shyness on Tuesday as Zalgiris buried 18 of 26 triples, or 69.2%, in blasting to a 92-73 victory to end a five-game home losing streak. Only once previously in its 429 EuroLeague games this century had Zalgiris made more than 14 triples, last January when 19 dropped in a road loss to Anadol Efes Istanbul. And only once, almost 20 years ago, in a 13-for-18 performance for 72.2% on December 21, 2000, had the team's shooters been more accurate from deep. Tuesday's 18 triples were the most by any EuroLeague team this season and those 19 back in January were the most in the last one.

Why so reluctant to use a weapon that the team excels at? Well, one reason might be that its percentages are high precisely because Zalgiris is so selective when choosing three-pointers.

"We shoot the three very, very well. We don't shoot a lot, though," new head coach Martin Schiller said after Tuesday's game. "I'd like to shoot more, generally speaking, but again, they have to be good shots."

Schiller had a unique way of describing what produces good three-point looks.

"The goal is to get an advantage and get the pumpkin moving," he said. "If you get it moving, the [three-point] percentages go up."

It was clear on Tuesday that the pumpkin is safe in the hands of many Zalgiris shooters. All eight players who attempted three-pointers on Tuesday made at least one. Even little-used forward Karolis Lukosiunas climbed off the bench late and nailed 2 of 2. The onslaught was led by veteran sharpshooter Arturas Milaknis, who made 5 of 7 after having gone 2 for 17 in his previous six games. He missed his first one on Tuesday, as well, but soon hit his second try.

"If he doesn't shoot an open shot, then that's a problem because that's what he does," Schiller said of Milaknis. "I was never, ever worried about him making shots. It's all about getting a good shot and then pulling the trigger. All of Lithuania smiled for a second because everyone was wishing for him to see the ball go through the hoop. That guy is like one of the best shooters on the continent. He sees it go through once, and boom, it continues."

Indeed, Milaknis ranks ninth all-time in the EuroLeague with 386 career three-pointers made. Among the top 25 players in that ranking, he has the fifth-best career accuracy, 42.2%. That's less of the case with another veteran, Paulius Jankunas, who made his first triple after 11 misses this season on Tuesday, but Schiller wants him to shoot more threes, too.

"Every time he shoots a three, I feel confident," Schiller said of Jankunas. "I get mad with him if he doesn't shoot it and he's open."

Schiller's confidence extends even to big man Augustine Rubit, who didn't try any threes on Tuesday and is 0-for-4 this season, but made almost 44.1% in 34 tries from that distance in previous EuroLeague stops at Brose Bamberg and Olympiacos Piraeus.

"He's not a bad three-point shooter," Schiller explained. "He just likes the long two more than the three. If he were five years younger, I would force him to shoot threes, because he's pretty good at it and you get a point more for your shot. Having said that, for me, it's OK if he steps out and shoots a three here and there."

It would seem that Zalgiris's days of long-range shooting shyness might be over.