Olympiacos Piraeus headed into Friday night’s game at Zenit Petersburg with one of the best defenses in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, allowing just 70.8 points per night. And more than that, the Reds – famed for their destructive defense for several years – also led the competition in holding opponents to the lowest conversion rate from both two-point (48.4%) and three-point (27.2%) range.
With Zenit also primarily known as a defense-first team, it appeared pretty clear that Friday’s encounter at Sibur Arena would prove to be a hard-nosed, down and dirty battle where points would be at a premium and every possession would be fiercely contested.
So around 45 minutes after the opening tip, there was a great deal of collective surprise when the halftime scoreline read 49-43, with both teams defying all pre-game expectations by nearly reaching a half-century in scoring before the break.
With chastising words from both coaches ringing in the ears of the players as they headed back out of the locker rooms for the restart, normal service was initially resumed in the second half. Zenit particularly struggled against Olympiacos’s much-improved defense, scoring only 9 points in the third quarter while also committing 7 turnovers in that period.
But Zenit regained its rhythm – and then some – in the final quarter, piling on another 26 points which were eventually more than enough to seal its third straight victory and improve to 6-3 with an 84-78 decision.
By the end of the game, Zenit had converted 22 of its 34 two-point attempts (64.7%) and 10 of 25 three-pointers (40%), both figures around 15% higher than the shooting stats usually mustered against Olympiacos’s defense. And it was a team effort: no Zenit player scored more than Conner Frankamp’s 16, which all came in the first half, while all 10 players who played more than 2 minutes scored and eight different players had multiple field goal conversions.
The secret for that success, according to Zenit’s players after the game, was in the preparation.
“We did a really good job in the practices,” said Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who had his second consecutive double-digit scoring performance with 12 points. “The way we’re practicing is unbelievable. That’s why we were ready, and the coaches did a great job in preparing us for this game.”
Billy Baron, who scored 14 points, echoed those sentiments as he commented: “We had some good practices leading up [to this game]. We had a really good pace about ourselves, and the guys are coming into a nice little rhythm…we had a good strategy coming into the game.”
The fact that both Kuzminskas and Baron made those glowing comments without being prompted – neither had been specifically asked about the way they prepared for the game – suggests they were totally sincere and speaks of a locker room that has full confidence in the methods of Coach Xavi Pascual and his assistants.
For sure, Zenit has every right to be feeling good about itself. With three straight wins and a 6-3 record, the team is building on last season’s playoff position and looking like a formidable force again. And ahead of a two-round week where it stays at home - meaning less travel and more time for those productive practice sessions – we can expect Pascual’s team to keep on getting better.