What makes a sports team successful?
First, of course, you need good players. You won't get very far without talent. Then there has to be good coaching; somebody to guide the players along a coherent collective path, allowing them to play to their strengths while hiding their weaknesses. And another requirement, we should admit, is a bit of luck…although good teams often seem to have a habit of creating their own.
That's simple enough, isn't it? Teams are successful when they have good players, are well coached and enjoy some fortune. Case closed.
Well, no. Because throughout the sporting world there are, always have been, and always will be, hundreds of teams which play well for a while, but then somehow, for no particularly identifiable reason, lose their way and start suffering loss after loss. Or, conversely, a team might stumble through a prolonged slump in form but then, mysteriously, suddenly, start winning every week.
Panathinaikos OPAP Athens is currently an example of the latter.
Just a few weeks ago, it looked like the Greens' EuroLeague season was already effectively over. Following an 85-66 loss at Fenerbahce in Round 22, Panathinaikos had a sorry-looking 9-13 record, sat in the 12th position in the standings and was two wins short of a place in the top half. The playoffs looked, to put it mildly, a long, long way away.
Then, though, Panathinaikos suddenly started winning. First, a high-scoring home victory over Khimki Moscow Region. Then a road triumph at Herbalife Gran Canaria (ending a four-month barren run away from home). Then another away win, this time at Darussafaka Tekfen Istanbul.
All of a sudden, the Greens were looking like a different team as they headed into Moscow for a Round 26 meeting with mighty CSKA – and, even if you are only a vaguely-interested follower of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, you already know exactly how that game panned out; Nick Calathes banked in a game-winning deep three-pointer on the final buzzer.
Four wins from four games. Then five out of five with a home win over direct rival KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and last week, finally, a convincing road victory over another playoff candidate, AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan.
In the space of a month, we have seen Panathinaikos become utterly transformed, from virtual no-hopers to serious title candidates, now knowing that only one more win is required to march into the playoffs on a tide of positivity and momentum.
How did it happen? Well, that's the tricky part. Pitino's men started scoring more points at one end while offering greater resistance at the other. That much is obvious. But why? It's not easy to say because this roster, which has just strung together six consecutive victories, is the same group of players which, a few weeks earlier, was getting thumped by 14 points by Olympiacos, 11 points by Barcelona and 13 points by Zalgiris, failing to reach 70 points along the way. What explains the change in form and fortunes?
The players becoming more familiar with the demands and expectations of Coach Pitino's system is part of the answer, but it is not the whole answer to explain such a sudden and drastic change. And in truth, nobody really knows exactly what happened – even Pitino or his players – because the incredible turnaround is significantly explained by…something.
That something is often called chemistry, at other times confidence, or self-belief, or momentum. Whichever description you prefer, it is a magical, mystical and frustratingly elusive quality, refusing to be pegged down or clearly defined. The special something that turns a losing team into a winning team when it is present or a winning team into a losing team when it disappears.
For much of this season, that "special something" was only conspicuous by its absence at Panathinaikos. The Greens just looked like (whatever that might mean) a failing team.
Now, though, they have very much got it. Last week's victory at Milan, in particular, saw Pitino's men very much look like a group of players who knew exactly what they wanted to do and how they were going to do it. The same group of players, led by the same coach, who a few weeks ago could hardly do a thing right are now hardly doing a thing wrong because they have found their confidence, the chemistry is right, the momentum is on their side…they have got that special something.
Now, Panathinaikos can only hope the magical ingredient hangs around as long as possible, maybe even all the way to the Final Four in Vitoria-Gasteiz.
On the other side of the same coin, Thursday's opponent, Real Madrid, must be starting to fear that their "special something" is in danger of disappearing with last week's EuroLeague defeat at Baskonia being immediately followed by a weekend loss in the Spanish ACB league against archrival Barcelona.
There are extenuating circumstances: Madrid has already qualified for the playoffs with home-court advantage secured, so it can afford to take things easy and recharge batteries ahead of the bigger battles that lie in wait. At this time of the season, a couple of losses here and there won't necessarily matter.
The danger for Los Blancos, however, is that – in direct contrast to Panathinaikos – that "special something" which makes a team successful might just disappear and then refuse to come back. Winning breeds more winning, and losing breeds more losing. Defeat in Athens on Thursday night would be a third successive loss for Pablo Laso's men and – even for a club with such talent and self-belief as the reigning champs – that kind of negative sequence can be dangerously destabilizing.
Expect, then, an almighty battle when these two sides go head to head on Thursday night. Panathinaikos wants to keep that special something; Madrid needs to make sure it doesn't desert it. And the resulting collision will be heard around the continent.