EuroLeague Playoff Previews: Zalgiris have a real chance at making their first ever Final Four

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Continuing our series of EuroLeague playoff previews here at GiveMeSport.

READ:  Part 1 - CSKA Moscow are as dominant as they have ever been.
READ:  Part 2 - Panathinaikos have ridden their great point guard to the playoffs

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As religious of a pastime as basketball is in Lithuania, and as much of a legacy and pedigree as Zalgiris Kaunas carry as a EuroLeague team, they nevertheless enter this year's playoffs with relative inexperience.

As one of the 11 A License holders, Zalgiris have featured in each of the 18 Euroleague seasons to date, but have yet to make a Final Four. Making the round of 16 for seven consecutive seasons between 2009 and 2016, they never got any further than that, and did not even get beyond the first round last season. Nevertheless, despite the change in format for this season, Zalgiris put in a strong regular season to an 18-12 record, a record they rode to the sixth overall seed and a match-up against Greek powerhouse Olympiacos.

Only one player of theirs, however, has any EuroLeague playoff experience - backup point guard Vasilije Micic, who played three games and 38 minutes with Crvena Zvezda in the 2016 playoffs, as they were swept by the ever-dominant CSKA Moscow. In contrast, nine Olympiacos players have played a combined 179 EuroLeague postseason games, and one (legendary lead guard Vassilis Spanoulis) has three Finals MVP awards on his own.

Zalgiris will be hoping, then, that relative experience is not the same as naivety.

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Just like their opponent, Zalgiris are led offensively by their point guard, Kevin Pangos, Always probing, Pangos's guile on the ball and in finding both passing and driving angles form the foundation of team, a team he leads in both scoring (12.4ppg) and assists (6.2apg, third in the competition). A creative passer, Pangos is also an excellent shooter himself (48.5% three-point shooting), and has emerged as a true EuroLeague-calibre lead guard over his two seasons with the team, particularly this year.

The team are consciously built around the point guard spot, and Pangos's backup Micic features heavily. Not the shooter that Pangos is, Micic nevertheless is also an excellent playmaker out of the pick-and-roll, and, having wound down his NBA career, veteran Beno Udrih is around to provide plenty of know-how and big-game savvy as the third stringer. It works, too - Zalgiris ranked second best in the regular season in true shooting percentage, and would have ranked even higher in offensive efficiency had they not also committed the most turnovers (their team turnover percentage of 16.3% ranked more than a full point higher than second placed Olympiacos at 15.1%). Micic ic particularly guilty here, yet all the guards can be prone to going rogue, and the margins are too tight to get away with shooting themselves in the foot in this way going forward.

Feeding off of all of that ball handling thouugh is Paulius Jankunas, the team's second leading scorer at 12.1 points per game and leading rebounder at 4.8 per game. [Despite leading the competition in rebounding percentage at 52.9%, it was very much a group effort to do so.] Jankunas's pick-and-pop connection with the guards, and with Pangos in particular, is the foundation of a halfcourt offence that still relies upon old school ideals. A big-time lefty mid-range shooter who rarely steps out further than that, Jankunas has little to no explosion around the basket or on the rim-run - rather, he uses movement, guile and touch to get open, creating space with his footwork and aggressively hunting those mid-range looks that define his game. His pick-and-pop game with Pangos on the left side is predictable, but predictable does not make it defendable, and head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius goes to this well several times a game.

Beyond this, Zalgiris do not have the budget to pursue the big names and phenomenal depth that some of their rivals do. With the smallest budget in the competition, Zalgiris instead rely as ever on some home grown talent, specifically finding it in the form of Arturas Milaknis (streaky veteran wing shooter who struggles with athletes defensively who makes sure to only do that one thing offensively, thus making it hard to do much else wrong), Edgaras Ulanovas (fairly athletic 6'7 forward with a good wingspan whose combination of defensive flexibility, lefty flip-shot thing, transition running and occasional jumper with ugly form make for a combo forward on both ends) and Antanas Kavaliauskas (6'10 offensive-minded centre who is neither fast nor explosive yet who uses endless pick-and-roll slips, post touches and paint catches to score around the basket via a bevy of fakes and hooks). It is true that their nationality helps the candidacy of all three players, who carry no reputation outside of their own country, yet all three are legitimate EuroLeague producers.

They also feature the import big man combination of former NBA draft pick Aaron White and former NBA player Brandon Davies. Davies fulfils much the same as Kavaliauskas, but offers more athletic ability and wingspan to the package, and thus is even more productive as a scorer per minute (8.4 points in 15.6 minutes per game) without being quite as poor rebounder Kavaliauskas is (although 3.2 rebounds per game is still not great). A good passer and occasional driver, Davies can also play on occasion further away from the basket, albeit not as much as White, a stretch four with some athleticism and an eternal desire to run the court. A lob threat, paint finisher and occasional pick-and-pop player, the energetic White will try to dunk on anyone, and has the athleticism to do so, athleticism he also uses to be a good cutter, rebounder and deflector of the ball defensively. Arguably, his ability to space the floor from the frontcourt 

This Zalgiris team can score the ball, and in bunches. In addition to ranking second in true shooting percentage and fifth in offensive efficiency, they also rank sixth for pace, and were only 0.3% off of matching the regular season three-point shooting mark of the mighty CSKA Moscow (42.7% compared to 42.4%). Pangos's furious shooting leads the team in that category, and Milaknis (46.8%) is not far behind, the two combining for 131 of the team's 211 total three-point makes. Yet even if those two dominate the volume of outside shots, Zalgiris can offer shooting at every position outside of the two-headed centre pairing of Kavaliauskas and Davies. It all starts with the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop plays, but the spacing is there, even if the volume of it is not.

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The limitations, then, come defensively. Of the eight teams to have qualified for these playoffs, Zalgiris ranked last in defensive rating, and by quite some way - while their seven peers all rank between 108.9 and 112.6, Zalgiris trail the pack at 114.7, as close to last as first. They have very little rim protection - all of Davies, Kavaliauskas, Jankunas and White would rather take the charge than the block - and although Axel Toupane offers athleticism and defence on the wing (plus a lot of turnovers), there is not much in the way of length and athleticism on that end on the roster overall. The determination and discipline is mostly there, and individuals such as Ulanovas have their moments, but Zalgiris go into this postseason with their defence as a relative weakness.

Had there been the money there for one other frontcourt signing, a signing like Real Madrid pulled off back in November when bringing in Walter Tavares back in November, Zalgiris could have perhaps made some real noise to cap off a good all-around season. But they are disciplined, and stayed within their means. For this reason, it will be an uphill battle against an Olympiakos team  that thrive within the very paint area that Zalgiris struggle to defend.

However, while the five-game series format does discourage the upset, sufficiently hot shooting does make it possible. Having beaten Olympiacos in both of their regular season matchups - including by a point in week 30 to seal the postseason matchup between the two, led by the  - Zalgiris must feel pretty confident about their ability to best their opponent. And as ever, good luck to Spanoulis trying to limit all these opposing ball handlers.

The potential to finally make the Final Four is there. Laisvė, vienybė, gerovė.

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