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
READ: Part 3 - Zalgiris have a real chance at making their first ever Final Four
READ: Part 4 - Facing the mighty CSKA Moscow, Khimki are really up against it
READ: Part 5 - Even without Sergio Llull, Real Madrid sustained a high level
Runners up in two of the last three Euroleague seasons, Olympiacos seek to go one better this time out. Thus far, in the 30 games of the new-style EuroLeague regular season, they have again been on the second tier. Finishing the regular season in a three-way tie for third with Real Madrid and Panathinaikos, their 19-11 record was still a clear five games behind the leaders.
However, Olympiakos have beaten the clear-cut best team, CSKA Moscow, and ran them close in a four-point loss during their second meeting, when Evangelos Mantzaris was absent. They also did the double over Real as well as second seed Fenerbahce (one of which was by 25 points), and have thus beaten everyone they have played. (Apart from Barcelona, who will not be advancing.)
This speaks to a streakiness that has defined the team's season. Four wins in a row was followed by two losses, itself followed by five wins in a row (and seven out of eight). They then dropped four out of six, won another five in a row, then limped to the barn down the stretch of the regular season, losing four out of their last five. There have also been some significant blown leads in those streaks. Their metrics reflect this streakiness - of the 16 teams on the EuroLeague season, Olympiacos rank second last in offensive rating at 110.5 (ahead of only the 110.3 of a disappointing Anadolu Efes team, easily the league's worst team at 7-23), yet they rank best in defensive rating at 108.9.
They do, however, have an identity. At a time when almost every other EuroLeague team is adopting the NBA's pace-and-space influence, Olympiakos have rather constructed an older school post-and-grind team, built around one of the EuroLeague's oldest and finest elder statesmen - Vassilis Spanoulis.
This season, Spanoulis ranks fourth in the league in assists per game with 5.6, and passed Dimitris Diamantidis to become the overall assists leader in the competition's history. His 1,266 and counting lead Diamantidis's 1,255; with third-place Milos Teodosic (1,126) finally in the NBA, with fourth-placed Thomas Heurtel's (1,001) Barcelona team crashing up disappointingly early, with fifth-placed Theo Papaloukas retired and with sixth-placed Sergio Llull (902) having missed the entire season to date with a torn knee ligament, the lead is unassailable for a while and will only grow bigger in these playoffs. And this is not to mention Spanoulis's scoring - his 3,661 points scored rank second only to La Bamba Juan Carlos Navarro (4,152), who like Huertel will not be in the postseason. Third-placed Felipe Reyes (2,859) is a long way behind.
Everything offensively for Olympiakos still revolves around Spanoulis. Indeed, the fact that this is true has been a part of the offensive problems - there has been little reliable guard play, both in terms of scoring from the outside or in creating opportunities for the cutters and interior finishers. Despite his NBA pedigree, Brian Roberts has been something of a disappointment this season, aggressive hunting his shot but barely cracking 40% from the field, and yet he has had a large role to play on account of his solid outside shot, something the team has lacked overall.
Shooting 33.4% from three-point range on the EuroLeague season as a unit is worrisome, and hinders the Spanoulis-drive/Giorgios Printezis-everywhere style they otherwise seek to play. Mantzaris, never a great shooter, has hit only 25.0% from three-point range despite it being the vast majority of his own scoring game, while Spanoulis himself, also always more of a volume shooter than an efficient one, has hit only 31.7% from there. Slowing down and seemingly lacking for stamina at times now, Spanoulis is still excellent, but Olympiacos's reliance upon him to have to fashion so much out of the halfcourt is not helping anybody.
Help was supposed to be on the way, but has not been. In addition to the up-and-down play of Roberts, Bobby Brown, brought in late in the season to do his usual thing of confidently shooting outside shots off the dribble without defending anybody, has thus far gone 1-15 from downtown. The forward pairing of Hollis Thompson and Ioannis Papapetrou are both also under 30% from out there, and thus Roberts's 42% becomes important. So too does Kyle Wiltjer's 40%+ stroke from the bigger positions - on a team with bad spacing, they need to be able to run four-out line-ups, if not five-out, and Wiltjer gives them that possibility if he is given enough minutes to contribute.
This lack of spacing also has given a bigger role than may have been expected for veteran Latvian guard Janis Strelnieks. In his first season with the Reds after three years in Germany with Bamberg, Strelnieks has been playing the role not only of off-ball shooter, but also on-ball jump shot creator. His step-backs have often been play-savers, and while his impact has been a bit variable due to his undersized nature and lack of support, his shotmaking abilities combined with his speed and floater have bailed the team out on many occasions. If he was more aggressive offensively, it seems unlikely that anyone would object - as the only bail-out player on the perimeter other than Spanoulis, he has a potentially big role to play in these playoffs.
What Olympiacos do have is an excellent team defence. Although not a shotblocker - no one on the team is, really - Jamel McLean's strength combines with good positional awareness to make him a presence on both ends in the post, including defensively. Papapetrou and his younger quicker mimic Kostas Papanikolaou have good length and rotate both inside and out, able to contest anybody, while for all his struggles making any impact offensively, Thompson does the same on the wing. A season-long vulnerability to opposing stretch forwards could be offset by the return from injury of Kim Tillie, who has the physical profile to compete there, as may Wiltjer. Mantzaris has the bulldog-like mentality to chase and bump whoever he needs to chase on that end, be they a big guard or a speedster, and despite falling out of the NBA in part because of his own lack of commitment to defence, Roberts's speed is refreshing in the EuroLeague, and he has been a better defender here.
In particular, Milutinov does an excellent job of tracking guards and defending switches considering his size. The crux of the defence, Milutinov can track the perimeter, defend the interior, and stay with anybody trying to go from one to the other. He can score with tremendous efficiency in the post, too, and is an excellent offensive rebounder. Yet his main value to the team right now lies in being the anchor on whom everyone else can rely.
And of course, alongside Milutinov is the great Printezis. The ultimate opportunist, Printezis is somewhat impossible to defend given his combination of mobility, broad shoulders, skill on the ball and tremendous nous for knowing where to be. Seemingly always open, Printezis picks and pops, slips, and is the best power forward in the competition. He has been for a while.
Despite having 15 senior players when fully healthy, Olympiacos have not been deep all season. All too often, players come in for a few minutes and yet leave without having done much, particularly offensively. This is not a team that ever really runs the ball, as there are few other than Tillie and Roberts who can. They thus have to rely a lot on the halfcourt offence, and the halfcourt offence bogs down.
If Dimitrios Agravanis (through this supposed stretch potential he is yet to realise in any meaningful way) or Gorgios Bogris (in that float-around-the-paint, pick-and-roll, post-turnaround finesse style of his) could step up and contribute offensively in some way, that would help too. Alas, they have thus far served only to meet quotas. The offensive game still relies heavily upon Spanoulis - as good as Printezis is, he needs someone to get him the ball first.
Still, the defence is pretty stifling. Defence wins championships, the mantra has always said, and Olympiakos has the best one in the competition. They do not force turnovers or have much highlight rim protection, but they rebound the ball well and are, as a unit, constantly in the way. They are annoying. And a good defence is supposed to be annoying. Physical, committed, disciplined and defying a wider orthodoxy, Olympiacos can play zone or man to mask individual defensive deficiencies, and match up with any opponent. No team has or will ever enjoy playing them this season.
If they can make enough shots, they can win this thing.