At 10-6 and in the playoff slots through mid-season, Zalgiris are easily the surprise package of the Euroleague campaign so far. On Friday they face a Unicaja team in a game that has massive implications for the rest of the year, writes Emmet Ryan
The pursuit of Sarunas Jasikevicius has evolved from desire to unyielding lust. With the mid-season GM survey seeing four sides list him as the best coach in Euroleague, not the best prospect but the best overall, the inevitable third annual Saras sweepstakes took a step up.
The folks in Kaunas know it and they’ve singled, with a relatively under the radar move, that this is the year they are flat out going for it. You don’t sign Beno Udrih if you are a team like Zalgiris unless you really want to go all in. He’s not a headline making big money name but he is the type of guy that points to the Lithuanian club being keen to go all out to make at least a playoff run this year and possibly do an awful lot more.
Udrih, who won two NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs, spent a solid 13 years in the association as a guy that was good enough for teams to sign but not enough to keep when a good trade option came up. Beno bounced around from the Spurs to the Kings, to the Bucks, then the Magic, Knicks, Grizzlies, Heat, and finally the Pistons before Saras brought him back to Europe after Detroit waived him.
At 35, Udrih’s best days are behind him but Saras doesn’t need the young version of Udrih. He needs another veteran brain on the bench that is used to having to deal with unfancied situations and finding ways to win. He needs a guy he knows he can put in for 10 to 15 minutes a night against anyone and not disappoint. He needs a warm body with skills, a brain, and an ability to make those around him better. Udrih’s not a sexy signing but he is a sign that Zalgiris are going to do as much as they can within their limited resources this year.
In a straight financial battle with any club not named Crvena Zvezda, Zalgiris are hopelessly outmatched in Euroleague. If they try to build a roster like the more affluent clubs they will lose. Why on earth would you take that approach? The Kaunas club knows it and Saras, despite losing some big pieces in the off-season, has managed to build his side around young local talent and smart imports that fit the game he wants to play.
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This is not conventional top tier basketball. Kevin Pangos and Vasilije Micic are succeeding in spite of the pair combining for over 5 turnovers a game because they also dropping 9.8 assists a game between them . The only real contribution Arturas Milaknis makes is shooting but he’s shooting really well. Edgaras Ulanovas is an awful rapper but is proving ridiculously efficient as a scorer. Admittedly being awful at rapping is quite conventional in basketball. All that and Paulius Jankunas is just having a killer season in near every department.
So far it’s led to an interesting run. The 10-6 tells part of the story, the +2 scoring differential points to another. With 3 of their 6 losses coming by 10 points or more, and 2 by over 20, there have been a few nights this season where Zalgiris have been simply unable to get everything to click. Save for their 32 shellacking of Milano, the bulk of the Kaunas club’s Ws have been tight affairs. None of their other 9 wins have been by double digits and 3 of them were within a single score.
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Saras has built a side that knows how to run with its opponents, to stay competitive and keep smart. It’s a team that puts the pressure, more often than not, on the opponent and finds a way to close it out. Don’t mistake this team for gamblers. Just like the Udrih signing, the way this team finishes games is about cold headed common sense. The win over Fenerbahce in Istanbul was sealed on a Milaknis three, and Saras was furious. There was still time on the clock and it wasn’t the shot he wanted. There is room for flair in this side, a necessity with youngsters, but the plan must be executed and tightly in the dying moments.
Which brings us to this Friday night and a sold out Zalgirio Arena. Having dropped a game in Belgrade last week, the need to get back to winning ways against those teams circling the final playoff spots is obvious.
Unicaja Malaga may have more money than the Kaunas club but they play with a similar underdog mentality. Joan Plaza saw his side split both the regular season and Top 16 rounds of Eurocup last season (5-5 and 3-3) before grinding out a victory in the playoffs to secure this club’s spot in Euroleague. Having looked like they might be amongst the early fallers in the playoff race, the Malaga club has managed to restore some order of late.
A run of 4 straight wins, including road victories at Barcelona and Maccabi, brought them back into contention and only a loss last week against Valencia prevented them from returning to a .500 record going into this round.
A club with the mindset and current standing of Malaga is a huge threat. They don’t bring any airs and graces to Kaunas, they aren’t desperate either, but they know how big a win here could be going forward. A win here and they can reclaim the tiebreaker over Zalgiris along with cutting the gap between the sides to two games.
At 10-5, Zalgiris looked comfortable but 10-7 would suddenly make the path to 16 wins look a whole lot harder. That’s what’s likely to be required to make the playoffs. 11-6 would be another scenario entirely. It would give the near perennial LKL champions some breathing room and a chance to make a serious push for home court advantage in the post-season.
One game against a 7-9 club and a whole bunch of answers potentially in store. It’s just another day at the office for Saras.
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