Making their first trip to the Euroleague Final Four since winning it all in 1999, the pressure is off Zalgiris Kaunas. That’s exactly why everyone should be terrified of them, writes Emmet Ryan
Let me tell you something about the opponent today. It’s got more money, it’s faster, stronger, more experienced, and, on paper, it’s just plain better. Now let me tell you what the opponent doesn’t know, Zalgiris Kaunas is the embodiment of the Deal With It meme and it’s bringing it back like it’s as culturally relevant as Fortnite.
Every team on the docket for Zalgiris this season for Euroleague was richer, save for Crvena Zvezda. Every one of those teams was in far better position to retain its best players season to season and ensure continuity. Zalgiris may be from one of, if not the, most basketball mad cities in Europe but it’s simply not equipped to contend on this level.
That’s the narrative we all bought because it frankly made too much sense not to. Even when it reached the point that Zalgiris looked safe to make the playoffs, the doubt remained. When you are that outmatched in terms of resources, it’s hard to put that much faith in sheer will and intelligence.
Yet, here we are. Sarunas Jasikevicius hasn’t been a full-time head coach for even three seasons and he’s completely upsetting the natural order. He’s been able to survive the gutting of his roster in consecutive seasons to get better every year. Saras has gone from being linked to every open job to still being linked but people considering him staying in Kaunas for a long time increasingly plausible.
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Why on Earth would he leave when he can turn a roster working on pennies compared to the three sides he is staring down in Belgrade into bona fide contenders. The Lithuanian club may be the outsiders going into this weekend but everybody thinks their shot is plausible. After you survive a 30 game regular season and look flat-out dominant in a 3-1 series win over a good Olympiacos side, the least you have earn is for the world at large to give you a shot in single-elimination ball.
This is an immensely watchable team. The core part in terms of aesthetics is the link-up play between Kevin Pangos and Brandon Davies. That’s the obvious connection that just plain works for them. Around this, Jasikevicius has built a group that knows its roles even those who aren’t role-players.
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There’s a touch of the gambler in the way Zalgiris play yet the numbers actually reflect some safety behind their game. Outside from Baskonia, who romped home in both their clashes with Zalgiris, nobody was ever able to shake the Kaunas club with a big surge. They stay in games despite the visible look of a high-risk side yet that really is just aesthetics. It’s mitigated risk that Saras rolls out here, where in phases his team will go a bit to the edge of safety but they know how to reel it back in and get back to basics.
It’s those phases that will have the three titans thinking hard about what to expect from Zalgiris. The 2-4 record against Final Four opponents this season isn’t fantastic nor does it spell doom. Zalgiris went to Istanbul and got a win over their semi-final opponents Fenerbahce.
It was the ability to keep their heads that saw them win the day. That mental edge is vital with players like Edgaraz Ulanovas, who is reliable but occasionally has off days. When there’s a Paulius Jankunas on the floor to get a player out of sorts to still deliver something, Zalgiris is in position to remain competitive.
Nobody on this Zalgiris roster is just happy to be in Belgrade. They know that the lack of expectation around them gives them the best shot at pulling one mother of an upset this weekend. Let Fenerbahce worry about the difficulty in going back-to-back, let Real or CSKA carry the weight of expectation on Sunday if it comes to that.
Zalgiris looks at convention and cackles wildly while finding ways to mess with the heads of opponents. These guys are going to show up. They just need to know when it’s the right time to bet big.
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