The SEF was a morgue on Friday night but Emmet Ryan went along to pay his respects. A dead rubber for Olympiacos, with no playoffs and doubts over what the rest of their season holds abounding, it was eerie in the home of a team that never looked like it would be in this situation
The stands of the Peace and Friendship Stadium were largley empty for the final Euroleague night of the year. The previous evening, as Rick Pitino started his press conference following Panathinaikos punching their ticket to the playoffs, the Reds were still alive. By the time he finished up, Zalgiris had beaten Real Madrid to eliminate Olympiacos and render this game meaningless. The anthem still range out but the gap between the fans and the court here, a quirk from its original design as a multipurpose arena, was even more obvious with the stands largely empty. A few dozen hardy souls at the far end of the stadium were on their feet cheering, oddly reminisicent of Benfica. The colours were right and the numbers, oddly, were too. Pavilion 1, the home of the Eagles, only seats about 1,800.
Darussafaka were here again so that meant we should be in for some fun. The Turkish club is terrible, having gutted its budget right as it was stepping up in class, but it opted to go with a format that while awful for getting Ws has proven decent fare for the casual viewer. Dacka, who I was oddly catching for the second time in person this season, have gone big on youth. While their starting line-up is import heavy, the club gives heavy minutes to its home grown ballers that you just don’t see with the Istanbul powerhouses of Fenerbahce and Efes. In defence of the other two, their approach has them both with home court in the playoffs while Dacka are likely to never grace Euroleague again, this was their final run in the big show albeit in front of a crowd of maybe 2,000 at best irrespective of the fomal number present.
Simply the best, even for a few bars, really seemed to not read the room as Nikola Milutinov made a short range jumper. In spite of the absolutely horrific collapse by his side, the big man’s stock has risen this year. He looks like the guy the San Antonio Spurs want but, well, you drop 7 out of 9 games in the run-in and that’s how you go from possible home court contender to out of the playoffs and playing out a funeral procession to close the season. Milutinov, to his credit, had largely logged good outings in that vile run but there were far too many days where everything else went wrong. The epitome of the collapse was at Gran Canaria, where an already eliminated club just whuppeed them, but dropping a home game to Zalgiris a week ago was the real dagger in the heart. It was the first time all year that their fate was removed from the control of Oly and one round was all it took.
Mid quarter, Oly led 14-13, Dacka clearly cared more but the few dozen standing were still singing.
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Dacka hanging with a deeper and frankly better team has been pretty normal this season, irrespective of the stakes. They tend to last until the middle of the third before things get wildly out of hand. The energy of their younger guys supplements the few pieces they have that belong at this level to run with opponents until they just can’t. Given the mood of the home side tonight however there was a good chance that would be enough. A 7-0 run felt like an explosion for Darussafaka, as they sought to end their season on a positive note. After 10 minutes the visitors led 20-28.
The guys in black with green trim wanted this run out, nobody in candystripes did and that was the difference. The talent on the Oly roster is obvious, that it was so unbalanced took far too long to work out. Gonna Fly Now played to open the second quarter and, really, the PA just had not thought things through for this one. Normally, there was a chance for the Reds to find a way out of trouble, even if it would come up short, but here they were playing a game they had to with nothing to gain.
There was energy on the Dacka bench, when you’re used to losing a lot any chance at a win can spark joy. Heck, I played on our fifth string side with my hurling club that went two full years without a win. When we were finally in a game we realised we could win, we got awfully excited and focused. We won it, hammered them in fact. Dacka were up 11 within a couple of minutes of the restart and looked capable of doing the same.
The home fans got a bit of life into them, hoping to transfer it to the drudgery below them on the floor. It was hard not to sympathise with the players all the same, there’s been no shortage of drama for Oly this year and they may well have already played their last meaningful game of basketball at any level this season depending on how thing shake out. The rally worked for a while and Dacka’s own execution floundered a bit to make this one tight again.
The dancers, much like the loud lads standing, were still treating this like it mattered and that they weren’t performing before a sea of cream seats. Just shy of three months ago they were performing while this side embarassed Pitino’s side, winning the derby in commanding fashion before a full house. That left the Greens in a big hole and the Reds had no worries. They were 5th, with a 10-6 record, and the question was whether Efes could hold them off in the race for home court. Now, as half-time neared, Zach Leday made this a coin-flip game from the line with 9th their best possible finish while their arch rivals were off to the post-season. An Axel Toupane lay-up at the buzzer made it 45-44 to the hosts.
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In round 24, when that record had dropped to 12-12, nobody was really worried. Oly weren’t going to get home court but they had the right run-in and the teams chasing them looked far more likely to run out of gas as did a couple of those above them. It turned out to be justified with Milano but the rest of the pack had far more in the tank than it appeared. Oly, well they’d lost 5 straight but that ended quickly with a win over Buducnost and their heads seemed fine.
Milutinov got a bit of a cheer early in the third for a nicely worked score. Those lads were still standing, still celebrating every score, and singing their boys home. Briante Weber was running around excited, he’d given his all a week early in a tremendous display that was for nought. The lead in this one was growing quickly, Kostas Papanikolau made it a 10 point gap from the line. It looked like Dacka would have their standard drop in energy once more. Kartal Ozmizrak made a step back fadeaway to bring some life back but the Reds were getting more done. Their hearts were not in it but they were there to get a job done even if they just wanted to get to the final horn.
Vangelis Mantzaris stalked Ozmizrak as he went up the floor, as much for the Greek to force himself into committing to the task. Michael Eric didn’t need it, the Dacka big was pissed about a call and let the refs know how he felt as he stumbled into press row. Weber spilled into his own bench chasing a loose ball, almmost trying to one up his countryman.
“The past is a prison you just can’t break free,” rang out an awful dance remix of You give love a bad name. It was at least an apt choice of lyrics for this game considering what had come before. Web kept running but repeated stoppages made the wait to the end even more interminable. K-Pap went from deep and normal service had resumed.
This one was over on the scoreboard in short order. Oly got their sets together, closed down a tiring Dacka team on D, and kept this one ticking over. Olympiacos led 75-56 with 10 minutes left in their season.
A week ago, Oly had only managed 68 points in 40 minutes. Weber dropped 26 of those, a Herculean effort alongside 18 from Milutinov but the bodies around them couldn’t step up. Facing a Zalgiris side that was long dead a month earlier, they wilted in the face of a confident Kaunas club. Too little from Axel Toupane, K-Pap, and even Georgios Printezis when the Reds needed them most. An anonymous outing from the bench star Mantzaris. With all of them faltering, they lost control and wouldn’t play another relevant possession this year.
The fans rose again in song having dulled for most of the half, only to get drowned out by the PA on a Printezis three. The lead was up to 24 and Oly could at least feel safe in securing a .500 record. Dacka had gone to a full Turkish line-up by now, anchored by Euro ball cult hero Oguz Savas. Every time an Oly player sat, they got applauded as they left a Euroleague floor for the last time that season.
The lead was nearly 30 by the middle of the fourth. It was an offensive explosion in a vacuum. So many were racking up good numbers tonight for no reason. It’s a job, you do it as well as you can. Tonight, without really breaking a sweat, they were more than efficient. The kid got a run finally, Alexsej Pokusevski from Serbia is a gangly kid near 7 foot and rail thin but he’s got people talking about him making the jump in the first round once he’s eligible. He has it all ahead of him, the present still preys on the minds of those around him.
Olympiacos won 99-74.
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