It was never going to be easy but Panathinaikos really went all out on drama in the Euroleague regular season, leaving themselves with a must win game in the final round to decide their fate. Then Nick Calathes decided this, of all nights, was the one to end Euroleague’s greatest drought. Emmet Ryan was in the Oaka
It was calm, really calm. The OAKA is a place associated with madness, noise, intimidation, not the relaxing sound of Memory Lane by Keppra and Stackhash. It was 45 minutes until tip in an awfully important regular season game and the fans were dripping in casually. The banners were still going up for all the fan groups, including Petralona 1994’s tricolour. Oddly there’s not actual connection between the club and Ireland, well not the one you would think, despite a few apocrpyhal tales, and the shamrock along with the green colours date back to a link with Chalkidona who had the shamrock as their symbol. The connection that is tight is with the lone Irish born player in NBA history. Pat Burke was on the side that won Euroleague in Thessaloniki in 2000.
Panathinaikos shouldn’t have been in this situation, twice over in fact. They should have been done and out of playoff contention but then won 6 on the bounce through February and March to control their destiny. Victory over a weakend Real Madrid side would get the job done no bother in the penultimate round of the season. So, the Greens came out and took a commanding lead to make the game look over before it had a chance to get interesting. Real came back, right back, caused a few scares, but at the death it looked ok. Until Los Blancos got possession down 2 with 21.5 seconds left. Facundo Campazzo ran about as awful a possession as he possibly could, got the ball to Rudy Fernandez who was swamped before finally being left one on one with Deshaun Thomas, with the American guarding him perfectly. Rudy put up an ugly piece of hot garbage with 0.1 seconds on the clock as it left his hand. It went in, Real won, so Panathinaikos needed one more win.
But it’s only Buducnost right? That was not the vibe around here pre game as the stands filled up fast. This was a survival game and even one against a side with the second worst record in the league, 6-23, which had far bigger matters to worry about in the Adriatic League playoffs was going to carry a bit of tension. The top deck had plenty of space in it but this place was nervous. Mr Green held his arms aloft in triumph to get the house going before grabbing the club flag for the intros. Lots of tensuon, plenty of fans on their feet, and a clear win or stay home situation. Then that beautiful anthem.
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The resurrection project, probably Rick Pitino’s biggest achievement in his short time in Athens, was unlucky to miss a short notice alley oop early. Georgios Papagiannis washed out of the NBA and wasn’t looking like a whole lot in Europe until Pitino arrived to take over from Xavi Pascual mid-season. Through that comeback run, Papagiannis has been scoring, getting boards, and just looking comfortable as a basketball player. Pitino is noted for getting his guys to be the best version of themselves but Papagiannis stands out amongst the many he has helped, particularly given how little time he’s worked with the young big man.
The confidence in the stands was tempered. The pace was slow, that was fine, but Buducnost looked far from intimidated. While never competitive, the Podgorica club had made a habit of taking scalps this season and this was their last chance for a big one or indeed any.
Mid first, Nick Calathes from deep and the crowd pauses mid song to cheer. Next comes the first call they dislike, and the whistles rain down briefly. The confidence from young Goga Bitadze was obvious, the Adriatic League MVP and soon to be NBA draft pick, scored 6 points, including a three, and picked up a couple of boards in his first stint on the floor.
After a brief rest he was back out to make an open dunk and battle with Papagiannis. While things got crowded inside, Keith Langford made one from deep. Like Papagiannis, he’s seeing a lot more of the floor lately having laregly been an afterthought for much of the season. The well-travelled American had an extraordinary season two years ago with Unics Kazan, averaging over 8 fouls drawn per game well over 2 ahead of anyone else. Our Sweet 16 podcast ended up naming an award for it, the Golden Langford, for the best in Euroleague at it.
A James Gist three made the lead 8 and the fans got loud, the confidence was there now. They could see their men ready to strike. Just like that, Buducnost reeled them in to get it back to one possession. After 10 minutes, it was tight, 23-21.
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Calathes is predictable and that’s a problem for opponents. They know he’s going to drive along the line and put up a floater, they know he’ll offload a pass like it’s a hand-off by a quarterback, and they know he’s going to pull up when he wants. They just don’t know what to do about it because over-committing to the obvious always leaves Calathes with a heap of options he’s made for himself in a single step. He plays a game that looks high risk, and his turnover numbers have never been great nor his reliability from the outside, but it’s calculated. His flaws don’t get in the way of him being able to do an awful lot with his strengths.
This season’s version of Panathinaikos was squarely built around him. For a long time, that wasn’t enough at this level. Then it was and he’s been a floor general rather than a one-man army. He was finding options a plenty in the second quarter but the Podgorica club wasn’t going away. Even as the Greens increased their intensity on D, Buducnost found opportunities, a steal here, and offensive board there, and they were right in touch.
Gradually, the only way it really could work, PAO were able to reduce the chances for Buducnost and force the visitors to gamble more. Gist inside put the lead back to 8 with 2 minutes to play in the half, the reaction this time was not as relieved. The crowd knew to wait. Deshaun Thomas made it double digits from deep, now they were confident and happy to whistle every time a visiting player touched the ball. At the buzzer Sean Kilpatrick struck, now the crowd was happy. PAO led 49-36.
It was all quite polite to start the third. A three from Thomas had the crowd nice and happy, Goga and Papagiannis was battling well, and the game had largely settled. Meanwhile all sorts of nonsense was happening elsewhere in Europe. CSKA Moscow had come back to beat Baskonia, Milano managed to once more snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and Zalgiris had just tipped off with Madrid. Papagiannis hung on the rim for a dunk while calculators were burned across the continent trying to work out exactly what it all meant. PAO were safe, they were in win and they’re in territory, but there were 64 possible outcomes to decide which 3 of 6 teams would take the final playoff spots.
Milano were gone, a big shock considering how they had started the season but they dug their own grave. Baskonia looked like they were now in trouble but it turned out they were not so they were in. PAO, well up 15 against the second worst team in the competition they were fine.
The whistles weren’t even coming to chasten the refs for calls that benefitted Buducnost. This one was in control and, in all too rare circumstances this season, Panathinaikos fans could relax. They were going to land somewhere between 6th and 8th, they had no idea where, and they were fine with that. Mr Green conducted them gently during a timeout mid-quarter as they largely ignored the aerobic class style dance routine going on behind him.
There was then a bit of a rally from the visitors, cutting nicely into the deficit and giving Panathinaikos something to think about. Pitino knew this crowd was in no mood for another tight one after last week. He called in the troops to get their act together and close this one. Like the needle mark on my arm from the flu shot I got before Christmas, Buducnost wouldn’t entirely go away. With 10 minutes to play, it was still looking good for Panathinaikos but their lead was back to 66-56.
Calathes secured his double-double in short order upon the restart. He’d been dishing for fun, matching his season high of 14 by the end of the third. Nobody has come closer than him to ending the lengthy triple double drought in Euroleague in recent seasons. Since 1991, there have been 6, and only 2 in the modern era of Euroleague. Both of those were by Nikola Vujčić of Maccabi Tel Aviv, the last coming in the 2006-07 season. Calathes has been within a rebound of hitting the trip-dub before but he wasn’t getting the boards to flirt with it in this game.
Until he totally did with 4 boards inside of the first 4 minutes of the fourth quarter. The drought was over and he’d set a season high of assists along the way. If PAO were going to make the playoffs, a first playoff series for Pitino in 30 years no less, then it was going to be by his hand. He had picked the perfect night and whatever fight was left in Buducnost was gone. Panathinaikos didn’t hammer the advantage home but they were fine. Sean Kilpatrick landed one from deep to give something else to cheer before Calathes got a standing ovation as he left the floor for the final time on the night. 11 points, 11 rebounds, 18 assists, 4 more than his prior season high in dimes and a new career high.
Victory for Panathinaikos 87-67, a 7th in 8 games, a 16-14 record, and a place in the playoffs. Who it was against? Just the same Real Madrid side they faced at the same stage last season.
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