Zalgiris Kaunas: Can the Lithuanians advance to the playoffs?
With the club doing its best to climb higher on the table and fight for the last spot in the playoffs, the loss to Fenerbahce at home (67-76) was a step-back for Zalgiris (10-14 record), decreasing their possibilities to overcome Darussafaka (12-12), Baskonia (13-11) and Anadolu Efes (13-11) in the standings.
With six games remaining until the end of the regular season, are the Lithuanians able to turn things around?
After a disappointing start to the season (five losses in the first six matches), Zalgiris started enhancing their performance and claiming victories.
However, a series of two or three wins was always interrupted by a painful defeat, which was certainly making the team’s effort to reverse the situation more difficult.
Fast forward to today, the squad entered the match against Fenerbahce having won four of their last five matches and things would be even better if the Lithuanians managed to beat the Turks.
However, they came up short in the end and now have to prevail over all six of their remaining opponents in order to retain their chances to qualify to the playoffs.
That said, the question now is whether they are capable of doing this.
I think the answer is yes. Coach, and Euroleague legend, Sarunas Jasikevicius has created a team that fights tooth and nail for the victory, even though the club is not consisted of many talented players.
Based on their impressive team spirit, the players do their best in every game and manage to cover their weaknesses, especially inside the paint.
What has been obvious since the beginning of the season is that the duo of Augusto Lima and Robertas Javtokas can’t be dominant above the rim, while center Antanas Kavaliauskas can’t make the difference, both defensively and offensively.
Consequently, the players are forced to take a calculated risk and let their opponents shoot many three-pointers in order to avoid conceding mid-range shots and easy lay-ups.
So far, this plan has been successful and has enabled Zalgiris to play very good defence (having one of the best defensive lines in the entire league) and grab many rebounds as well (fifth in the respective category, with 34.33 boards per game).
Concurrently, they commit many fouls as well (on top of the respective category, with 23.71 per game), which shows their willingness to not let their opponents score easy baskets.
On the other end of the floor, what we have seen is Paulius Jankunas’ impressive performance so far (averaging 13.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as well as 44.7% from beyond the arc), which has made him a reference point in Jasikevicius’ tactics.
At the same time, Leo Vestermann (8.1 points and 5.2 assists per game) and Kevin Pangos (8.5 points, three assists per game, 44% in three-pointers) execute many plays as well, trying to make the squad’s back-court line stronger.
The team, though, doesn’t score so many points (78.13 ppg) and, as a result, they focus on playing excellent defence so as to improve their chances to win the game.
The Lithuanians should definitely raise their energy levels and concentration in order not only to make fewer turnovers (fourth in the entire league, with 14.38), but also to make more steals (averaging only 4.92 per game).
That said, if the squad makes the necessary changes in their tactics in the remaining six games, then they will still be able to fight until the end for the qualification to the playoffs.
Because, in the end, the team has made a great effort to turn things around (having made great performances against better and more talented teams, like CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Panathinaikos Superfoods and Fenerbahce), as they look ready to make the surprise.
Starting with their match against Panathinaikos Superfoods at home on Thursday night, and two weeks before their “do or die” game against Anadolu Efes in Kaunas, which will determine whether they will secure the last spot in the playoffs, Zalgiris should speed up in order to overcome their opponents.