With their fifth straight win and eighth in the last 10 games, Zalgiris Kaunas have been Euroleague’s pleasant surprise so far (fourth place, 10-5 record), with coach Sarunas Jasikevicius having done an excellent job.
The Lithuanians were considered one of the underdogs in the start of the season, playing mediocre in the first five games and claiming just two victories, however they have been unstoppable since then.
In their last 10 matches, Zalgiris have lost twice only (to Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Baskonia, respectively), while the win over Olympiacos on Thursday night at the “Zalgirio Arena” (74-68) was the fifth consecutive one for the club, which now is fourth in the standings.
Having prevailed over some of the favourites to go all the way to the end (like Panathinaikos, defending champions Fenerbahce and Olympiacos), Jasikevicius and his players look ready to continue that way and fight tooth and nail for the home-court advantage in the playoffs.
That said, what are the reasons behind the team’s transformation in the last 45 days?
Jasikevicius has created a deep and talented squad, with plenty of players able to step up and make the difference in every game.
The 42-year-old coach has made his players play for one another and that’s one of the keys for the side’s excellent performance so far.
As there is not an undisputed leader in the team, every member of the roster should be at his very best in every game and offer decent solutions on both ends of the floor.
Kevin Pangos and Paulius Jankunas have been unstoppable so far. The Canadian guard ended the 2016/17 season averaging 8.7 points and 3.2 assists per game, however he has played at much higher standards this year.
With 12.1 points, 5.6 assists and 50% in three-pointers in 27 minutes of action, the impressive combo guard has been tremendous.
Against some of the league’s top competitors, like Olympiacos (14 points, seven assists), Fenerbahce (22 points, seven assists) and Panathinaikos (12 points, 11 assists), Pangos showed he has rapidly improved and there is no doubt he will become the team’s number one “weapon”, if he continues that way.
Concerning Jankunas, the Lithuanian power forward has been consistent in every game so far and his great pick’n’roll ability lets him score easy points and be a game changer.
Thanks to his versatile playing style (13.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 58.6% in two-pointers and 36.4% from beyond the arc), the talented forward has become a reference point in coach Jasikevicius’ tactics, both defensively and offensively.
For his part, Arturas Milaknis comes off the bench to change the momentum with his extraordinary three-point percentage.
Averaging 8.4 points, 57.9% in two-pointers and 45.2% in three-pointers, Milaknis has exploded this season and his presence is vital for the squad’s decent performance, especially offensively.
The supporting cast and the addition of Beno Udrih
Apart from the aforementioned three players, Zalgiris’ bench consists of versatile players that can offer decent solutions and be productive, both defensively and offensively.
Vasilije Micic is a combo guard that can easily score points and dish assists (7.6 ppg, 4.6 apg), playing alongside Pangos and creating a decent duo with the Canadian guard.
Brandon Davies (eight points per game, 63.9% in two-pointers) is very effective inside the paint and as a rim protector, with Antanas Kavaliauskas as his backup (5.3 ppg, 60.4% in two-pointers).
Concurrently, Aaron White (8,5 ppg, 54.1% in two-pointers, 44.4% from beyond the arc) comes off the bench as Jankunas’ replacement and manages to offer Jasikevicius another ace on both ends of the floor, thanks to his all-around playing style.
Edgaras Ulanovas has been consistent and plays better year after year (from 5.4 points in the 2014/2015 season to 8.3 points this season), while Axel Tupane is a versatile forward that can do many things on the floor.
Last but not least, the acquisition of two-time NBA Champion Beno Udrih will make the back-court line even stronger, thanks to the Slovenian’s talent and experience, yet coach Jasikevicius should ensure Udrih’s embodiment to the rotation will not affect the squad’s chemistry.
The great shooting percentage and the changes the team should make defensively
Coach Jasikevicius has done such an excellent job that Zalgiris are among the top clubs in most categories.
More specifically, the Lithuanians are seventh in the index rating (88.47), fourth in points (81.13 per game), eighth in total rebounds (33.4), seventh in defensive boards (23.6) and third in the assists (19.47 per game), which shows their great ball movement.
At the same time, most of the roster’s players have a decent shooting percentage, either from mid-range or beyond the arc, which is reflected in the team’s overall percentage.
The Lithuanian side is fourth in two-point percentage (54.13%) and second in three-pointers (42.75%) and total shooting percentage (52.96%), respectively.
The aforementioned numbers prove Jasikevicius’ excellent job in terms of the team’s plays and offensive strategy, which enables the Lithuanians to create many open shots both from beyond the arc and mid-range.
On the other hand, there are some aspects of the game in which the staff and players should work harder.
For instance, the side is on top of the turnovers category, with 13.13 per game, which shows the players’ lack of concentration during the game.
This number also affects their assist/turnover ratio, which plays a significant role in the team’s performance during the game. So, the fewer turnovers the squad will make (7th place, 148.22%, 292 assists for 197 turnovers), the better will be for Zalgiris in their effort to be victorious.
Coach Jasikevicius should work more on improving the team’s defensive performance, with Zalgiris conceding 80.1 points per game.
Given the low number of steals (5.4, 14th place) and blocks (just 1.67, 16th) per game, the side’s defensive approach should become more aggressive and effective in both 1 on 1 and 5 on 5 situations, as their defensive strategy will help them have the upper hand in do-or-die matches later in the season.
Concurrently, the team should reduce the number of fouls they commit in every game (24 per game, on top of the respective category) in order to avoid having key players ejecting from the game as well as prevent their opponents from scoring easy points from the free-throw line.
That said, the 42-year-old coach’s main target now is to improve his defensive tactics and help his team become more productive, both defensively and offensively.
The next four games will be crucial for Zalgiris’ place in the standings
Zalgiris Kaunas were tremendous in the first half of the season (10-5 record), yet the next 15 games will be equally difficult for the Lithuanian legend and his players.
Therefore, the club should play even better game after game in order not only to secure their presence in the postseason, but also to fight for the home-court advantage.
That said, the next four games against Crvena Zvezda (away), Unicaja Malaga (home), Brose Bamberg (away) and Valencia (home) will be of utmost importance for the team’s effort to reach the playoffs.
The reason is that they will have the opportunity to improve their record and retain their place on top of the standings, solidifying themselves as one of the league’s top clubs.
Because from late January onwards (when they will face Panathinaikos in Athens on the 25th), their schedule will become much more challenging, with difficult matches against great opponents (like CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos, Fenerbahce and Real Madrid).
Overall, Zalgiris have been Euroleague’s pleasant surprise so far and it’s up to them to continue that way and shock the basketball world, by going all the way to the end.
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