The highly anticipated opening week of EuroLeague action did not disappoint. Panathinaikos and Crvena Zvezda Meridianbet home crowds had their arenas shaking before tip-off, two critical matchups went to overtime, zombie Real Madrid struck again to open the season, Bologna and Milano’s weaknesses were exposed, and Frank Kaminsky and Partizan had a less than optimal start to the season.
After each week of EuroLeague action, we’ll bring you the winners and losers of the week. We’ll here’s a breakdown of this week’s Round 1 EuroLeague action.
Winners: Olympiacos' composure leads them to victory in the Greek Derby in the OAKA arena
Far and away the most highly anticipated Round 1 matchup was the Greek Derby in Athens. This wasn’t your standard Panathinaikos Olympiacos match either, which brings plenty of chaos itself, this match had extra motivation following Kostas Sloukas’ transfer from Olympiacos to Panathinaikos this summer.
Panathinaikos went through an entire overhaul. Sloukas was one of eleven signings the Greek giants made this summer alongside bringing in new head coach Ergin Ataman. Their goal is to not only make the playoffs for the first time since 2019 but also level the score with their rivals Olympiacos who have won back-to-back Greek league titles.
This was the first real matchup between these two clubs (we’re brushing the pre-season Supercup match aside, like most teams and players) since the Greens rebuild, and a statement victory was on the line. If Panathinaikos won, it would’ve sent a loud and clear message that Olympiacos' two years of total dominance are over and they’re going to have to fight tooth and nail to remain the better of the two clubs.
For Olympiacos, victory would deliver a you come at the king you best not miss type of feel that would give them credibility as an organization fully loaded with championship pedigree and composure after their years of success.
Heading into the fourth quarter, Olympiacos trailed 59-52. A 10-0 run brought them out to a quick three-point lead and quickly made this a nail-biting game. Thomas Walkup played the role of composed distributor, finding Peters in transition for the and-one to get things going and stepping up to the challenge of guarding Sloukas at the other end.
After a Panathinaikos timeout, Marius Grigonis, Sloukas, and Lessort combined to put the Greens back up three which drew a timeout from the Reds. After that timeout, Olympiacos quickly established a three-point lead thanks to three-pointers from Nigel Williams-Goss and Walkup. The contrast in Olympiacos timeout down three versus Panathinaikos is striking.
In Olympiacos' timeout, Walkup and head coach Georgios Bartzokas were on the same page: stressing composure and the fact that they were fine, they had plenty of time to win this game. Yeah, the home team made some plays and the arena is going nuts but we’re fine, let’s buckle down and win this thing.
For Panathinaikos, Sloukas and Ataman were not on the same page. Sloukas was irate, clearly taking the result of every possession in this game personally. Ataman appeared composed, but if your point guard doesn’t feel the same way the on-court performance will reflect that disconnect.
Olympiacos went on to force overtime, and then win in overtime. It wasn’t easy, Walkup, Peters, and Milutinov played the entire second half and overtime without substitution. This team's depth is an issue (and they suffered injuries in domestic play over the weekend) but they sent a clear message in Round 1: if healthy, this squad is ready to compete with and beat anyone on any given night.
Winners: Keenan Evans does not have an Achilles heel
There was a lot of vacillation in opinions for how Zalgiris Kaunas would fare in this EuroLeague season. While most of their squad that made the 2023 EuroLeague playoffs is back, they did lose Ignas Brazdeikis to Olympiacos, and lead guard Keenan Evans was coming back from a torn Achilles injury that sidelined him for nine months.
The Texas Tech alum was rolling last season before going down. Posting averages of 15.88 points and 3.71 assists per game on 51/46/81 shooting splits in 17 EuroLeague games. A torn Achilles remains one of the scariest injuries for any professional athlete. It is not quite the retirement forcer it was when Dominique Wilkins went through it decades ago, or even when Elton Brand went through it in 2007. Many athletes lose a step after the injury though, and that was the concern for Evans and Zalgiris heading into this season.
Evans wasted no time silencing those concerns though. In their Round 1 victory in Bologna — Zalgiris was the only road team to win on the opening day of the EuroLeague season — Evans had a huge fourth-quarter performance that inspired his team to overcome their second double-digit deficit of the game and come out on top. Evans finished the game with 25 points and had 11 in the final period, including this clutch game-tying three with minutes remaining and the shot clock winding down.
Head coach Kazys Maksvytis said Evans still isn’t at 100 percent in his postgame press conference and the rest of the league better hope he’s lying because if he’s not, Zalgiris could be a much bigger problem than anticipated.
Winners: Zombie Real Madrid strikes again
One of the best running jokes of last season’s NBA playoffs was the zombie Miami Heat. They were the type of team that even after you felt like you had finished them off, would rise from the grave and figure out a way to win. For the 2023 EuroLeague playoffs, Real Madrid earned this moniker.
After losing the first two games of their playoff series to Real Madrid at home, they managed to go back to Belgrade — arguably the toughest home crowd in EuroLeague — and win two games to force a win-or-go-home game 5 in Madrid. Los Blancos came out on top and went on to win the EuroLeague championship with a fourth-quarter comeback over Olympiacos. They won it in total zombie fashion too, with the aging Sergio Llull making the game-winner for his first points of the game.
To open the 2023-24 season, Zombie Real Madrid let us know they are very much still … alive? The Whites opened their EuroLeague season on the road against Baskonia. The Basque club has question marks on their roster but seldom loses on their home court regardless of issues they have.
Baskonia led for most of the game, including a consistent 5-6 point lead for most of the fourth quarter where it looked like Real would never get over the hump. Then, with just over five minutes to go, the geriatric Fabien Causeur made his first three of the game to make it a one-possession lead. On the next possession, Guerschon Yabusele knocked down his fourth three of the game to tie things up at 75-all.
Baskonia would get the lead back with two minutes left, only to be quickly tied off by a Yabusele lay-up and then watch Facundo Campazzo strip Nico Mannion for a fastbreak bucket that would bring victory as the final points of the game.
Real Madrid is not only the favorite because of their loaded roster for this season, but because they’ve still got a core of veterans who find ways to win like no one else in the EuroLeague. The White Walkers are this version of Los Blancos new nickname, and they wear it with pride.
Losers: Despite a valiant road effort, Milano has a serious problem
Olimpia Milano opened the season by forcing overtime on the road against Fenerbahce. Nikola Mirotic was everything fans could have hoped for, finishing with a very efficient 27 points and 11 rebounds. While it is usually not worth overreacting to one game, there is one glaring issue with this team: their point guards.
Kevin Pangos started and played 27 minutes. He finished the game with 2 points on 1-of-6 shooting, 5 assists, and 3 turnovers. Diego Flaccadori posted 3 points, 2 assists, and 1 turnover in 16 minutes. That’s not going to cut it, not in the EuroLeague. Mirotic could have a great game every round but if his point guards play like that they are going to come up short. That’s why they lost to Fenerbahce and why they lost to Napoli in domestic play over the weekend.
They do have Maodo Lo who is currently out injured and upon return, will be a definite upgrade at the point guard position. But what is Head Coach Ettore Messina’s plan while Lo is out? For when he has to rest? Or if he gets hurt again? In EuroLeague, every game, every quarter, and every possession matter. If you don’t have point guards who can deliver under that pressure, you’re toast.
Losers: Frank Kaminsky and Partizan Belgrade struggle out of the gate
Playing at the Menora Mivtachim Arena is never easy. Playing your season opener there is even more challenging. Partizan’s Round 1 drubbing at the hands of Maccabi Tel Aviv is not a major surprise, even with high expectations for both clubs heading into this season.
Maccabi got out to a hot start. They pushed the tempo of the game and were consistently beating Partizan up and down the floor. Without Wade Baldwin, Lorenzo Brown found easy buckets in transition, and that fueled the rest of his game. Maccabi rolled, Partizan flattened, and EuroLeague rookie Frank Kaminsky looked in over his head.
Kaminsky played just over six minutes. There is no positive spin to that. He is either not in good enough shape to play any more than that, or Head Coach Zeljko Obradovic does not trust him. If it is the former, that should be fixable over time but puts Partizan in a tough spot. Their center rotation would become Balsa Koprivica and Alen Smailagic. Good players, but not who you want to trust the bulk of your center minutes too.
If it’s the latter, and Kaminsky isn’t cut out for this, the problems are the same. There have been rumors that Partizan is still on the market for another center and after their Round 1 defeat, it is easy to see why. You never want to read too much into a bad away game against Maccabi. That atmosphere has brought out the worst in some of the EuroLeague’s best. But if Partizan are serious about the Final Four, they’ve got to fix this and fix it fast.
Losers: Bologna’s weaknesses were on full display in their collapse against Zalgiris
Virtus Bologna is not going to win a lot of games this season. One look at their roster and their lack of top-level talent is clear. With that being said, there are several teams they should at least be capable of beating at home. Zalgiris Kaunas, a good team, is one of those teams they should’ve been able to figure out a way to beat. You especially need to win this game when you led by as many as 15 points.
Bologna didn’t win this game though, and here’s why. Bologna led 73-68 with 5 minutes to go. Rolands Smits made it a one-possession game 30 seconds later. Ognjen Dobric got his shot blocked at the other end, then Zalgiris tied the game off a Keenan Evans three with less than four minutes to go.
Achille Polonara turned the ball over, Evans drew a foul and made both free throws. Zalgiris now lead 75-73 with three minutes to go. This is now a 9-0 run where the best Bologna has been able to muster is getting their shot blocked. Bologna and Zalgiris then exchange misses, and then Daniel Hackett turns the ball over. Edgaras Ulanovas scores at the other end to make it a two-possession lead for Zalgiris with less than two minutes to go now.
Zalgiris never looked back and Bologna closed the game out of that timeout with a free throw from Shengelia and then a bucket from him at the buzzer. They had zero field goals in the final five minutes. Their offense was the basketball equivalent of watching paint dry. No one could break anyone down on the perimeter, no one could make an entry pass, and there was minimal shooting gravity making it easy for Zalgiris to help and clog the paint.
The difference in the closing stretch of this one was that Zalgiris had Evans, and Bologna had no one. If they don’t fill that void on their roster then a lot of their games will end like this. We all know Dwayne Bacon doesn’t exactly scream winning, but he can score with the best of them. Bologna needs someone like him, desperately, and he’s still a free agent.
EuroLeague lines of the week:
- Lorenzo Brown finished with 22 points and 8 assists in Maccabi’s win over Partizan.
- Nikola Mirotic scored 27 points and added 11 rebounds in Milano’s overtime defeat against Fenerbahce.
- Alec Peters did his best to replace Sasha Vezenkov as he dropped 17 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals in Olympiacos' Greek derby victory.
EuroLeague quote of the week:
“We didn’t finish the job last year. That feeling is still with some of us. This season, this pre-season, the guys who have been battling for a month feel that. We feel that on our shoulders and we all need to step up.” — Alec Peters
EuroLeague clip of the week:
We all enjoy watching Zeljko Obradovic and many of his counterparts eviscerating their players when they are playing poorly. But if you’re doing this in Round 1, on the road, in Tel Aviv then what do you do if they keep playing poorly for a couple of rounds? Fight them? Make them play without sneakers?
For as much as we enjoy this as fans, it seemed more performative than anything else.