The last three EuroLeague rounds had a lot at stake for Panathinaikos : first, their last two losses against opponents in the playoff hunt (at Darüşşafaka and at Žalgiris) had put them in the position of the hunted. Second, they, in fact, are now in the position of a team that could get the home-court advantage given Fenerbahçe free-falling end of season. Third, Xavi Pascual was facing his inner demons on round 26 in a game that could prove his team’s ability to be dangerous against the best of opponents in the competition, then had to travel to Basque country on round 28 to face a potential opponent in the quarterfinals. Last but not least, the most “Irish” team in the Euroleague was facing the most “English” team the night before St. Patrick’s Day:
Irishness of Euroleague teams ranked
They have a Shamrock ffs
Big long battle for independence and wear green
— Ball in Europe (@bie_basketball) March 17, 2017
But to compensate for their woes, the Greens also had the pleasure to register the comeback of their beloved James Gist (sidelined since week 7) – he would start at center in their three Euroleague games over these two weeks. His presence proved to be crucial in their statement win against the competition’s leading team, Real Madrid, but was also a main element of Panathinaikos playing the defense they needed to against a Baskonia offense that was on a roll lately.
Even if the Chris Singleton numbers stand out in the final boxscores, it’s safe to say Gist was an especially important contributor. What he brings to his team was on full display during mostly-positive stints. The most obvious contributions against Madrid were the two almost back-to-back alley-oops he completed, dished by Calathes out of pretty simple pick-and-roll plays. But his constant screening and rolling also opens lanes and shots for teammates – the two made threes by KC Rivers in this game came directly from the defense having to help on Gist eating space near the rim. Rivers only had to make his open catch-and-shoot look on the weak side after a simple pass. On the defensive end, Gist’s hustle doesn’t need to be described. He was playing aggressive enough to disrupt pick-and-roll plays, and was willing to defend guards one-on-one after switching on screens – even guarding among the best of playmakers in Sergio Llull; all this despite his injury being in theory a serious threat to his explosiveness.
Gist was able to provide the same quality of man-to-man defense when needed against Shane Larkin in Vitoria. But his main contribution on the defensive side in this game was to unlock Xavi Pascual’s ability to use a good old “Box-and-one” defense to prevent Larkin from getting any rhythm. This game-plan worked perfectly in the first and third quarters, where Panathinaikos created most of their lead – Calathes was unleashed like some sort of a mad dog following every Larkin footstep like his shadow. Meanwhile, the duo of Gist and Singleton, as the bottom of the box, was able to keep the whole defense afloat by balancing rim protection and contesting shots in the corners, as well as flying over any player receiving the ball between the two lines of the zone. It was basically a coaching masterwork, especially considering the fact they had played only two days before against a Milano team that uses a very different style.
Gist, most importantly, gives a second and completely different option to Pascual besides Bourousis. They’re not comparable at all, and maybe the project last summer was simply to have them both to secure the center spot in any kind of setting. Pascual enjoyed this freedom in the last minute of the Madrid game, using Gist on defense and Bourousis on offense. The rest of this game was, in this regard, more puzzling. The long Gist sequence during the third quarter showcased his relative uselessness facing a zone defense – he simply couldn’t find a way to be efficient against it, with two missed alley-oops in 7 minutes as the only offensive possessions he used. He also had pretty obvious problems in the end of the Vitoria game when his team committed too many turnovers and could have used a center with more agile hands to secure the ball. His defense can obviously make up for such problems and still make him really helpful, but Pascual will have to find ways to involve him in his sets in all types of situations.
In terms of roster management, having him back seems to end the glorious days of Chris Singleton Playoffs-Draymond-Green-like high usage at center. If it’s still possible that he plays minutes at the 5 in almost every game, these minutes will now be more a small-ball choice than a rotation necessity. Playing alongside an athletic center will surely help him avoid part of the burden related to defending the opposition’s biggest players, which could lead to him being more aggressive. These guys now have to learn how to really play together well, but they form a frontcourt pairing with enough athleticism to compare with the top-3 teams and create the (small) hope of a possible upset, despite their relative lack of depth on the wings. If they were to climb to the fourth position, PAO could be deadly with home court advantage in the quarterfinals, since they only lost once at home this Euroleague season (to their neighbors, the Reds). Add Mike James to the mix, and imagine how physical the Greens can be – after all, this was the first Euroleague game Gist and James played together this season. And with Pascual electing to be more conservative by bringing 1-5 duos with already good chemistry (Calathes playing mostly with Gist, James with Bourousis), Gist and James barely had the time to run or defend the pick-and-roll as a duo…