While we try to keep it calm and neutral here at CourtSide Diaries, this will not always be the case and this piece is a very good example of that. Andrew Bernucca (@krosoveri) and Sebastian Komianos (@sebfromthecourt) share their thoughts regarding the “train” that is called Zalgiris Kaunas and its desired destination: the 8th position in the standings of the regular season that leads to the play offs.

First in this unbiased article, Andrew Bernucca:

Before I start talking about how I want Žalgiris to get into the playoffs, I want to point out that I am not a fan of the underdog story. This is one of the main reasons I don’t like March Madness. I’m a firm believer in that the point of sports is that the team who wins the championship is undoubtedly the best team in the league. That is always the case in the NBA, always the case in Euroleague but not always the case in the NCAA tournament and I don’t support that.

This, however, is different. I don’t want Žalgiris to win the championship – which won’t happen because they’re not the best team in the league – but I do want them to make the playoffs. At the start of the season, the little engine that could team that I was rooting for was Crvena Zvezda, who (as far as we can tell) has the smallest budget in Euroleague. But after a total destruction of Maccabi in Round 12 and then winning seven games in-a-row from Round 14-20 it was abundantly clear that they were a playoff team. So who’s the next lowest budget in Euroleague? Žalgiris Kaunas.

Žalgiris also has another similarity to Zvezda, in that they are the sole representative for their country, Lithuania, in Euroleague. Lithuania is arguably the most basketball crazy country in Europe. The sport, according to head coach Šarūnas Jasikevičius, is like a religion in the country. That’s the type of environment we want in the playoffs. As much as I like Efes’s roster and some players they have, I feel like their fans don’t deserve a playoff team based on how terrible their support has been this year.

Zalgiris fans

Zalgiris fans

Another thing is that they are the only team in Euroleague this year who haven’t featured a player who has NBA experience. That’s even more proof that they are the team who is defying all odds this season – the only NBA experience they have is head coach Jasikevičius.

My favorite reason to root for Žalgiris, though, is truly based on how their season has gone. With eyes focused-in on their low budget (which led to a seemingly very boring roster), most people – including myself – predicted they’d be one of the worst teams in the competition this year. That was how things started out for them.

Even though they had a good early win in Round 2 over Baskonia, Žalgiris started the season 1-5 and had two losses – against Barcelona and Maccabi – that were expected at the time. But Žalgiris has improved with each round after that poor start. They’re 11-9 since then and have picked up some truly memorable wins. They beat Zvezda, in Serbia, in Round 10. That was an environment that got the better of CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, and others this season. They picked up another nice road win in Round 13 against Efes, and then their next win was their trademark win of the season.

In Round 19 the richest team in Euroleague, CSKA Moscow, travelled to Lithuania. Many expected them to walk all over the Lithuanian side and pick up another effortless victory. Žalgiris had other plans, though, and after trailing by seven at halftime they won the third quarter by four and then the fourth quarter by nine. They held reigning Euroleague MVP Nando De Colo to a PIR of 12, one of his lowest marks of the season. Canadian-Slovenian point guard Kevin Pangos led the way for Žalgiris like he has for much of the season. Racking up 21 points and 4 assists, he finished with a team-high PIR of 19. As Pangos hit two free throws with 11 seconds remaining to seal the victory, CSKA Moscow head coach Dimitris Itoudis was in disbelief on the sidelines as he, like all of us, realized Žalgiris was the real deal.

Žalgiris has been spectacular ever since that victory. It was the beginning of a three game win streak where they also beat Darüşşafaka and Barcelona. Their total record since the victory over CSKA is 5-2 – those two losses have been on the road to Olympiacos and at home against Fenerbahçe. They picked up another spectacular win when they hosted Panathinaikos in Round 25, battling with the Greens the whole way then finally taking over in the fourth, wrapping up a huge home win.
Jasikevičius and his Žalgiris side have shown this season that buying into a philosophy and believing the sum of all the parts is greater than the whole will lead to consistency. And consistency leads to victories, and that’s why I want them to get the final playoff spot.

Sebastian Komianos’ reasons to be yearning Saras’ team in the play offs are not that different:

First of all, the roster: Saras has pulled some sort of small miracle, not just budget-wise but also (perceived) ability-wise. To list a couple of things one can measure with numbers, Saras’ team is 7th in total rebounds (5th in offensive and 10th in defensive), 5th in assists, tied 4th in fouls drawn (only 1 behind the 3rd). But the real deal is not what you count but what you understand if you have watched these guys before and are comparing this season of theirs with that: Most of Zalgiris players are either overperforming themselves or are just showing us what they can actually do when in the right environment.

Zalgirio Arena

Zalgirio Arena

And that’s not a great story just for the organisation and the individuals that are involved in it but also makes a great case of why “small” teams (quotes there because Zalgiris Kaunas is anything but small for the basketball of Europe) should be not just allowed in competitions like the EuroLeague but actually invited and assisted by the running bodies. Underdogs doing unexpectedly well are great for the image of the competitions, they are inspiring to other underdogs and – most importantly – they show that things can be accomplished without Dogus throwing their money to your already big budget, for example (and, yes, that example was picked on purpose).

Then, expanding on what Andrew said about “philosophy”, I have to say that it is one of the Zalgiris’ elements that I admire the most. Not only their team-building one, however, but their pure basketball one specifically: The team above everybody, every play above every player, discrete roles at the service of not the units but the union, great determination and self-sacrifices on defense, an attempt for an offensive passing-game that just flows.  It’s impossible to not be impressed by the kind of basketball that the team from Kaunas has tried to play. These guys sometimes succeed, they sometimes fail, but it doesn’t matter: everything serves a purpose that’s exactly greater than the purposes of each and every part – it’s the purpose of being together and going as far as possible.

There are two anecdote quotes from two underdog stories that I think are worth sharing – and forgive me for the fact that both of them are for Greek teams (and one of them for a football one):

When the Greek National Team won the Euro 2004, one of its players – when asked about what it was that brought them there – said that “we were there for each other, we were next to each other, we had each other’s backs”. Olympiacos BC’ Kostas Papanikolaou has said something similar in one of the numerous interviews that were given after the epic comeback in Istanbul: “you could lose the player you were man-marking but you knew somebody would be a couple of centimeters away to cover up for you”. And that feeling is the exact feeling I get in every Zalgiris’ game I watch, that these guys are there not just for themselves but for each other as well.


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