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Victor Shestopalov writes about Zalgiris Kaunas’s performance this Euroleague season in the early going of the Top 16 second round
When they call you the Boston Celtics of Eastern Europe, you gotta produce. In case of Lithuanian most popular basketball team Zalgiris Kaunas it always meant win. Win in the domestic championship, win in the regional tournament (Baltic League) and, most importantly, win in the Euroleague. The latter didn’t come very easily the last couple of years, this season included. In fact, the last time Zalgiris won Europe’s most coveted trophy was last century, in 1999 to be exact.
At the start of the Top 16 second stage of this year tournament, green-white team from Kaunas still holds slim chances of advancing to the Euroleague’s playoff stage. In order to do so it has to catch up to some of the Europe’s best. It was tough luck all around when Zalgiris drew up a short stick to end up in the group with such powerhouses as Real Madrid, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Barcelona and Panathinaikos. Now with their losing record, the rest of the way Gintaras Krapikas’ team needs to play nearly flawless ball in order to advance.
Frankly speaking, the going was pretty tough for Zalgiris even in the earlier stages of the tournament. You can’t blame the green-and-white nation for not trying, though. Besides always tough play on its home court, Zalgiris used every trick in the book to boost itself up. You’ve got basketball legend Arvidas Sabonis sitting courtside at every home game. You’ve got assistant coach Sharunas Jasikevicius, crowned as a Euroleague basketball legend prior to the Real Madrid contest. They even played one home game in the old, legendary gym – Kaunas Sports Hall, appropriately called the mecca of Lithuanian basketball. It was on this hallowed floor that the Lithuanian National team won its second EuroBasket championship back in 1939.
But all these festivities don’t mean much if you can’t back them up with your play on the hardwood. So far Zalgiris’s results in this department can be called mediocre at best. Prior to the start of this season management presented one of the finest looking squad in recent history: a roster where 90 percent of the talent is home-grown talent, with one major American player: small forward James Anderson. The young Lithuanian playmaker Lukas Lekavicius’s development has been so swift that the second American player, point guard Will Cherry was added only in late December, as a back-up.
Besides, this year’s roster includes all the veterans of Lithuanian basketball and National team as well. Simply put, this season Zalgiris fans are privileged to watch all the domestic best. From game to game they see Arturas Milaknis raining three-pointers from all over the court with merciless precision (45 per cent); big man Robertas Javtokas hitting his sweeping sky-hook a la Kareem-Abdul Jabbar or forward Darius Songaila banging under the basket, securing another rebound down low. What’s lacking tough is an all-around, energetic play of young forward Mindaugaskas Kuzminskas, who signed with Spanish team Unicaja prior to this season.
Even though this 25-year-old wasn’t always that good in offence, his contributions on the defence side of the ball were sometimes underrated and often overlooked. In the modern world of basketball with its heavy pick’n’roll action and non-stop switching, teams just have to have a player like Kuzminskas. Two-metre athletes who can guard multiple positions, rotate on time, play tough pressure defense, steal the ball and swipe shots from the blind side just don’t come very often these days. Legendary Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen (side-lick to his Airiness Michael Jordan) exceled in this “defensive demon” role in the later parts of his career. Letting Kuzminskas go was one of the major mistakes of Zalgiris’s management.
Nonetheless, there’s still a lot of basketball to be played this season for Lithuania’s finest. Again, in the second phase of the Top 16, Zalgiris has only a small small margin for error. Always playing as a team (even with two Americans on the floor), defending its home court and taking some chances on the road might sound like a cliche. But without it, Zalgiris will end up with another disappointing season. Because those sophisticated Lithuanian basketball fans want not only performances, but results as well.