FINAL STRETCH: Zalgiris meet Siauliai on Saturday, hoping for a win which would get them into the final.
RIGA - This weekend Zalgiris is seeking to become the first team to complete a Baltic Basketball League (BBL) three-peat when they travel to Siauliai for the Final Four tournament. But given their erratic form to date this season, it could be a goal that proves hard to come by.
Twelve months is an infinity in the world of basketball, and in the Baltics no team knows that better than reigning BBL and Lithuanian domestic league champions Zalgiris.
Just over a year ago, in front of a rapturous home crowd, Zalgiris was able to say goodbye to their outdated basketball stadium in style, defeating a plucky VEF Riga 75-67 in the gold medal game to end the BBL Final Four weekend.
With a new stadium being built down the road and the club’s outspoken owner Vladimir Romanov vowing to dig deep into his pockets to buy the best talent available in order to take his club to the top echelon of European basketball, the future was indeed looking rosy for the green-and-whites.
The NBA lockout in North America provided more good news for the Kaunas-based team, with Romanov entering the bidding race for the services of NBA players willing to ply their trade overseas until the lockout came to end.
Acquiring Toronto Raptors swing man Sonny Weems for the entire season and Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson until the lockout was resolved, Zalgiris were quickly becoming, on paper, one of the strongest teams in Europe.
But what the club’s saviour has since found out is that one thing money cannot buy is cohesion.
Lawson’s time in Kaunas was an unhappy one, with the American failing to adapt to the systems being set by then-trainer Ilias Zouros.
With Lawson failing to fire at the point, so too did the rest of the team, seeing the losses begin to pile up, subsequently leading to the firing of Zouros and the hiring of former Lietuvos Rytas head coach Aleksandar Trifunovic.
Soon after Zouros’ departure, Lawson followed suit with the lockout ending back in the States.
The season’s prospects began to look rosier as the team began to fire, with Mantas Kalnietis running the plays from the point, but the club has still fallen well short on expectations, failing to win a game in the second round of the Euroleague, before being dumped out of the VTB League in the first round of the play-offs.
Following that up with a loss in the Lithuanian domestic league to Final Four hosts and semi-final opponents Siauliai, all signs suggest that Zalgiris are now in real threat of not qualifying for a BBL gold medal game for the first time in the history of the competition.
With a sell-out crowd expected in Siauliai on Saturday, the men in yellow are confident of becoming just the second team other than Zalgiris and Lietuvos Rytas to make it into the gold medal game.
Having begun the season strongly, thanks in no small part to their off-season acquisition of American Denzel Bowles, Siauliai momentarily lost their way when the power forward jumped ship to play in the Philippines.
However, the club has since recovered nicely, ending the regular season in first place, and receiving an extra confidence boost from their win against Zalgiris in domestic action.
“It was a nice victory,” Siauliai captain Mindaugas Zukauskas told bbl.net during the week, later adding, “Zalgiris will step up stronger for the semi-final game but I now feel very confident about our team. All we have to do is just play our game, defend well and shoot straight. The home court and the crowd will help us.”
On the other side of the draw, it may well take nothing short of a miracle from the only non-Lithuanian team in the Final Four, VEF Riga, to upset Lietuvos Rytas for a second year running.
Unquestionably, Lietuvos Rytas has been the best performing of all Baltic teams this season, and stand in good stead to walk away from Siauliai on Sunday night with gold medals dangled around their necks.
After having an untimely off-night two Saturdays ago in the Eurocup Final Four semi-finals, which saw them relegated to the bronze medal game a day later, Aleksandr Dzikic’s team has bounced back strongly, defeating eventual Eurocup champions Khimki in a best-of-three series to qualify for the Final Four of the VTB League.
Central to their successes has been the scintillating late season form of Renaldas Seibutis, who is sending a serious message to the Lithuanian national team coaches ahead of their impending Olympic qualifying tournament, averaging 16 points a night through the BBL play-offs and 18.6 points a night through the VTB League play-offs.
For their own part, VEF are perhaps the luckiest of the four teams to qualify for the Final Four, rallying late in the fourth quarter to defeat Estonian club Kalev/Cramo in the third and deciding game of their quarter-final match up.
Whilst remaining consistent throughout the season by winning the games they have been expected to win, Ramunas Butautas will need to perform above expectations if they are to come close to returning to the gold medal game for a second consecutive season.
Siauliai and Zalgiris will be first up on court on Saturday, tipping off at 17:30. Lietuvos Rytas and VEF Riga follow suit at 20:00.
The bronze medal game tips off 15:00 on Sunday with the finale to the weekend starting at 18:00.