Credit: BasketNews/D.Repečka
Credit BasketNews/D.Repečka

Are Olympiacos Piraeus back? That’s one legitimate question to ask after the first four games, following their 3-1 record in the first fifteen days of Euroleague.

Points this season

43%
77,5
Points made: 77,5
Accuracy: 43,4%
Place in standings: 7
Record max: 83
Record min: 74
Best scorer: Aleksandr Vezenkov

It might be still too early to give certain verdicts but wins against Baskonia, Real Madrid and Zalgiris gives huge credibility. Even their overtime loss against Barcelona at Palau Blaugrana was a very close game that went down to a single ball difference. These are all good omens.

There are many aspects of Olympiacos’ game to give an account for the good results but undoubtedly, defensive efficiency is the spine of such an ambitious start.

They are currently sitting at the top of Euroleague Defensive Ratings (93.6 points per possession per hackastat.eu). They also limited their opponents behind the arc to 20%, better than anyone.

Besides, they sit in the top five regarding most turnovers forced (14.5 per game) and the least two-point percentages allowed (49%). Statistically, Olympiacos is flourished on defence. 

In this video article, we will give you a brief sketch of the defensive prowess of Olympiacos.

Their agility, good decision making with timing and positioning, aggressiveness, willingness to contest almost every shot is congruent with their personnel.

It is not easy to approach their rim when Moustapha Fall is towering around the paint or Kostas Papanikolaou or Alexander Vezenkov making a move to almost every ball that gets inside the perimeter.

Thomas Walkup pressuring the ball, Larentzakis covering up every leak in the shell, Tyler Dorsey, and Shaq McKissic are making late saves with their athleticism to deny even certain layups.

But beyond individual contributions, Olympiacos have very clear cut ideas and neat team principles in defence, which could be compiled over three main branches: their ability to deny the entries from central locations around the perimeter, their success to block the corridors against angled attacks from sides and their agility and smartness to limit the opponents’ three-point threat. 

Denying entries from the Top 

Olympiacos have a strong ability to stop attacks from the most vulnerable spot of many teams: the top of the arc.

As a coach who almost led each of his teams to the top 5 in the defensive ratings in Euroleague, Bartzokas is a very strong proponent of switch defence against pick and rolls.

Switching wisely has always been a crucial feature of his teams, such as Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar and Olympiacos (2013, 2014). This year’s Olympiacos reflects that nuanced mentality by using the high hedging(blitzing) and instant show-ups to contain the pick-n-roll’s initial impact.

In the video above, we firstly observe that Vezenkov makes a highly aggressive hedge, pushing Calathes almost back at the logo. Calathes checks the wing options firstly but then also looks deeper to find Mirotic for a possible mismatch.

At this point, Tyler Dorsey’s stubborn stance to stand in front of the big man near the rim is critical. Calathes gets discouraged from exploiting the mismatch cannot find any better solution to take a half-heartedly 3-pointers. 

In the second example, Vezenkov blitzes again. But this time, he does not push ball carrier, Cory Higgins too far away from the perimeter.

When Higgins drives for a potential layup, Vezenkov manages to adjust his position to slow Higgins’ dribble and gets help from Larentzakis, who comes from behind to steal the ball.

The key point here is that Vezenkov’s leading effort to hinder the ball moving directly towards near to the rim would come in vain, if his fellow defenders, Dorsey and Larentzakis does not play their part. It undoubtedly requires a strong team effort, good communication, and coordination.

Another strong characteristic of Olympiacos while keeping penetrations out is their flexibility with the decisions.

Rather than following rigid instructions and principles, the players have the ability to read and react to the different circumstances. Olympiacos is blitzing but not as a rule of thumb.

For example, as we observe in another case, Giorgos Printezis makes something different than Vezenkov: he shows up himself to Nigel Williams-Goss, denying the early pass.

But instead of switching, Printezis immediately rushes back to rule out a key delivery for the short-rolling Vincent Poirier. On many occasions like this, Olympiacos manage to give the correct decision to defend pick and rolls while blitzing and low hedging.

Denying entries from the Wing and Post-Ups 

Stopping the attack from the top is not the only specialty of Olympiacos’ defence. They also have the ability to deny entries from wings and annihilate the post-up attempts.

If the opponent player in the post happens to get the ball despite all defensive attempts, Plan-B goes into action, and an immediate and well-placed double team forces the opponent to take a tough shot or retreat the pass, which slows down the offensive rhythm. 

Once again, Vezenkov’s efforts earn a huge credit here.  In one example, his immense efforts to stop the entry led steals as he did against Baskonia’s big player, Matt Costello.

Stealing the ball is a bonus, but more importantly, he just makes life hard for the opponents on the low post defense. On many occasions against Real Madrid, it was really hard for Yabusele to take the ball in low-post.

Even when the ball reached Yabusele, Kostas Papanikolaou saw potential defects in the restricted zone and brought help when needed. 

You might expect this excellent wing defence to have a hard time when their opponents earn a mismatch near the rim, but entries to the painted area with mismatches are not easy at all.

In one example, Thomas Walkup’s aggressive defense gets ahead of Josh Nebo to cut a passing lane. As a bonus, he follows the dribble and switches with Tyler Dorsey to steal the ball from Ulanovas. The mismatch was brilliantly defended.

Chasing Off-Screens Cuts

Apart from limiting the damage from the ball screens at the top or post-up attempts from low-post, Olympiacos are very good at chasing off-cutters and contesting all kinds of shots as well.

They played against Barcelona, Real Madrid and Baskonia already, who are among the best teams in EuroLeague for creating high-quality shots via those off-screen actions like stagger screens and floppy plays.

But we saw that Olympiacos perimeter defense numerously denied surrendering against these types of actions. 

Dusko Ivanovic implemented multi-layered stagger screens predominantly since day 1 at Baskonia, and they sought to use similar types of actions at Piraeus.

But as in the example below, Olympiacos gave them nothing behind the 3-point line. Despite the repetitive flare screens, neither Rokas Giedraitis nor Simone Fontecchio had an open look, thanks to Walkup chase. Dorsey’s and, finally, Papanikolau’s closeups eliminate the clean looks to the rim.

Alongside the will and ability to chase off-cutters aggressively, Olympiacos big players also have the awareness to disrupt the offensive phase.

Sarunas Jasikevicius likes to prepare floppy plays for Kyle Kuric as much as possible due to the players’ well-known ability to take those catch-and-shoots with a high accuracy.

Here is one occasion when Kuric gets away from Kostas Sloukas and rushes to take his usual spot for an open 3-pointer, but Hassan Martin recognizes the leak and takes a last-minute decision to concentrate on Kuric and not the rolling of Brandon Davies.

In the end, Kuric did not either have the opportunity to take a shot or make a quick pass towards the rim. The phase was broken.

As another example, Arturas Milaknis is still probably one of the most dangerous players to score from flares screens, and he did some damage to Olympiacos in the first half (4/5, 12 points).

However, Bartkozas got aware of this problem and in the second half, Zalgiris 3-pointers were stopped. (6/13 in the 1st first half vs. 1/11 2nd half).

Here we see Milaknis using Nebo flare screen to get the open shot, but Moustapha Fall was following the situation and took himself an excellent position to make peel switching.

Despite remaining behind, Thomas Walkup also did not stop his run back to the interior defensive zone to complete the switch and close the possible passing lane between Milaknis and Josh Nebo.

Those off-screen cuts are really hard to stop because the defense needs to move from a very static position to a dynamic one in a very short amount of time. However, even being left behind, Olympiacos players show top-level willingness to compensate for the time and space that they have lost and somehow contest the shot in almost all circumstances.

Sergio Llull, who got prepared for his signature one-dribble reverse pivoting jumper, makes one of his cunning off-screen cuts to get away from Larentzakis. However, Larentzakis still made a reasonable attempt to distract Llull’s shot as much as he could.

With all this evidence in our mind, we could turn back the question that has been posed in the very beginning. Are Olympiacos back to glory days?

It is wiser to refrain from reaching audacious conclusions at this point. We are just in the first couple of weeks of EuroLeague, but we also know that Bartzokas’ success was built mainly on the defensive side.

This years’ Olympiacos have already created strong implications to build up similar ambitions. Not a bad reason for the Reds to become hopeful.

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