Credit: Vangelis Stolis
Credit Vangelis Stolis

About two weeks ago, Dimitris Priftis had a meeting with his assistant coaches at Panathinaikos. The team was coming off a series of disappointing performances on all fronts, and a solution had to be found as soon as possible.

3-pointers this season

Points made: 8,1
Accuracy: 33,3%
Place in standings: 13
Record max: 15
Record min: 3
Most made 3FGs: Daryl Macon

"Let's add the zone to our defensive choices," Priftis suggested.

Although PAO's coach is anything but a big fan of this particular type of defense, his assistants welcomed his suggestion, as did the players. After all, the end justifies the means.

The idea was implemented in three consecutive high-level games, against Bayern Munich, Olympiacos, and Zenit Saint Petersburg.

The Greens started to reap the benefits of their tactical adjustment against their "eternal rivals." Facing an unbeaten team at home up to that point, Priftis used a match-up zone, which not only worked but handed Panathinaikos their biggest win of the season so far.

Olympiacos shot extremely bad from the field that night (16/53 FG - 30%), although the Reds got several open looks. Apart from how much a team has worked on facing zone defense, its players must make quick decisions and support them with confidence, avoiding second-guessing.

Olympiacos's players were obviously out of tune from the perimeter (4/27), with the problem only intensifying in the last quarter, when they went 2/17 from the field.

As it turned out, the Reds were not prepared for their opponent to use the same defensive tactic for the second game in a row.

"We had a lot of opportunities to finish the game because we adjusted to their zone, but unfortunately, we were 0/9 on three-pointers in the fourth quarter, most of them were completely open," Olympiacos's coach Giorgos Bartzokas commented in the post-game presser.

The formation used by Priftis had four players forming a "box" on the court, with Giorgos Papagiannis functioning as an in-between and making it a 3-2 zone when the Greek center would relocate to the three-point line.

When Moustapha Fall set a screen, Papagiannis moved to the high post to turn the zone into 2-1-2. On the other hand, the French big would post up, Papagiannis constituted the last line of his team's defense in a 2-3 zone.

The 24-year-old Greek international had a huge game against Zenit, amassing 18 points, 13 rebounds, and a PIR of 31, his best ever.

"We're definitely on our way up. The first positive signs were shown in Munich," Papagiannis told BasketNews upon exiting his team's locker room last Thursday night.

"We have sorted out several issues, especially on defense. We are more aggressive, zone defense has helped us, and we want to keep it. When something works, you want to build on it," he said.

According to Papagiannis, the Greek derby can be the start of Panathinaikos building a good momentum.

"Through zone defense, in the last three games, we managed to close some defensive gaps very well. Although we hadn't used that type of defense, it seems to suit us. Nevertheless, there are still some details we want to fix."

Not long ago, PAO's pick'n'roll defense was passive and non-respondent. Players guarding the opponent ball handler used to get stuck in screens and stayed there. By choosing not to bypass the pick, they essentially allowed mid and long-range pull-ups, as well as other actions. 

Here is a small sample from the game vs UNICS Kazan, where Panathinaikos suffered their second home defeat of the season.

Obviously, Panathinaikos cannot use zone defense all season long, as Priftis admits.

"Zone is only an occasional type of defense, we cannot rely on it the whole year. It helped us at certain moments," he said.

"Some say that the zone gives you better chances of controlling the rebounds, but it's not like that. Often, you're out of position, and it's not easy to box out.

Whether we play man-to-man or zone, everyone must contribute to the rebounds, not just our bigs," the 53-year-old tactician said ahead of the EuroLeague Round 13 game in Moscow vs CSKA.

Against Bayern, Panathinaikos were 60-51 up, forcing the Germans to a bad shooting night, before Vladimir Lucic sank two three-pointers to give his team the lead and, as it turned out, the win.

"Certainly, zone defense is something that calls for mental readiness. It makes offenses work in a different way. It's a risk defense, to be honest, as it leaves our opponents with a lot of options," Priftis stressed before the PAO-Zenit duel.

The Greens' coach has worked out a way of concealing some of his players' most striking weaknesses to win games and buy himself some time to work on the existing roster.

Credit Vangelis Stolis

According to the most popular belief, the zone is a theoretically passive defense, aiming to confuse the opponent team and get them out of rhythm.

That fits the description of what Dimitris Priftis wanted. Panathinaikos's backcourt duo consisting of undersized guards Kendrick Perry and Daryl Macon leaves much to be desired defensively, while Nemanja Nedovic didn't make a name for himself based on his ability as a lockdown defender.

Zone most certainly does not make their defensive weaknesses invisible. But it definitely renders them more manageable, as they no longer need to chase their man all over the court, on or off the ball.

Even though part of the roster was praised for its athleticism, everyone is asked to implement some basic basketball principles instead of physically imposing themselves over their opponents.

This strategy also allows Nedovic and Macon, a lethal scoring combo that rarely plays together, to spend more minutes on the court, avoiding unnecessary fatigue or foul trouble.

Besides, it's a plan that resonates with Kendrick Perry's words: "Zone gives us a different angle, a different identity on defense. In certain circumstances, it helps us avoid foul trouble as well. It's something that has worked for us. We have to keep working and improving it. We might need it down the road," the EuroLeague rookie guard noted.

In this sense, at least some Panathinaikos players seem to believe in the plan's longevity to a far larger extent compared to their coach. Take Howard Sant-Roos, for instance. The Cuban forward maintains that zone defense can turn into a legit long-term solution.

"From what I see right now, although I'm not a coach, I feel like it's going to be something that we will definitely rely on," he told BasketNews after the Greek derby. "It has worked for us so far. As you guys saw, in Munich, we lost in the last possession. Of course, we're going to play some man-to-man as well, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

In any case, the sample is extremely limited to make safe assumptions. Even in Panathinaikos's best defensive game of the season, a 70-64 home win over Zenit, Dimitris Priftis used a good deal of man-to-man defense, especially in the first half when the hosts were trailing by five (33-38).

The Russian team started really well, making 5 of their first 6 shots for a 12-0 lead. On the other hand, the Greek side lacked concentration and made many mistakes on the aggressive hedge out defense of the Russians, who were prepared for the 2-3 zone of coach Priftis.

With time, Zenit got tired, started to misfire (22% from deep), and the hosts picked up.

"We started strong and had a good first quarter," Zenit guard Jordan Loyd said when BasketNews reached out to him for comment. "Then, Panathinaikos went to the zone."

Loyd further explained that his team was by no means caught off-guard watching Panathinaikos play zone.

"We've been preparing for that all week, but it was kind of a tricky situation with the defense they played. They were throwing different looks at us, so we got stagged in the third quarter. We also let them score, which is a bad recipe."

When Priftis decided to launch different zone variations (3-2, 2-3, 2-1-2), he knew he was taking a risk. Zone defense is no longer a very common tactic among coaches (including Priftis himself), who usually don't spend much time teaching how to attack it.

The Greek coach opted to reduce the obligation of his players to be individually responsible both on and off the ball.

As Augustas Suliauskas in his breakdown analysis for BasketNews showed, Panathinaikos have three main problems.

Their chaotic pick'n'roll defense and the role of Papagiannis in it, little responsibility from the players' side, especially Nedovic, and bad decisions while attacking the basket.

Most certainly, ill decision-making and bad pick n' roll defense will keep puzzling Priftis for a long time.

However, one of the biggest benefits that Panathinaikos can reap both in the short and in the long run is players realizing that they are more than a defensive liability, a feeling that can definitely boost their confidence.

After the game in Piraeus, it was evident that the trust in Priftis's tactical plan made everyone comfortable with their defensive role. It is clear that - for now - what suits Panathinaikos best is lower the number of possessions in each game.

Fewer possessions lead to less exposure of the collective and individual deficiencies in a team that lacks quality compared to the vast majority of the competition.

Priftis also seems to be counting on the individual characteristics of three specific players: Ioannis Papapetrou's perception of space, Okaro White's ability to spread out his body when guarding on the wings, and Giorgos Papagiannis's height and wingspan.

The result is a clearly more effective pick'n'roll defense, which reduces opponents' assists in the paint almost to half.

"Regardless of what happened against Olympiacos, I believe that we're showing a slight progress which started in Munich," Priftis stated before PAO hosted Zenit.

"We can't say that we've bounced back after only two games. We got to stay focused, locked in, go play the next game, and see. The only thing that has changed is that we're down for the fight right now," Okaro White told BasketNews, adding a slightly different, more down-to-earth tone.

With a humble 3-9 record on display and opponents aware of what's to expect, Panathinaikos will need to put some man-to-man defense to good use going forward while getting the best out of their zone formation.

In this vein, Priftis might have to resort to roster changes which can further maximize the Greens' potential.

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