Panathinaikos under the microscope: Ace Greek journalist Vasiliki Karamouza tells us what awaits Maccabi

Apr 22, 2024 | Holyland Hoops

Panathinaikos and Maccabi Tel Aviv will begin their big Euroleague quarterfinal series on Tuesday night in Athens as both teams enter the postseason with tremendous momentum and of course a glorious history.

However, before tipoff in order to find out how the local media feels about the showdown which sees former PAO Head Coach and star Oded Katash for the yellow-and-blue and 2x Euroleague champion coach Ergin Ataman battle it out on the sidelines as well, Nate Dror, The Sports Rabbi corespondent in Athens was in touch with ace journalist Vasiliki Karamouza from Sport 24 for her thoughts as the series gets underway.

Lorenz Brown – Photo Credit: Euroleague

*Can you tell me about the atmosphere at the moment in Athens, especially among PAO fans ahead of the series against Maccabi?*
Panathinaikos has been struggling a lot the past few years, so the fans are really excited about this team and the upcoming playoffs. You can feel the vibe in OAKA lately. It’s very different from the previous seasons. And of course the fans trust very much Ergin Ataman and his players, because they’ve progressed a lot since the beginning of the season.

*How do you assess the balance of power for the series?*
It’s going to be very difficult in my opinion. All 5 games will be needed. Maccabi is a very difficult opponent that has beaten Panathinaikos twice this year. Baldwin and Brown can easily score 25+ points each in every game, so the Greens will need to demonstrate their good defense. Of course PAO has dangerous players as well, such as Sloukas, Nunn and Lessort. So I think that every game will be really tight.

*Both teams are coming with great momentum as Maccabi comes in having won 25/26 of its last games, PAO is 18/20 across all competitions. What do you think will happen in the first game?*
Having the home court advantage is really important. Especially when we are talking about teams with great fanbase, such as Panathinaikos. As you said both teams have great momentum, but I think PAO will win the first game.

Kostas Sloukas – Photo Credit: Euroleague

*Who do you think is the “key player in the series” on each team?*
Many players can make the difference. If I had to pick one, I’d say Kostas Sloukas from Panathinaikos and Josh Nebo from Maccabi. The Greek point guard is the most experienced player in PAO’s roster and he is the one that sets the pace, that runs the offense. On the other hand the American center will be very critical for Maccabi, especially the minutes Mathias Lessort won’t be on the floor.

*What do you think about Oded Katash as a coach?*
From what we’ve seen in his coaching career so far it’s obvious he works better in his home country. People is Israel have a certain level of respect for him and that makes everything easier. He has also proven that he can take the pressure off a big bench in a historic club such as Maccabi. I think he also gives freedom to his players, especially the guards.

When he coached Panathinaikos he managed to win the domestic double, but it was the year that Olympiacos wasn’t playing in the first division. The management wanted to try something different with Dimitris Priftis that succeeded him and maybe they didn’t give Katash the chance to further demonstrate his work.

Oded Katash – Photo credit: Yehuda Halickman

*What do you think of Ergin Atman as coach this season?*
He did exactly what he was hired to do. Get a team from the bottom of the standings and lift them back to the top.

Panathinaikos knew exactly what to expect from Ataman. He has a unique way of making bold statements along with harsh criticism of his players if it is necessary. He also usually uses shortl rotations, like he did in the past.

What has surprised me is how good Panathinaikos has been defensively, because we all expected that the Greens would be good on offense, given the talented roster they’ve built.

Ergin Ataman – Photo Credit: Dov Halickman

*We were all sorry to hear about the tragedy that befell coach Ataman. Will he coach in the series, and if so, how do you think it will affect him?*
His father passed away last Thursday and he went to Turkey for the funeral on Friday, that’s why he wasn’t on the bench in the game against Peristeri. After that he came back to Greece to prepare the team for the playoffs. So yeah, he is going to be in his position in the upcoming games against Maccabi.

I don’t think that this sad event will prevent him from doing his job well. After all he is a professional for decades now, so he has the experience to manage difficulties on a personal level.

*Recently, a video has been circulated on the networks claiming that the team’s star Mattias Lessort hit a man who teased him. He didn’t play in the last game either. What can you tell us about the case and will he participate in the series?*
I’ve seen the video, but I can’t say for sure it was Lessort, because we can’t see the face of the man. So I can’t really comment much on that. From what I know Lessort felt ill and that’s why he didn’t play in the last game. He wasn’t injured, just a bit ill. So he will be available.

Mathias Lessort – Photo Credit: Dragana Stjepanović

*PAO has not been In the playoff since 2018 and has not been to the Final Four in 12 years. How much pressure is the club under?*
Panathinaikos is a historic club with a huge fan base, so there is always pressure there. At this point the Greens secured the second spot and the home court advantage and the will face Maccabi away from Israel and their very passionate, loud fans. So everybody thinks that it’s a good opportunity to qualify for the Final Four after all these years.

Plus, Panathinaikos spent a huge amount of money, so there is pressure from that side, because when you invest so much, you want to see the results pay off.

*In fact, the last time PAO reached the Final Four, was after a big series against Maccabi. Do you remember it? What does the Greek public think about that series?*
To be honest it seems like ages ago. It was a pretty intense series. The only one that finished in 5 games that season. I remember the packed OAKA and Dimitris Diamantidis MVP performance in the fifth game.

I believe people remember that year in general as the end of era for Panathinaikos because Zeljko Obradovic left the team at the end of that season. Some big names such as Mike Batiste and Sarunas Jasikevicius departed as well and Panathinaikos turned a new page, giving much focus to some young Greek guys like Vassilis Charalampoloulos.

Many Panathinaikos fans will certainly have flashbacks when the Greens will host Maccabi in OAKA for this year’s playoffs.

Kostas Sloukas – Photo credit: PAO

*What is public opinion about now, what does the street say? Who wins?*
From what I have seen on social media, most Greek fans believe that Panathinaikos will win the series 3-2. They know OAKA and the atmosphere there can make a huge difference for PAO, but they can’t overlook the fact that Maccabi can easily score over 90 points any given night if the 3-pointers start falling in. So they expect big battles and no easy games at all.

*What do you think will be the result in the series?*
I also believe Panathinaikos will win the series in Game 5. Maccabi may have finished 7th, but they aren’t an easy opponent. If Katash’s players find their rhythm early on it’s almost impossible to stop them afterwards. Also Maccabi has the best offense and the worst defense in the EuroLeague this season, so I think most games of this series will be high scoring.

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