The night of April 4th was one for the EuroLeague history books.
With a bit more than six minutes remaining in the Round 30 game between Rick Pitino’s Panathinaikos Athens and Buducnost Podgorica (the team featuring first-round prospect Goga Bitadze), Greens’ guard Keith Langford made the drive and the jump stop from mid-range. He missed, only for his teammate, former Memphis Grizzlies guard Nick Calathes to slip through the opposing defenses and soar for a tip-in attempt.
Calathes’ putback effort didn’t go in. It mattered little in the big picture.
This tip-in attempt was registered as Calathes 10th rebound in the game. The Greek point guard had already 11 points and 14 assists, thus notching his first career triple-double and just third overall this century in EuroLeague.
“I got close a lot in the last couple of years, it feels good to get it but even better to be in the playoffs,” Calathes said during this post-game flash interview.
The crowd had already been rhythmically chanting Calathes’ name moments before he got the board, perhaps as a signal that he was getting close (or as a message to his teammates to provide him with the opportunity).
Above all, it was a vocal, loud expression of huge anticipation by both the fans, Calathes and perhaps EuroLeague aficionados in general. They all craved to see a triple-double for the first time in more than 12 years.
It was November 30, 2006, when Croatian center Nikola Vujcic last notched one in a Maccabi Tel Aviv win over Union Olimpija. It was both his and EuroLeague’s second in its modern (post-2000) era following the one he had registered during the 2005-2006 EuroLeague opener vs. Prokom.
“It feels good, it’s an honor to be next to that guy [Nikola Vujcic], considering he was a legend as a player and what he accomplished,” Calathes said.
No other player over these years has flirted with the feat so many times and so passionately than Calathes, who has already been considered the top triple-double threat in Europe.
After all, he had so many dalliances with the achievement in the past. Twice during 2016 (vs. Anadolu Efes and Fenerbahce, respectively) he fell two rebounds short. In the third game of the 2016-2017 season vs. Brose Bamberg in Germany, he came one assist shy. He had played 32:35 minutes in this one.
A few weeks ago, Calathes delivered one of the top performances of his career so far, an epic 27-point, 14-assist, 8-rebound game in a crucial away win over Olimpia Milano. In all these situations, it was “close but no cigar.”
Against Buducnost, there was a beefy Cuban one.
The triple-double itself is an extremely difficult thing to accomplish in European basketball. It’s a rare phenomenon that reaches the levels of a “freak” or a “miracle” the more demanding and challenging the competition is. Most are found in domestic leagues.
When it comes to continental competitions, such as EuroLeague? Think of something like the Holy Grail, the El Dorado or the lost Atlantis. It’s that elusive. Legendary, even.
The rarity of the triple-double in Europe in comparison with the NBA is easily understood if one takes into consideration the vast contrasts in the game itself. Those differences involve every aspect imaginable and extend to far more than simply the match’s duration (40 minutes in Europe, 48 in the NBA).
A player simply can’t stuff the stat sheet in Europe as easily because there’s no ground laid for him to do so. The number of possessions is much less, the regular season stakes are tougher (since nearly all games matter big time) and Euros put on a defensive intensity that’s usually reserved for the NBA Playoffs.
Constant hero-balling will get most players benched as punishment. That’s after they’ll most likely smash themselves into a sea of bodies since help defenses in Europe don’t allow for many 1 vs. 1 exploits. You can read my detailed analysis of why certain statistical accomplishments are difficult to make in Europe in our feature about Shane Larkin’s career night.
So when a player like Calathes grabs around 10 rebounds per game, he does it with far fewer opportunities available. The same applies to his assists, even though the Greek guard generally dishes dimes easier than a Michelin star chef cooks an omelet.
Still, registering 10 assists in a single European game is much-much tougher in the NBA for another reason: A pass isn’t counted as an assist by stats services if the receiver makes more than one dribble after getting the ball and before scoring the basket.
Since the tempo isn’t as fast as in the NBA, players don’t receive the same leniency when it comes to which of their passes are assists. In Europe, a pass must actually have a direct impact on the basket scoring play. We’ve seen passes being counted as assists in the NBA even after the scorer makes a ridiculous amount of moves before draining the bucket. Nothing like that in Europe. Not even close.
Of course, Calathes—most notorious dime-dropper outside the NBA with 8.9 over 31:03 per game in EuroLeague—never had a problem finishing game with 10 or more assists. What prevented him from posting that triple-double was the number of rebounds.
Calathes is certainly not a leaper like, let’s say, NBA’s triple-double sensei Russell Westbrook. And while he’s a tall point guard at 6’5″, he doesn’t have any great length that gives him an extra advantage. However, he carries deep perception and fantastic reading of the game that allows him to get the necessary positioning at the right place and right time for the rebound.
He’s also tough enough to scrap his way against larger opponents and battle them for the board.
In case you wondered, no, none of his teammates will simply give him the space needed to take the board “just because”, and he certainly wouldn’t just “steal” the rebound while one of the other guys was ready to get it. “Stats padding” in general is something completely alien in Europe since neither the nature nor the spirit of the game allows it, much less the importance of each clash.
Coaches in Europe won’t allow any of this, even in situations like garbage time.
For a player to have a triple-double in EuroLeague, everything must be done within his team’s system, the game’s high demands and, of course, with the player locked on the only target that matters in every single match of the championship: The win. There was a reason why in EuroLeague, where the competition is usually ferocious, the triple-double is the stuff of legend.
And why Calathes’ triple-double is so damn impressive.
Photos courtesy of EuroLeague.net. Statistics: EuroLeague.
When the Greek national team won the EuroBasket 1987, its accomplishment gave birth to a “basketball renaissance” in the country that also bred a generation of young people who simply couldn’t help but feel a special connection with the sport. One of those kids was yours truly, and this relationship went from “devouring” every piece of basketball information provided by magazines and anxiously waiting for NBA coverage on television, to experiencing hoops from a journalist’s point of view. Now the action for me happens on all things European basketball, especially EuroLeague. Yes, that’s where Luka Doncic was bouncing a ball, apparently behind closed doors, before coming to the NBA.