No matter how you look at it, here at the halfway point of the regular season, one team has established itself as the leading standard-bearer in the 2021-22 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague.

It is not merely by virtue of holding first place that FC Barcelona can be considered the team to beat right now. Beyond the numbers, Barca has overcome almost every challenge thrown its way by meeting adversity with a mix of talent, savvy and grit that is worthy of admiration.

The result is a 15-2 record that is tied for the best winning rate (88.23%) at this point in any season since the EuroLeague’s format change in 2016.

Barca could have faltered, especially in the last month, and no one would have blamed them. But no excuses were uttered when the players who own three of the four EuroLeague titles on the roster, Cory Higgins and Nick Calathes, were lost to injuries by mid-November, after eight and 10 games, respectively.

Instead, Barca proceeded to win the next seven games in a row, four of them on the road, and two of them, back-to-back, against the team’s twin nemeses over the years, Anadolu Efes Istanbul and Real Madrid.

To top it all off, the team erased a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit on its own floor in Round 17 to beat the next-hottest team in the league, UNICS Kazan, by 111-109 in overtime. That it was Barca’s largest comeback victory in 549 EuroLeague games this century was one thing, but it also happened in a span of just 9 minutes in which Barca outscored UNICS 37-17 to force overtime.

Barca has been a model of consistency in the single statistic that ultimately matters most – winning — but in doing so has amassed an impressive array of first-place rankings as a team.

Even without two starters who were the team’s second-best scorer (Higgins) and top assist-maker (Calathes) for almost half of the season, Barca leads the 17 other Euroleague teams in six of the 12 major team offensive statistics. On the defensive side, Barca is ranked fourth or better in seven categories.

On an individual level, forward Nikola Mirotic has been a leader without equal, coming up big in crunch time again and again while providing the kind of consistency that is the foundation of winning teams. He is the EuroLeague’s top-ranked player in both scoring (17.8) and performance index rating (22.4), and is tied with teammates Nicolas Laprovittola for the second-best three-point shooting accuracy (48.5%). He is also tied for sixth in free throw accuracy (89.7%) and is 10th in two-point accuracy (65.6%). As the only top-10 player in all three shooting categories, Mirotic is a triple-threat as rarely seen in the EuroLeague before, and therefore just the kind of superstar upon whom championship dreams are built.

Throughout the first half of the season, in most of his comments, Mirotic has emphasized the need to stay humble and keep working. After all, this is a team that came close enough to the title last year to know that what happens now will not be remembered if they do not keep building their winning momentum throughout 2022 and all the way to the EuroLeague title.

Anything less would not be good enough for this particular club, but don’t talk to them about pressure. Head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius is as good as they come in keeping his team’s feet on the ground. As the winner of four EuroLeague titles as a player, and the only one ever to do that with three different teams, “Saras” is not impressed by anyone thinking too highly of themselves due to midseason rankings or feeling pressure due to winning streaks.

It’s a long season in which anything can happen – especially in the EuroLeague. There is no forgetting that Barcelona finished the last regular season in first place, too, but just like every regular season leader since 2016-17, did not win the title. As the saying goes – and it’s true – the title rests in the hands of the reigning champions, Anadolu Efes Istanbul, until some other team takes it away.

But it is also safe to say that going into the second half of a season that it has dominated so far, and expecting at least two veterans back in the lineup, Barca has made a resounding case for being the team to beat in what’s left of a fascinating EuroLeague season so far.

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