March gets off to a fast and furious start as the first week of the month is bursting with 18 games as Rounds 27 and 28 bring the race for the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs towards its climax. Our guide to the action begins with an icon facing his former team on the brink of making more history.
Calathes chases more history in Athens
Tuesday will be an emotional night for Nick Calathes as the FC Barcelona (18-8) point guard makes his first return trip to play his former club, Panathinaikos OPAP Athens (9-15). Calathes spent eight seasons with the Greek giants and rewrote the history books in the process, setting the all-time EuroLeague record for assists in a single season on two occasions. Fittingly, Calathes returns to Athens this week on the verge of another piece of history: with 190 assists so far this season, he is just 3 behind Barca’s all-time single-season record, achieved by Thomas Heurtel in the 2017-18 season. Getting the 4 assists he needs to reach another passing milestone at the OAKA Altion would be nothing new for Calathes, but he will doubtless be more focused on helping his team return to winning ways – and therefore ensure it keeps hold of first place in the standings – following last week’s shock home loss against LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne. Barca then returns home to face fellow Spanish side TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz (13-13) in another big game on Friday.
Fenerbahce visits Datome’s Milan
Calathes will not be the only player taking on his former team in Round 27, with Luigi Datome preparing to do the same as his third-place AX Armani Exchange Milan (17-9) welcomes eighth-place Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul (15-11) in a battle with major ramifications not only for the playoffs race but also for homecourt advantage. Datome is the third most accurate three-point shooter in the competition (56.9%), including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc when Milan earned a 71-79 victory at Fenerbahce in Round 14. Guarding the perimeter will be a key focus for the Turkish team, and not only against Datome, because Milan overall boasts the best team long-range conversion rate (42.1%) in the EuroLeague. Fenerbahce, of course, is aiming to bounce back following last week’s thumping 74-106 home loss against local rivals Anadolu Efes Istanbul. Considering that defeat and the head-to-head advantage that will be contested against Milan, failing to win on Tuesday night could effectively end Fenerbahce’s hopes of claiming a top-four finish. It would also jeopardize Fener’s position in the playoffs places ahead of Friday night’s trip to in-form LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne. Truly, a huge week for the Turkish team.
Efes guns for top four
In stark contrast to Fenerbahce, crosstown rivals Efes (15-10) will aim to further build on their growing momentum in the wake of that enormously impressive derby victory last week. Last season’s standings leader has now won four games in a row to reignite hopes of a top-four finish and is heading into a crucial week of home games in that quest. Firstly, on Tuesday night, Efes welcomes a confident Valencia Basket (14-12) team which has claimed three big scalps in its last three games. Powered by newly crowned monthly MVP Nikola Kalinic, the Spanish side has overcome CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid and Zenit St Petersburg in successive games to move within one win of the top eight. Then on Friday, a true battle of the giants will be staged at Sinan Erdem Dome as Efes receives a visit from second-place CSKA (17-8). The Russian side emerged from a slump to claim a much-needed and hard-fought win over Olympiacos Piraeus last week, with new signings Michael Eric and Iffe Lundberg making an instant impact while star players Will Clyburn and Toko Shengelia returned from injury.
Can Bayern avoid more nail-biters?
Fans of FC Bayern Munich (16-10) have enjoyed – or perhaps at times endured – a thrilling season as their over-achieving team has advanced steadily towards the playoffs with a series of nail-biting victories. Bayern has won no less than nine games by 6 points or less, with many of those featuring late comebacks to rescue seemingly impossible situations. The most recent example last week’s 72-70 home victory over Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv. Bayern trailed by 7 at the start of the final quarter before finishing strong to secure its 10th home win of the season. On paper, this week’s games look like a golden chance for Bayern to take two more vital steps on the road to post-season action, with a pair of meetings against lower-ranked teams whose playoffs ambitions are limited. First, on Tuesday, Bayern travels to face former coach Dejan Radonjic and Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade, which has dropped to 7-19 with six straight losses. Then, on Thursday, Andrea Trinchieri’s men receive a visit from similarly struggling Panathinaikos (9-15), which has not won outside of Greece since early December. Will this be the week for Bayern to breathe a little more easily?
Pascual vs Laso… again
A pair of old coaching foes go head to head for a crunch clash on Thursday evening, with Xavi Pascual taking on Pablo Laso as sixth-placed Zenit St Petersburg (15-10) welcomes fourth-placed Real Madrid (16-10) for a game between direct rivals near the top of the table. No two coaches in the competition know each other better than Pascual and Laso following the former’s eight seasons at Barcelona, so it will surely be impossible for either play-caller to come up with anything to surprise his adversary. The game will complete a week in Russia for Real, which starts with a trip to rock bottom Khimki Moscow Region on Tuesday. Zenit has the luxury of a week at home, commencing with Tuesday’s game against ALBA Berlin when Pascual will face another coach he knows very well: Aito Garcia Reneses, one of his predecessors at Barcelona. After last week’s comprehensive home loss to Valencia, this week’s home games are an opportunity for Zenit to bounce straight back and potentially climb into the top four at Real’s expense.
Seen at: Euroleague.net