The closing action of 2021 in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague will take place on Wednesday and Thursday, with the regular season entering its second half as Round 18 roars into life. Here’s your quick guide to the final games of the calendar year.
Monaco, Maccabi vie for turnaround victory
For the second week in a row, the round will start one day early – on Wednesday – to accommodate the end-of-year holidays, although two games originally scheduled for the same night have been postponed due to the current COVID-19 wave. That leaves two teams that are very much in need of a victory, host AS Monaco and visiting Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv, battling over one that could jump-start their seasons again.
In its EuroLeague debut this season, Monaco (6-11) acquitted itself admirably with five victories in its first nine games. But since mid-November, its defense has allowed an average of 90.0 points over eight games of which Monaco has prevailed just once, in overtime against last-place Zalgiris Kaunas.
That negative run started with Monaco losing in Tel Aviv to a Maccabi team that has not won any of its seven games since. Maccabi (7-10) held fourth place after beating Monaco and has since fallen into a four-way tie for 10th place. Due to its vaunted history, Maccabi will feel more pressure to turn things around but will want to beware of a Monaco defense that has held opponents to 15 points fewer in home games than in road games.
CSKA’s Milutinov returns to Piraeus
Also on Wednesday, CSKA Moscow (10-7) will certainly be keen to recover as quickly as possible from a road loss last week against short-handed Real Madrid. To do so, however, the Russian giant faces another tough road test, taking on high-flying Olympiacos Piraeus (12-5) at the Peace and Friendship Stadium.
Olympiacos has taken control of third place in the standings by winning a perfect nine out of nine games at home and will be feeling even better about its form following last week’s convincing Greek derby victory at Panathinaikos OPAP Athens.
The Reds haven’t just been winning in Piraeus but doing so convincingly, enjoying margins of 35, 23, 17 and 21 points in its last four home games. So it clearly won’t be an easy night for CSKA, which will hope for a big performance on familiar territory from ex-Olympiacos center Nikola Milutinov, who was maybe the only CSKA player to emerge from the loss in Madrid with any credit after a powerful double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds. This will be his first game back in Piraeus, where he spent five EuroLeague seasons, after missing the trip there last time through injury.
Can Baskonia upset Barca again?
An improbable victory over UNICS Kazan – coming back from 20 points down in the fourth quarter – allowed FC Barcelona to complete the first half of the regular season with the joint-best record (15-2) since the restructuring of the league five years ago. The task of starting the second half of the campaign in similarly dominant fashion will send Sarunas Jasikevicius’s men into a Spanish derby on Thursday at Bitci Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz (6-11), which gained a big boost in morale last week with a road win at FC Bayern Munich.
Baskonia has a good recent home record against Barca, winning four of their last six EuroLeague meetings at Fernando Buesa Arena, and can take further confidence from its recent Spanish League victory at Barcelona. A key to repeating that triumph is scoring star Wade Baldwin IV, who had a slow start to the season with his new club but has now truly established himself as a fundamental performer for Baskonia, culminating in an MVP of the Round nod following his career-high 30 points in last week’s win at Bayern. With Barca still suffering from injury problems in the backcourt, Baldwin will look to produce another game-winning performance on Thursday.
UNICS seek bounce-back vs. champs
UNICS Kazan (10-7) will attempt to take out the frustrations of that tough loss in Barcelona by overcoming the other finalist from last season’s championship game, Anadolu Efes Istanbul (9-8), in a game loaded with implications for the playoffs positions.
One player, in particular, will be eager to play a starring role for the Russian team: Isaiah Canaan inadvertently sparked Barca’s comeback last week by “shushing” the Palau Blaugrana crowd with a finger-to-the-lips celebration after a three-pointer midway through the final period. That gesture proved to be all the motivation the home team needed to mount its amazing comeback, and Canaan’s tough night was compounded when he missed 2 free throws which would have given UNICS the lead with 14 seconds remaining in overtime.
Canaan won’t back down from the challenge of responding against the reigning champs, and he certainly possesses the ability to win the game from deep: with an average of 3.1 three-pointers per night, nobody has made more triples in the competition, and he has hit those with the league’s fourth-best accuracy rate, 47.3%. Efes duo Vasilije Micic (2.1) and Rodrigue Beaubois (2.0) also rank in the top 10 in three-pointers made, so this game could well be decided from beyond the arc.
Farewell to 2021
The final EuroLeague tipoff of 2021 sees LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne (8-9) welcome FC Bayern Munich (7-10) on Thursday evening. Although they currently lie outside the playoffs positions, this has been a memorable year for both teams, with ASVEL playing its third straight EuroLeague season for the first time ever, as well as winning the domestic French championship, while Bayern became the first German club to reach the EuroLeague playoffs back in April.
There have been many memorable moments throughout the EuroLeague over the past 12 months, especially the highlight of Efes’s well-deserved march to the title in Cologne in May. However, in some ways that was also a lowlight because it was the first Final Four to be contested without fans, and everyone connected with Euroleague Basketball hopes that will never have to happen again. To all our fans, all over the world and especially to those who support their teams by attending games, thanks for your support and very best wishes for a happy and healthy 2022 – hopefully in full arenas all over the continent.
Seen at: Euroleague.net