Every game matters in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, and that is truer than ever this week, when all nine Round 31 games having direct implications on the race for the playoffs. Here is your overview of what promises to be another dramatic week of action.
CSKA searches for home comforts
Four teams – Anadolu Efes Istanbul, AX Armani Exchange Milan, CSKA Moscow and FC Bayern Munich – are level on 19 wins as the race for a top-four finish – and therefore all-important home-court advantage in the playoffs – promises to go right down to the wire. CSKA has a game in hand and is therefore the best placed among that quartet before hosting Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (9-21) in this week’s first tip-off on Thursday. Despite already being eliminated from playoffs contention, Zvezda showed last week with a hard-fought comeback victory at Panathinaikos OPAP Athens that it is not prepared to end the season without a fight. Nonetheless, Zvezda is battling against the weight of history after losing on all five of its trips to CSKA this century. Dimitris Itoudis’s men restored a much-needed feel-good factor by surging to a strong win at Real Madrid last week, and will now aim to end an unprecedented run of four consecutive home losses. CSKA will play four of its five remaining regular season games in Moscow, so this is a first chance to reestablish its home-court supremacy – and to nail down its playoffs ticket early, depending on subsequent results this week, as well.
Zalgiris in need of offensive boost
Four teams are separated by just one victory in the race for eighth place, with Zenit St Petersburg (16-13) followed closely by TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz (16-14), Valencia Basket (16-14) and Zalgiris Kaunas (15-15). The first of those in action this week is Zalgiris, which welcomes Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv (11-17) on Thursday evening. Maccabi has a couple of games in hand due to COVID-19-related postponements, but those impending dates – scheduled for the first week in April – will only be meaningful if the Israeli team can keep its slender hopes alive by ending a run of four straight road losses and triumphing at Zalgiris.
The Lithuanian side also needs a change in fortunes after suffering three consecutive losses due to an offensive collapse which has seen just 64, 62 and 61 points scored in those games. Zalgiris has particularly lost its radar from beyond the arc, only converting 20-of-66 three-point attempts (30.3%) during those three losses after having previously led the league in long-range accuracy. The injury absence of sharp-shooting Arturas Milaknis has certainly played a part in that downturn, but Zalgiris needs to find a way to better offensive production this week.
16-14 vs. 19-11 in Spain… twice!
Two of the teams currently tied on 19-11 are heading into pretty much identical road fixtures: Bayern will attempt to maintain momentum after last week’s thrilling win over Efes when it travels to Valencia on Thursday. The following evening, Milan will also be in Spain to take on Baskonia. Bayern has been the king of close finishes this season, winning no less than nine games by 3 points or less, so Andrea Trinchieri’s men will hold no fear if it turns into a tight game. Valencia, though, is also high in confidence after winning three consecutive home games against top-class opposition in the form of CSKA, Real Madrid and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul (18-12). If that game is too close to call, the same applies to Milan’s trip to Baskonia on Friday. The Spanish host is in great form, winning seven of its last eight games and overcoming playoffs-chasing Bayern and Zenit in the last two outings. Milan, on the other hand, is reeling after being held to just 56 points – its lowest total in nine years – against Barcelona last week. Among many complicated qualification scenarios this week, this much is crystal clear: If Bayern and Milan both win in Spain, all four 19-11 teams coming into the week will be on their way to the playoffs.
Istanbul clubs going Greek
Turkish titans Anadolu Efes Istanbul and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul have both lifted themselves into the top eight with outstanding runs of form on the back of big performances from their superstars, and this week Shane Larkin, Vasilije Micic, Nando De Colo, Jan Vesely and co. are all set for a dose of Greek opposition.
Efes (19-11) is first up with a home meeting against eliminated Panathinaikos (10-18) on Thursday. The Greens have just two victories outside of Greece all season – and none since early December – so this should be a great opportunity for Efes to work off the frustration of last week’s last-gasp defeat at Bayern.
Fenerbahce (18-12), however, has a much tougher task on paper with Friday’s trip to Olympiacos Piraeus (14-16), which has kept itself in playoffs contention by winning three consecutive games. Olympiacos knows that a playoffs berth is still highly unlikely so has no choice but to treat every game as a final. This meeting will be a particularly special one for point guard Kostas Sloukas of Olympiacos as he goes up against his former team after spending the previous five seasons with Fenerbahce.
Aito out to delay old friends’ homecourt celebrations
After moving into a three-win lead at the top of the standings, FC Barcelona (22-8) can this week become the first team to secure homecourt advantage in the playoffs by overcoming visiting ALBA Berlin (11-19) at Palau Blaugrana on Friday. The man attempting to stop Barca from prolonging its winning run needs no introduction to the home club or its head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius. ALBA bench boss Aito Garcia Reneses was Barca’s captain during his playing days in the 1960s and later returned to the club for three separate stints as head coach and another as general manager. His final stint with the Blaugrana culminated in 2001 with a domestic league and cup double, with the team powered by a promising young point guard and center combo: Jasikevicius and Pau Gasol, who recently returned to the club after nearly two decades away. Gasol is almost certain not to play but he will be a more than interested spectator as his new coach attempts to overcome his old coach in a meeting loaded with personal significance.
Seen at: Euroleague.net