The race for the playoffs is hotter than ever in the most competitive Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season in history and several rivals will meet head-to-head in Round 30. Here is what you need to look out for in this week’s games.
Zenit seeks home comfort
With key victories last week by TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Valencia Basket coupled with defeats for Real Madrid, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, Zenit St Petersburg and Zalgiris Kaunas, the playoff race has further intensified with those six teams now separated by just two wins. And a couple of them square off in Round 30’s opening tip on Thursday when host Zenit (16-12) attempts to bounce back into form against Baskonia (15-14), which aims to maintain momentum following a victory over FC Bayern Munich.
Earlier in the season, Zenit was struggling to win at home but nearly always triumphing on the road. That has totally changed now, though, with Coach Xavi Pascual’s men losing five of their last six away games while winning six of eight on their home court. The good news for Zenit is that five of its six remaining games will be staged in St Petersburg. So this week’s host will aim to start that sequence in the right way by gaining a win which would also secure the potential head-to-head tiebreaker, having already beaten Baskonia in Vitoria in November.
Last chance for Zalgiris to stay alive?
Another direct battle for a place in the top eight will unfold on Thursday in Istanbul, where Fenerbahce (17-12) and Zalgiris (15-14) will seek to bounce back from disappointing results last week. Fenerbahce was restricted to its lowest points total since 2009 in a 66-52 defeat to Valencia, where Coach Igor Kokoskov’s team was held to just 3 three-pointers on 23 attempts. The Turkish team also committed 18 turnovers on a horrible offensive night, not helped by the absence of Marko Guduric with an ankle injury. Fenerbahce is 12-1 with Guduric this season and 5-11 without him, so Kokoskov will be eager to see the swingman back in action on Thursday.
Zalgiris, meanwhile, knows the game is a last realistic chance to revive its flagging playoff hopes. The Lithuanian champ suffered a pummelling in Istanbul last week at the hands of Anadolu Efes and has now lost five of its last seven games, with four of the defeats coming on the road. Zalgiris has only averaged 67.7 points over those seven games and badly needs to start making shots from the get-go to prevent Fenerbahce from feeling comfortable.
Red-hot Efes playoffs-bound?
The week’s action starts early on Tuesday with a rearranged Round 23 game between Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv (11-16) and Efes (18-10), which could simultaneously help the visitors secure a place in the playoffs while leaving the out-of-form hosts on the brink of elimination. Efes is in magnificent form, having won seven consecutive games to climb from outside the top eight into fourth place. Coach Ergin Ataman’s team can even qualify for the playoffs this week by winning at Maccabi on Tuesday and then overcoming Bayern (18-11) on the road in a key game on Friday, but only if Baskonia, Valencia and Zalgiris all lose in Round 30.
Whatever happens this week, though, it is surely just a matter of time before Efes punches its post-season ticket because the team is enjoying one of the most dominant spells of form ever witnessed in the competition: Efes’s seven straight wins have come with an average margin of 20.9 points while netting a remarkable 92.0 points per game. Attempting to stop that juggernaut on Tuesday will be a Maccabi team that has lost five of its last six and must win every remaining game to have any chance of the playoffs.
Struggling giants collide
A huge battle will be staged on Thursday night in the Spanish capital, where two struggling giants will meet as Real Madrid (17-12) hosts CSKA Moscow (18-10). These titans of the European game, both two-time title winners in the last decade, are sore after suffering tough losses last week. Real went down at home to archrival FC Barcelona, allowing the visiting team to celebrate advancing to the playoffs. Coach Pablo Laso’s team has lost four of its last six games and now faces a daunting conclusion to the regular season with both Istanbul teams still lying in wait.
CSKA, meanwhile, has set a very unwanted record twice in the space of two games: in Round 28, the Russian team’s first-quarter deficit of 18 points (31-13) against Efes was the worst ever recorded by the club in a EuroLeague quarter. But that mark only stayed in place for one game, because last week’s loss at home to AX Armani Exchange Milan saw the Italian team race into a 20-point lead (10-30) at the end of the opening quarter. In that context, it’s fair to say CSKA will be targeting a strong start to this week’s showdown in Madrid.
Can Punter fire Milan past Barca?
Those big victories last week for Milan (19-10) and Barcelona (21-8) see them respectively occupy second and first place in the standings ahead of Friday’s meeting in the Italian fashion capital which could easily prove to be a dress rehearsal for the Final Four. Milan can only qualify for the playoffs this week through a complicated series of results including at least three other teams losing, but first and foremost, Coach Ettore Messina’s men must win to maintain a strong position in the all-important top four. The key man could prove to be shooting guard Kevin Punter, who leads the team in scoring with 15.0 points per game, including a career-high 32 points to inspire last week’s win over CSKA.
Punter was restricted to just 6 points, converting only 2-of-11 field goal attempts, when his team was beaten convincingly, 87-71, at Barcelona in December, so he will feel that he has something to prove against a visiting team which will be eager to seal homecourt advantage in the playoffs as soon as possible – even though that cannot mathematically happen this week.