This Week: Double-round fuel for playoffs race – News

Another double-round week will add further fuel to an already red-hot race for the playoffs, with this week’s action including a pair of top-four challengers for the season’s surprise team. Check out our quick guide to Rounds 22 and 23.

Maccabi faces Fener’s fearsome twosome

Two of last week’s biggest winners, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul (11-10) and Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv (10-11), who boosted their playoffs hopes by downing CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid, respectively, will now go head to head on Tuesday night. Perhaps no two players in the competition are working better together right now than the Fenerbahce duo of Nando De Colo and Jan Vesely, who combined for 46 points, 8 rebounds, 12 assists and 5 steals to down CSKA. The pair of former EuroLeague MVPs have played the central role in their team’s sparkling six-game winning run, which has transformed a season of underachievement into a real challenge for a playoffs place – at a minimum. Stopping De Colo and Vesely – who rank second and fourth, respectively, in PIR over the last three games – will be the biggest concern for Maccabi, which makes the journey to Istanbul aiming to climb level with Fenerbahce on 11 wins. A stunning 30-point individual display by Tyler Dorsey was the key behind last week’s win over Real, but finding defensive stops will be the key to the outcome of this one.

Two top tussles for high-flying Zenit

The surprise team of the season is Zenit St Petersburg (13-6), which has shown commendable consistency to climb to third place in the standings. This week, though, presents undoubtedly the biggest challenge yet for Xavi Pascual’s men, who face a pair of top-four rivals with trips to FC Barcelona (15-6) and AC Armani Exchange Milan (13-7). Tuesday’s game at Palau Blaugrana, his home for 12 years, will be a particularly special one for Zenit’s head coach. Having led Barca’s B team and then served as an assistant coach, he took over the senior reins in 2008 and led the team to an era of consistent success over the next eight years, including the 2010 EuroLeague crown and four Spanish league titles. Thursday’s game at Milan – which has hit top form with four straight victories – will be another huge challenge, but Zenit will certainly not be overawed after already gaining a league-best eight road wins. And if the Russian team can come away with a pair of victories from this week’s trips to Barcelona and Milan, its credentials as true title candidates will be impossible to deny.

Dubljevic back to boost Valencia

Another Round 22 battle with direct implications for the top eight places takes place on Wednesday night with Valencia Basket (11-10) hosting Zalgiris Kaunas (12-9) in a ninth- versus sixth-place showdown. Valencia has been struggling for form recently, losing four of its last five in a run of games coinciding with the absence of Bojan Dubljevic, its long-time leader. But the big man returned to domestic action over the weekend, so Valencia will hope he can spark a victory that would lift the Spanish team above Zalgiris in the standings, giving a head-to-head advantage, as well, following its road win in Kaunas in October. Zalgiris showed its never-say-die spirit with a remarkable comeback victory over Olympiacos last week, in large part thanks to another outstanding performance from in-form center Joffrey Lauvergne. The paint-dominating Frenchman ranks fourth in the league in two-pointers made and ninth in rebounds, so his battle with the Dubljevic could be a key to deciding this important game.

Efes looks for consistency

The uneven season of Anadolu Efes Istanbul, last season’s standings leader, continued last week with a defeat against Zenit St Petersburg, leaving Ergin Ataman’s men clinging onto eighth place with an 11-10 record, the same as four other teams. This week’s action sees Efes start with a home game on Tuesday against Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (7-14), which has suffered problems on offense all season and ranks as the lowest scorer in the league with 74.1 points per game. Efes then heads on the road to Tel Aviv for Maccabi’s second big game of the week against playoffs aspirants from Istanbul. November’s meeting between the teams was one of the most exciting of the season, with Efes sharpshooter Rodrigue Beaubois eventually proving decisive as he scored the go-ahead basket and then blocked an attempted game-winner from Scottie Wilbekin to secure a 91-89 victory. It would be wise to expect a similarly close struggle on Thursday at the end of a week which could have long-term ramifications for both teams.

Panathinaikos seeks momentum

Panathinaikos OPAP Athens (7-13), fresh off its first win under new head coach Oded Kattash, will be hoping to use that fresh start as a springboard to mount a late challenge for the playoffs. There is a long way to go for the Greens to climb into the top eight, and the next challenge for Kattash is a big one as Panathinaikos travels to Real Madrid (13-8) on Wednesday aiming to end a 10-game losing streak against the Spanish giant. Real, which is hurting after losing last week in Tel Aviv, desperately needs the win to boost its top four chances. This game will feature a bone-crunching battle between two of the league’s best big men. Dinos Mitoglou has been in excellent form recently, scoring in double-digits for four successive games and taking last week’s MVP award after a career-high night of 29 points and 42 PIR. On Wednesday he will go up against Real giant Walter Tavares, who ranks second in the league in rebounding and joint first in shot-blocking (alongside Panathinaikos center Georgios Papagiannis, who missed last week’s win over Khimki Moscow Region). Tavares had a monster night of 20 points and 14 rebounds when Real won a double-overtime thriller in Athens last month, so winning the inside battle will be a priority this time for Mitoglou and Papagiannis.

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