Six of the eight clubs in playoff position after two-thirds of the regular season have combined for six Turkish Airlines EuroLeague titles, 24 Final Fours and 37 playoff appearances – and that's just since 2010!
The other two – Zalgiris Kaunas and Khimki Moscow Region, tonight's Game of the Week opponents for Round 22 – have never made it as far as the playoffs this century. However, their presence in sixth and seventh place, respectively, continues a tradition of new teams knocking on the door to the playoffs. And in many cases, breaking it down.
After the playoffs debuted in 2004-05 – when all eight teams were newcomers to the phase – at least one first-timer has participated in 10 of the next 12 editions. And if anything, that trend has strengthened, with eight of 11 total playoffs debuts coming in the last six seasons. If you count that first season, a total of 13 clubs from five different countries have tasted playoffs joy on a one-time-only basis, with two of them - Unicaja Malaga in 2007 and Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in 2016 – making it all the way to the Final Four. In other words, there has always been diversity in the playoffs, and the new round-robin format shows no signs of changing that.
Both Zalgiris, with a 13-8 record, and Khimki, at 12-9, are well positioned to honor that tradition of playoffs trailblazers. Zalgiris is three victories clear of the nearest team currently out of playoffs range, Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz (10-12), but lost to the Spaniards at home by 20 and visit them in Round 26, so cannot expect a head-to-head tiebreak advantage. Khimki beat Baskonia at home, but only by a point, so their game in Round 24 will be pivotal for both teams, too.
The sands may shift plenty in this playoffs race, but while they do, it's telling to see how Zalgiris and Khimki have put themselves in such enviable position.
From the team whose bench the legendary Sarunas Jasikevicius took over midway through the 2015-16 season, Zalgiris has just three players left: Paulius Jankunas, Edgaras Ulanovas and youngster Martynas Sajus. Some players left for greener pastures, others have retired (Martynas Pocius and Robertas Javtokas). In their stead, Zalgiris has gotten younger and more athletic by mining the 7DAYS EuroCup for two ready-for-prime-time players, Kevin Pangos and Aaron White, while finding young foreign talents with EuroLeague experience in Axel Toupane and Vasilije Micic. To balance their youth, Zalgiris also brought back one national team veteran, sharpshooter Arturas Milaknis, and brought in another, Antanas Kavaliauskas.
Khimki's formula has been to trust its local products and load up on experience. To a solid core of national players led by Alexey Shved, this season's top scorer, Khimki added players with EuroLeague know-how like James Anderson, who debuted in the EuroLeague with Zalgiris, Charles Jenkins, Stefan Markovic and Malcolm Thomas. That mix was cited by jumping-jack forward Tyler Honeycutt to explain why he returned to the club after one season away. What's more, Khimki hired Georgios Bartzokas as head coach after seeing him guide Olympiacos Piraeus to a EuroLeague title in 2013 and Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar to the Final Four in 2016. Thomas Robinson, the only player who is truly new to the EuroLeague on the roster, was a marquee addition, but even with him being limited to nine games so far, Khimki is in seventh place, just two victories behind a trio of second-place teams.
Of course, the fingerprints of their coaches can be seen on both teams. Zalgiris ranks second in assists and fourth in points in the EuroLeague. It had ranked 23rd out of 24 teams in scoring back in 2014-15, the last full season that Jasikevicius was not head coach. While Khimki has this season's runaway top scorer in Shved, it's 14th in team scoring this season, although its defense is the fourth-best under Bartzokas.
So far, so good for both teams, but they will be the first to say, nothing has been accomplished yet. Far from it. As well as Baskonia, Zalgiris has all of last season's Final Four teams among its last eight games. Counting tonight, however, Khimki has an equal number of current playoff teams, five, on the schedule, although three of them must come to Moscow.
All of which makes this game pivotal. A home win by Zalgiris keeps it in the running for the top four and further away from the bottom eight. But a road win by Khimki would flip their fortunes. Khimki won their first meeting at home, 85-77, with Robinson starring, so a second victory over Zalgiris tonight would send the visitors higher up the charts.
Fans of both teams will be holding their breath for a couple of months while waiting for them to break through to the playoffs for the first time. And right now, both are in position to do so. But if only one ultimately succeeds, the victory that sits between them before tonight's showdown may well be looked back on as the key one in both their fates.