There should be no doubt about how serious tonight's Game of the Week between Real Madrid and Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens is, even in the sixth-to-last round of the regular season. Madrid and Panathinaikos are tied on victories in fifth place with 14-10 records, three wins behind the top three teams in the standings – CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos Piraeus and Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul – and one behind fourth-place Zalgiris Kaunas.
With no games left against those first three teams, neither Panathinaikos nor Madrid has a great shot at catching them now, win or lose tonight's Game of the Week. If true, that means that the fourth playoffs spot – the last to come with home-court advantage – is looking more and more like a four-way battle between Zalgiris, Madrid, Panathinaikos and the other team with a 14-10 record, Khimki Moscow Region. It's anybody's guess who among them will be standing fourth after Round 30.
For that reason, not even tonight's winner will get any guarantees. But the loser could face a prolonged battle to qualify for the playoffs and a much tougher one to eventually host Game 1 in those best-of-five series. And with more than 75 percent of the playoffs series to date won by teams with home-court advantage, the odds of tonight's loser reaching the Final Four – which is the true goal of both Madrid and Panathinaikos – get even longer.
So, within the larger race to get one of six open playoff places, a battle within that battle – the one for fourth place – is looking just as hot or hotter. And among those four teams with their eyes on that prize, the key game in many ways is tonight between Madrid and Panathinaikos.
For starters, it is one of just two games left in which any pair of those four teams face each other. (The other is Madrid hosting Zalgiris in Round 28.)
What's more, both of these teams are slumping of late and need the victory badly for reasons of morale, too. Madrid has lost four of its last six games, with back-to-back home defeats to Olympiacos and Fenerbahce still ringing in its ears. Panathinaikos has been even more wobbly, having dropped five out of the last seven, none hurting more than a two-point home loss to archrival Olympiacos last week.
Finally, there is the math. The only team among the four vying for fourth place that has finished playing all the others, Khimki, has a 4-2 record against the other three (but with a -9 point difference). Madrid is 2-2 (+31), Panathinaikos 3-2 (+9) and Zalgiris 1-4 (-34) within that quartet. There are many scenarios for future ties between two, three or all of them, but if Panathinaikos were to win tonight, it would not only move ahead of Madrid, at least, in the standings, but would own the advantage in that potential four-way tie after Round 30. Should Madrid win tonight, it would also have to defeat Zalgiris at home to win that same potential tie of four teams.
As it happens, however, Panathinaikos has not won a EuroLeague road game in 2018 yet, and their last couple of tries have not been pretty – falling by 21 in Bamberg in Round 21 and 27 to Khimki in Round 23, the latter loss coming despite the return of sparkplug guard Mike James.
Tonight's duel is also colored by the doubts about whether Luka Doncic, Madrid's whiz kid MVP candidate, will be able to play after missing some practice with a muscular problem that requires tests, according to his head coach, Pablo Laso. Doncic was Madrid's top scorer with 19 points – although he also tied the EuroLeague season high by committing 8 turnovers – when Panathinaikos won their first encounter, 82-80, back in Round 9 after erasing a 16-point deficit.
Madrid is fortunate to have firecracker Facundo Campazzo at the ready, but to deal with a Panathinaikos backcourt featuring league-leading assist-maker Nick Calathes and James, among others, there will be plenty of work to go around for the hosts if suddenly Doncic is not the center of attention. Of course, Madrid has suffered all season from the absence of Sergio Llull, last year's EuroLeague MVP, among other injured players, most of whom are back now.
The purest guard after Doncic and Campazzo is shooting star Jaycee Carroll. Just shy of his 35th birthday, Carroll is as dangerous as ever, but hasn't played more than 18 minutes on average in the last five years. After him is untested EuroLeague rookie Randle Chasson, although veterans Rudy Fernandez and Fabien Causeur can certainly do guard duty and versatile Jeffery Taylor is often used to bottle up perimeter scorers who are smaller than him.
Perimeter defense against the exquisite passing of Calathes will be key for Madrid, but so will its inside play, because those passes are often converted as easy dunks by James Gist, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Kenny Gabriel. Remember, however, that while losing by 2 points in Athens, Madrid didn't have injured big men Gustavo Ayon and Anthony Randolph, both of whom are now healthy. Plus, Walter Tavares gives the hosts a deterrent size advantage and Felipe Reyes can be counted upon, a few days before his 28th birthday, to put all of his experience into play.
If you are looking for x-factors, don't forget sharpshooter K.C. Rivers of Panathinaikos, returning to play against the team he won the 2015 EuroLeague title with, or Trey Thompkins of Madrid, who is having one of the best under-the-radar seasons among EuroLeague players as he returns from two games injured.
The stage is set for a classic between a host team that dominated European basketball until the Final Four era and a visiting opponent that has accomplished the same in the modern era. The playoffs might be more than a month away, but circumstances dictate that Madrid and Panathinaikos are sure to play tonight as though the post-season has already arrived.