Game Center, Round 23: Back from Cup success
After three Turkish Airlines EuroLeague teams won their respective domestic cup competitions last week and four others reached the finals, the focus returns to the premier competition on the continent with Round 23. This round will see the first time a team can clinch a playoff berth and it will come in the very first game if CSKA Moscow defeats Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz. Among Friday highlights will be a meeting between the winners of the Turkish and Lithuanian Cups, Anadolu Efes Istanbul and Zalgiris Kaunas, and the final will be another Clasico plus a rematch from Sunday’s Copa del Rey: FC Barcelona Lassa versus Real Madrid.
CSKA Moscow vs Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz
League-leading CSKA (17-5) could become the first team to secure a playoffs berth by putting more distance between itself and ninth-placed Baskonia (10-12). It should be a high-scoring encounter between the competition’s top and fourth-highest scoring teams – CSKA averages 89.2 points per game against Baskonia’s 81.7. With new signing Victor Rudd set to make his CSKA debut, Baskonia could look to profit from the host’s lack of big man depth by dominating inside through Vincent Poirier and Toko Shengelia, who ranks joint third in the league in rebounding alongside CSKA’s Will Clyburn (6.1 rpg).
Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul vs AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan
Fenerbahce (15-7) will look to solidify its position in the top four by claiming a fifth straight home win when Milan (7-15) comes to town. The visitors look for firepower from former Fener man Andrew Goudelock. Milan has a more-potent offense, averaging 80.6 points per game against the host’s 78.1 ppg, but Fenerbahce has been harder to score against, boasting the competition’s best defensive record with an average of just 73.3 points per game allowed, while Milan ranks last in that category after conceding 85.3 points per game. The Italian team must stiffen its resolve to escape Istanbul with a road win.
Olympiacos Piraeus vs Valencia Basket
Two teams with confidence renewed return to action after downing big-name opposition in their last EuroLeague outings. Olympiacos (15-7) ended a horrible run of road form with a victory at Real Madrid, while Valencia (8-14) downed CSKA Moscow in a high-scoring thriller. Olympiacos has gained six straight victories over the visiting team and will aim for number seven by leaning on its physicality – the Reds have significantly outrebounded Valencia so far this season, averaging 35.8 boards per game against the Spanish champs’ 31.9 rpg – second-best in the league against fourth-worst in that category.
Unicaja Malaga vs Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv
A game with huge implications for the playoffs race could see Unicaja (9-13) get right back into contention by overcoming the current owners of all-important eighth place, Maccabi (12-10).
Unicaja has been strong defensively in recent weeks, allowing just 74.0 points per game in its last four outings. And the key for Unicaja will be slowing down a fast-paced Maccabi offense that has attempted far more two-pointers per game than any other team (47.4 per game) and won three of its last four games amid a flurry of points, scoring 89, 111 and 94 points in those victories.
Khimki Moscow Region vs Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens
A big battle between two teams with sights set on securing home-court advantage in the playoffs features a fascinating duel between two of this season’s outstanding individual performers, Alexey Shved and Nick Calathes. But there’s far more to this game than just two players, with Khimki (13-9) claiming four wins in its last five largely thanks to outstanding defense, allowing an average of just 66 points per game in those victories. Panathinaikos (14-8) has stuttered recently, losing three consecutive games on the road, but has welcomed back Mike James to add another spark for the remainder of the campaign.
Anadolu Efes Istanbul vs Zalgiris Kaunas
After losing its last three away games, Zalgiris (13-9) will look to get back on track against an Efes (6-16) team thar is placed bottom of the standings, but has won three of its last four in Istanbul. Both teams are in good spirits following domestic cup triumphs on Sunday. Zalgiris has been a far more efficient offensive force, converting 54.8% of two-point attempts and 41% of three-pointers compared to the respective totals of 49.4% and 34.3% for Efes. And the home team will have to be particularly wary of the threat posed by visiting guard Kevin Pangos, who ranks third in the league in both three-pointers made (2.3 per game) and assists (6.2 per game).
Brose Bamberg vs Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade
These two teams could be visiting the last-chance saloon in the race for the playoffs as Brose (8-14) aims to climb level in the standings with Zvezda (9-13). The German champion has won its last two home games against tough opposition, Panathinaikos and Zalgiris, while Zvezda has suffered three straight road losses. It could well be a shoot-out, with Brose scoring 93 and 95 points in those two wins, while three of Zvezda’s last six contests have seen one of the teams reach 100 points. Sharing the ball could be crucial – the teams rank third-last (Zvezda 15.9 apg) and next-to-last (Brose 15.4 apg) in assists.
FC Barcelona Lassa vs Real Madrid
Barcelona (7-15) welcomes Madrid (13-9) under new leadership following the return of coaching veteran Svetislav Pesic to the bench. Madrid has enjoyed the better of recent EuroLeague Clasicos, winning three in a row including a crushing 63-102 road victory last season, however Barca edged Madrid in the Spanish Cup final on Sunday. Nobody has registered more assists this season than Barcelona (20.6 per game), but Madrid has the second-best team average performance index rating (99.6) on the back of Luka Doncic’s 17.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Barcelona’s ability to stop the boy wonder could be decisive to the outcome in this one.