Game 5 may enjoy a much more dramatic reputation, but even for a team that's ahead in its series – but especially a home team – Game 4 is just as much of a do-or-die challenge.
That is true for tonight's Game 4 showdown between Anadolu Efes Istanbul and Olympiacos Piraeus in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs.
Efes leads 2-1, so whatever happens, its season will not end tonight. (That's something that another Istanbul team, Darussafaka Dogus, which is down 1-2 as it hosts Real Madrid, cannot say.) But Efes can't afford to take any comfort from having to win only one of the next two games. Efes may have done its heaviest lifting already by winning Game 2 on the road and turning home-court advantage in its favor.
But the job is not finished, and Efes really, really doesn’t want to go back to Piraeus anytime soon.
Six times in eight years' worth of these best-of-five playoffs series, it has come down to the fifth and final game to decide which team gets to the Final Four. All six times the home team has won.
It did not matter at all that the Game 5 visitor had won earlier in the series on the same court. That happened in five of those series: to Baskonia in 2009 against FC Barcelona; to Valencia in 2011 against Real Madrid; to Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2012 against Panathinaikos Athens; to Panathinaikos in 2013 against Barcelona; and to Barcelona last season against Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar. All of them had beaten their opponents away already in the series. Four of them - all except Valencia - had won Game 3 to lead 2-1, just as Efes did on Wednesday. They only had to survive Game 4 at home to reach the Final Four. None of them could do so. And in Game 5, all of them perished.
On the flip side, if six series since 2009 went to Game 5 and 10 other were sweeps, that means 18 others – more than half of the total – were finished in Game 4.
Efes fans can take heart that seven other teams – Partizan in 2010, Maccabi, Siena and Panathinaikos in 2011, Olympiacos in 2012, Maccabi in 2014 and Olympiacos in 2015 – were in the same exact position as their team. All of those teams won Game 4 to advance. What's more, three of them – Panathinaikos in 2011, Olympiacos in 2012, and Maccabi in 2014 – went on to become champions.
The difference that Efes must keep in mind tonight comes down to two words: Vassilis Spanoulis.
His team had no business being as close as 64-60 at the final buzzer in Istanbul on Wednesday. Efes had led by double digits for 13 minutes of the second half, by a high of 17 late in the third quarter, and by 13 with 6 minutes left in the fourth. It was still a an eight-point difference, 57-49, when his first three-pointer of the game fell with under 3 minutes left. Then, with 1:33 left, he dished his perfect seventh assist to Khem Birch for a three-point play.
Going into the final minute, Spanoulis made it 59-57 on another deep three-pointer. And then with 20 seconds left – and everyone on the planet knowing he was going to shoot the ball – Spanoulis broke free for a split second to thread a lean-in triple through the net for a one-point difference, 61-60. Fortunately for Efes fans, their team had scored after each of those occasions, but Spanoulis had one final chance to send the game to overtime.
This time he missed, it's true, and the victory stayed with Efes. But you can believe that Spanoulis planted a sizeable seed of doubt not only for a Game 3 outcome that Efes had seemed to hold in the palm of its hand, but for Game 4 tonight, too.
Remember, four members of this Olympiacos team – Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis, Vangelis Mantzaris and Kostas Papanikolaou – were the absolute kings of comebacks when the Reds won their back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. They came from 19 down to beat CSKA Moscow in the 2012 championship game; from 15 down to beat Efes in Game 5 of the next season's playoffs; from 17 down to beat Madrid a month later in the title game for a repeat. Two years later – with all but Papanikolaou still there – they overcame a nine-point deficit with 3:30 to play to beat CSKA and reach the 2015 final.
If there is one team that cannot be counted out until the buzzer sounds, the arena empties, the lights are turned off and the doors locked, it is Olympiacos. And though many have contributed to its comeback successes, if there is one player who has earned the Reds that reputation, it is Spanoulis.
It is only Game 4, yes. But Spanoulis is healthy and his long-time Olympiacos running mates are at his side. So this Game 4 is very much do-or-die – for both teams – tonight.