Never say never

May 02, 2017 by Frank Lawlor, Euroleague.net Print
Never say never

Sooner or later, it is going to happen. A visiting team is going to win Game 5.

That has not been the case in the first eight Game 5s to date. Home teams have not only won all eight times, but have done so by an average of 13 points. Even throwing out the extreme differences in those eight games - a 30-point blowout and a one-point thriller - the average is still 12 points for the home teams.

Nonetheless, it will happen someday.

It may or may not be tonight, when Olympiacos Piraeus hosts Anadolu Efes Istanbul in the only Game 5 this season, a no-tomorrow showdown whose winner will book a place at the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four in Istanbul in two weeks' time.

But it will happen, and the trends would seem to say sooner rather than later.

Don't forget that already in these playoffs, two teams have advanced by winning two road games each, which had not happened since 2010. Fenerbahce Istanbul became the first team ever to win twice away to start a series and proceeded to sweep Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens in the minimum three games. Real Madrid got tripped up at home in Game 2, losing its hard-won home-court advantage, but promptly triumphed twice at Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul's place to end its own series in four games. CSKA won its only road game to sweep Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, while Olympiacos and Efes have both won on the other's home floor.

If you are counting, that makes seven visiting team victories in the last two weeks, the most in four best-of-five playoffs series since 2009. Indeed, before tonight, road teams have won 50% of the 14 playoff games this season, which is at least 15% higher than any of the last seven seasons. Even if Efes loses tonight, road teams will have won 46.6% of the games, breaking the record of 43.8% from 2009, the first season that best-of-five playoffs came to the EuroLeague.

Road winners in the playoffs would be a sign of competitiveness in any league, but the fact that more than half of those victories this season have come from lower-seeded teams entering the playoffs – four total among Fenerbahce, Darussafaka and Efes – is more proof that under its new, 30-game regular season format, in which every team plays every team twice, the EuroLeague is extremely well balanced.

Remember, too, that Efes has a 4-2 record on the road since January. It's true that three of those victims were non-playoff teams. But Efes won the first game of that run in one of the toughest gyms in the world, against Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade at Aleksandar Nikolic Hall. And to prove how difficult that was, consider that Zvezda had beaten the three teams now qualified for the Final Four – Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Istanbul – plus Panathinaikos, in succession, before Efes came to town.

The last of Efes's road wins, of course, came on the same stage where tonight's do-or-die showdown will take place, Peace and Friendship Stadium, in Piraeus less than two weeks ago. And a couple of weeks before that, Efes beat Olympiacos in Round 29 of the regular season. So in addition to its solid recent road record, Efes is 3-2 against Olympiacos in the last month.

One last fact on the Efes side of the ledger: Efes boss Velimir Perasovic was head coach of the only team that won a do-or-die EuroLeague playoffs finale on the road. That happened in Game 3 of the best-of-three 2006 playoffs, when he was coaching Tau Ceramica, and it happened in Athens against Panathinaikos.

All of which is not to suggest that Olympiacos is anything but the favorite tonight. Disregarding the history of Game 5s so far, Olympiacos has more than earned its status as favorite at home over the years. It has a 16-4 home record since the playoffs started in 2005 and had won 10 consecutive playoff games at Peace and Friendship before losing Game 2 there to Efes.

There is also the fact that Olympiacos beat Efes at home in Game 5 of the 2013 playoffs despite trailing by 15 points late in the second quarter. That game is but one in an amazing string of examples of Olympiacos coming up big despite huge deficits to win do-or-die games this time of year. Four players from that 2013 series will suit up for the Reds tonight, four years later, and that gives them a wealth of experience in these must-win moments as compared to Efes.

Add to that more than 11,000 hardy helpers at sold-out Peace and Friendship and the most compelling big-game player of his – or perhaps any – generation, Vassilis Spanoulis, and Olympiacos has more than enough to be confident about tonight.

Olympiacos earned the right to host this game by its better performance over the longest regular season in EuroLeague history, and its 11-4 home record in that phase was a major part of that achievement. But it still comes down to 40 minutes between two teams that have both shown they can beat the other anywhere.

The advantage to play Game 5 at home was what Olympiacos earned through all of its efforts over six months, but not the victory itself. That must be earned tonight. History says the home team is undefeated in such games. But someday history will be made by a visiting team.

Never say never.