The races to reach the playoffs and to clinch home-court advantage, as well as Crvena Zvezda's remarkable record in Vitoria are among the key storylines to watch in Round 21 of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season this week.
Big battles for home-court advantage
Simple mathematics tells us that five into four doesn’t go, and at the top of the standings the main drama for the remainder of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season will be the battle between five teams – CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul, Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens and Olympiacos Piraeus – to secure the four available home-court advantage berths in the playoffs. This week, four of those teams are playing against each other, and Thursday’s potentially thrilling matchups between CSKA and Madrid in the Russian capital, immediately followed by Olympiacos against Fenerbahce in the Athens suburb, provides four hours of back-to-back basketball that could be pivotal in determining how the remainder of the season plays out.
CSKA, in particular, can take a giant stride towards its top-four goal by beating Madrid to put four games of daylight between itself and the Spanish team with just nine to play. That would also leave CSKA at least three games clear of Fenerbahce or Olympiacos depending upon the outcome of their encounter, so there’s a massive incentive for Coach Dimitris Itoudis’s players to avenge their early-season loss in Madrid.
Can Panathinaikos profit from losses of peers?
The fact that four of the top five teams are playing against each other in Round 21 also provides a huge opportunity for the remaining member of that quintet, Panathinaikos, which knows that two of its direct rivals for a top four position will definitely lose this week. To make the most of that scenario, the Greek champion has no option but to win on the road at Brose Bamberg, which itself will be fighting desperately hard to maintain any lingering hopes of reaching the playoffs.
Panathinaikos has the confidence of heading to Germany in the knowledge that persistent triple-double threat Nick Calathes is arguably in the best form of his life, scoring at least 13 points and dishing at least 7 assists in each of his last five outings since returning from a three-game injury absence. And he has fond memories of his last trip to Bamberg, when he registered 13 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists in last season’s 83-84 thrilling victory, including a late put-back winner.
Don’t forget Zalgiris! (...or Maccabi)
Fans in Lithuania may have become outraged by the paragraphs above, wondering why on earth their favorite team, Zalgiris Kaunas, has been omitted from the discussion about the race for home-court advantage. Don’t worry; Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius and his players have not been forgotten, and this week Zalgiris – just like Panathinaikos – can take advantage of the definite losses incurred by at least two of the top five to make a serious re-entry into the top four conversation. Indeed, if CSKA beats Madrid, Fenerbahce overcomes Olympiacos and Brose causes an upset against Panathinaikos, we could finish Round 21 with a four-way tie for third place – but only if Zalgiris defeats dangerous Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv in Kaunas.
Visiting Maccabi also has plenty at stake, firstly looking upwards in the hope that a couple more wins would spark its own top four challenge, whilst simultaneously glancing nervously over its shoulder knowing that a loss could leave its position in the top eight extremely precarious. If that all sounds rather complicated, it’s just the inevitable problem with having a league as competitive as the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague: nothing is straightforward.
Unicaja cheered on by most of Europe
Away from the intriguing battle for home-court advantage, there is still an almighty scrap going on for the playoffs places, with Maccabi and Khimki Moscow Region currently two games clear of the chasing pack, but knowing there is little margin for error. This week, Khimki will attempt to make a huge dent in the challenge of one of its aspiring challengers, with Unicaja Malaga making the journey to Russia.And Unicaja won’t only be playing for its own cause: the Spanish team will also be cheered on by fans from half a dozen other clubs, which all need Khimki to drop games to boost their own playoffs ambitions.
Spanish trio FC Barcelona Lassa, Valencia Basket and Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz would all potentially benefit from a Khimki defeat, with Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade and the Freak City crew in Bamberg also hoping to narrow the distance between themselves and the top eight. So if Unicaja fails in Moscow on Friday night, it certainly won’t be for a lack of goodwill.
Zvezda hoping history repeats itself
Similar to the direct clashes between table-toppers, Round 21 also includes a head-to-head confrontation between two members of the chasing pack in the playoffs race. And even though it’s only just February, the meeting between Baskonia and Zvezda – the last game of the round – should have the feel of a playoffs game at Fernando Buesa Arena as two direct rivals go up against each other knowing their cause will be perhaps irreparably damaged by defeat.
Baskonia currently sits top of the standings in the ‘other’ league, the bottom eight, with its 9-11 record just one better than Zvezda’s 8-12. And in its efforts to close that gap, the Serbian champion can take inspiration from history: Zvezda has won each of its three previous trips to Vitoria, including an enormous 69-87 victory last season which remains Baskonia’s heaviest home defeat in the competition since November 2014, when the Spanish team suffered a 66-86 loss to... Zvezda.