A pivotal game in the tighest of playoffs races unfolds in the fashion capital on Friday as AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan hosts Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. Both are part of a four-way tie of 14-13 teams seeking three playoff spots. This game's winner will be one step closer to qualifying for the playoffs, while the loser could be outside the top eight playoff positions with just two games left to recover. Panathinaikos comes off a high-wire 72-70 home win in which it had led KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz by 23 points in the second half and almost collapsed. Milan had the opposite luck on Wednesday, leading Real Madrid by 18 points on the road before falling 92-89 at the finish. Both teams have won six of the last eight, with Panathinaikos on a five-game victory streak, including three away from home.
Earlier this season
Milan ambushed Panathinaikos in Athens with an 83-86 Round 14 road victory in what was the last game for the Greens before Rick Pitino took over as head coach. Arturas Gudaitis, now injured and out for the season, paced Milan with 20 points and 8 rebounds that night. Nick Calathes was the big gun for the Greens with 24 points, 11 assists. Milan's three-point margin of victory from that December game is something to keep in mind on Friday, too. If Panathinaikos wins by fewer than 4 points, Milan retains a head-to-head tie-breaker between them. If the difference in a Panathinaikos win is 5 points or less, Milan would survive a three-way tie with Panathinaikos and Baskonia. Anything higher than 5 points, however, and Milan would lose a three-way tie for seventh and eighth place.
One of the great head-to-head duels of the season is coming as point guard Mike James tries to guide Milan to the promised land against the best passer in the game right now, Nick Calathes of Panathinaikos. James leads the league in points (20.5) and PIR (22.0), while Calathes is on a record pace in assists (8.6) and also ranks first in steals (1.7). These are, hands down, the most relied-upon team leaders in the EuroLeague right now, which means that which of them can thrive will give his team the chance for what could be the key win of the season. Calathes has picked up his performances on the road in the last three games, and he'll be asked to do it again in this all-important game that could decide either team's future.
Keys to victory: Milan
Milan will see a different Panathinaikos than before, with Keith Langford back in action, DeShaun Thomas as a go-to guy, and big Georgios Papagiannis as a centerpiece. The hosts don't have Gudaitis anymore, so Kaleb Tarczewski and Alen Omic will be called on to control the paint while James Nunnally gets two-way duty to shut down someone on Panathinaikos – possibly even Calathes at times. Points always fly when Milan is at home, and if the hosts can't slow Calathes, they'll need Vladimir Micov and Nemanja Nedovic helping James fill up the baskets in a game where a few points could mean the difference between making the playoffs or not.
Keys to victory: Panathinaikos
James is the most-fouled player in the EuroLeague this season and Panathinaikos one of the most foul-prone teams. The visitors can't afford to see James control the tempo or put Calathes in foul trouble. Like Milan, Panathinaikos likes to turn defense into offense, with Thomas, Ioannis Papapetrou, Sean Kilpatrick and Thanasis Antetokounmpo running the floor, and in that aspect of play, the visitors may find their edge. But they'll need to rebound better than usual to get the ball in the hands of Calathes more than it finds the hands of James.