Two teams that missed the playoffs last season square off in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs looking to do something they have not done this century: Anadolu Efes Istanbul has never won a EuroLeague playoff series and FC Barcelona Lassa has never won a series without home-court advantage.
Negative streaks finally end
With Efes and Barcelona pitted against each other, a few negative streaks involving these two teams will surely come to an end after this series. Efes already put an end to one of its runs by securing home-court advantage back in Round 28. This is the first time this century Efes will have home-court advantage in the EuroLeague Playoffs and the first time it will host Game 1 of the series. Now that the team accomplished this, there are bigger things in store for Efes. First, to finally win Game 1 of a EuroLeague playoff series and then to finally win a playoff series. Efes has been to the playoffs five times since the format was adopted ahead of the 2004-05 season and all five times it lost the series opener and it has never won a series. Will Efes win one and end its almost two-decade-long Final Four drought?
On the other hand, Barcelona will try to win its first EuroLeague playoff series without having home-court advantage. Since the playoffs were introduced, Barcelona has won a series and made the Final Four six times, first in 2006 and then five times in six years between 2009 and 2014. However, each time Barcelona won, it held the home-court advantage. Barcelona has also lost each of the previous three playoff series without home-court edge. The team that once made the playoffs 11 years in a row is now looking to win its first playoff series since 2014 when Barcelona swept Galatasaray Istanbul led by current Efes head coach Ergin Ataman.
Plenty of playoff experience
Neither Efes nor Barcelona has been playoff regulars recently. Efes has qualified for the playoffs every other year since 2013 and Barcelona has missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons. Despite many roster changes every summer, both teams will still have loads of playoff experience on the floor and on the bench in this series. Almost half of the players who appeared in at least one game for Barcelona this season have previously won a EuroLeague playoff series and played in the Final Four. None more than three-time All-EuroLeague center Ante Tomic who will be making his seventh playoff appearance, having played in 26 playoff games and three Final Fours.
However, there are also Chris Singleton and Victor Claver who won a series with Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in 2016, Jaka Blazic and Adam Hanga winning with Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz the same season, and Kevin Pangos with Zalgiris Kaunas last season. Singleton, Hanga and Blazic have each been to the playoffs multiple times, including three appearances by Singleton. Moreover, Thomas Huertel and Pau Ribas have each played in the playoffs three times and appeared in 13 games, but have yet to win a series.
Efes also has eight players who have been to the EuroLeague playoffs before. Two of them – Bryant Dunston in 2015 with Olympiacos and Vasilije Micic with Zalgiris last season – have the experience of winning a playoff series. In addition to Dunston, who will be in the playoffs for the fourth time, four other Efes players have been to the playoffs more than once before: Rodrigue Beaubois (Baskonia, 2017, 2018), Tibor Pleiss (Baskonia 2013, Barcelona 2015), James Anderson (Darussafaka 2017, Khimki 2018), and Dogus Balbay who has been to the playoffs with Efes three times in the past seven years. As a matter of fact, among Efes players with more than 10 appearances this season, only two have no previous experience in the EuroLeague Playoffs: Krunoslav Simon, a veteran of 142 EuroLeague games, and Brock Motum who has 112 EuroLeague appearances so far.
Then, there are the heads of benches. Svetislav Pesic, EuroLeague champion as a coach in 2002, and as a player in 1979, also guided Valencia Basket to the EuroLeague Playoffs in 2011. Efes coach Ergin Ataman led Montepaschi Siena to the 2003 EuroLeague Final Four and Efes to the Suproleague Final Four in 2001. He also guided Galatasaray Istanbul to its lone playoff appearance in 2014. All in all, the main protagonists in this series are well aware of what is at stake and what it takes to reach the goal.
Efes wants to keep the offense rolling
During the regular season Efes has had one of the most efficient offenses in the competition. The team ranked fourth in scoring, averaging 85.4 points per game, but there are many more reasons Efes registered a club-record 20 wins before the playoffs even started. Efes enters the playoffs with 58.88% two-point accuracy, the second-best this season and the fourth-highest in EuroLeague this century. And while historically efficient inside, Efes is also deadly from long range, ranking second in three-point shooting (40.74%) this season. Coach Ataman's men have done it with great balance, too, as Efes is the only team this season with as many as seven players netting 41% or better from three-point range. Six of those players have made at least 20 triples this season and that number includes four of their five most frequent three-point shooters: Beaubois, Simon, Moerman and Larkin.
In addition, Efes's offense displays great ball movement, ranking second in assists (19.9 apg.), and it is just 2 assists shy of league leader Real Madrid for the entire season. It also led to the second-best assist-turnover ratio (1.68) in the competition, making this offense hard to stop.
Barcelona sticking to its plan
Among the teams that do have the tools to slow down Efes offense, however, Barcelona certainly has its place. No team this season has allowed fewer points on its home floor than Barcelona (71.7 ppg.), which also held the opposition to 70 or fewer points in a game 11 times. Without home-court advantage in this series, Barcelona likely needs to come up with at least one such defensive performance on the road and it already did show its ability to do that, beating Baskonia 70-77 and thrashing Olympiacos Piraeus 55-76 away from home.
What Barcelona has been doing better than any team this season is forcing opponents away from its basket and it has stuck to that plan the entire season. With frontcourt depth and the size of Tomic, Singleton, Claver and Kevin Seraphin, Barcelona has held its rivals to league-low averages of 33.97 two-point attempts per game and 17.8 two-pointers made this season. Consequently, Barcelona has forced opponents into shooting more three-pointers (26.1 per game) than any other team this season.
Coupled with a few traps and a mix of full-court and three-quarter court presses, such a plan worked to perfection in the second half of Round 15, when Barcelona turned a 39-50 halftime deficit into an 80-65 victory. Efes scored just 15 points in the second half, made just 16 of 30 two-pointers and shot 31% from long range for the night, while also committing 17 turnovers. However, the Round 25 game was another story;n Shane Larkin exploded with 37 points as Efes shot 60% for two and made 12 triples while outrebounding Barcelona 38-29 in a 92-70 blowout in Istanbul.
It just shows that anything can be expected from this series, and that's exactly what a team without home-court advantage would like to see happen.