The race for the playoffs in 2019 was close and fascinating to the finish. A battle that went down to the wire counted hundreds of potential possibilities with just two rounds to go, only to reach its fascinating crescendo in Round 30 where there were six teams, ranked from sixth to eleventh place in the standings - each within a win - fighting for three open playoffs spots.
A quick reminder: going into an incredible Round 29, there were not only incredible hundreds of different combinations, but exactly 99 different tiebreak scenarios possible between seven teams – Panathinaikos OPAP Athens, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz, AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan, Zalgiris Kaunas, Olympiacos Piraeus, Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv and FC Bayern Munich – battling for three playoff spots.
But only Bayern was eliminated in penultimate round, which left Round 30 with six teams attempting to fit into three open playoffs spots. All six had either 15 or 14 wins and none played one of the others, which made for 64 different possible combinations and playoff scenarios, dozens of potential tiebreaks, and each of the six playoff-hopefuls with at least 12.5% chance to qualify.
When all was said and done, Panathinaikos finished sixth, Baskonia was seventh, and Zalgiris used its six-game winning streak to clinch the eighth place. Olympiacos, Maccabi and Milan were left on the outside looking in.
And while Zalgiris needed every one of its wins to reach the playoffs, on the other hand Olympiacos was just a shot away from making it. Every possession really counts in the EuroLeague, and there are several examples that last season it counted more than ever before.
Every possession matters
Maybe it is the most often heard phrase by coaches, but that really was the case this season. One possession is exactly by how much Olympiacos lost in a race for the eighth place in the standings and the final playoff spot.
Going into Round 30 it was clear that, in order to make the playoffs, Olympiacos would need to win and get help. But help never came. By the time Olympiacos was tipping off its regular season finale against Darussafaka Tekfen Istanbul, the Reds already knew they were eliminated from the playoff race because Panathinaikos and Zalgiris won a day earlier. However, none of it would have mattered and Olympiacos would be holding destiny in its own hands if it scored just one seemingly meaningless basket at the end of the game a week earlier.
In the final seconds of a Round 29 home loss to Zalgiris, the visitors were up 68-72 with 3 seconds to go. Olympiacos had virtually lost the game at that point, because it needed a miracle triple-plus-foul to force overtime. Olympiacos inbounded the ball, Briante Weber dribbled it the other way with most Zalgiris players standing around making sure they do not commit a personal foul, but Thomas Walkup playing a heads-up defense. Weber took a three-point shot, and missed. It seemed irrelevant, but it turned out to be anything but irrelevant.
Had Weber made that three-pointer, Olympiacos would have still gotten swept by Zalgiris, but that three-pointer is exactly what the Reds needed to hold a tiebreak advantage over Zalgiris in a three-way with Zalgiris and Baskonia. And the way Round 30 played out, Olympiacos was tied with Baskonia and Zalgiris with 15-15 record, meaning that last-second, seemingly meaningless triple, would have sent Olympiacos to the playoffs.
Hard to imagine that the way those final three seconds of a Round 29 game played out is what actually allowed Zalgiris to make the playoffs, and basically eliminated Olympiacos.
Zalgiris winning run
The way Zalgiris won out to make the playoffs was beyond impressive.
After losing at Baskonia in Round 24, Zalgiris dropped to 9-15 record with six games to go. Chances to make the playoffs were very slim, at best. But, there was a chance. Zalgiris first beat Herbalife Gran Canaria and FC Bayern Munich at home, then edged Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv for an 83-85 road win. Chances were still slim at 12-15 record, but Zalgiris kept believing: "As long there is still a chance, we are still fighting for that," All-EuroLeague center Brandon Davies stressed in an interview with EuroLeague.net ahead of team’s final regular season home game against Darussafaka Tekfen Istanbul. The team from Kaunas won by 27, knowing it still has to face Olympiacos in Piraeus and Real in Madrid, aware it needs both wins, and some help to make it. And coach Sarunas Jasikevicius troops did just that.
After edging Olympiacos in aforementioned game, Zalgiris used a 86-93 win in Round 30 over Real Madrid - Lithuanian club's first win in the Spanish capital since the 1999-2000 season – to book a place in the playoffs and prompt big celebrations and some tears of joy.
As much as it seemed as Zalgiris chances to make the playoffs are slim, or barely existent, on the opposite end of spectrum for several weeks it looked as though Milan’s place in the playoffs is a sure thing. Even after going on a losing streak, Milan had everything in its hands in the final week of regular season, especially after CSKA Moscow rallied to beat Baskonia in the opening game of Round 30. It opened the playoff doors wide open for the Milan, which now needed any kind of win on the road at Anadolu Efes Istanbul to qualify for the playoffs. Milan had its faith in its hands, even led by 13 in the third quarter, but went on to lose this game, and with it any chance to make the postseason. It was fifth loss in six games for Milan, which included a road loss against Real Madrid in which Milan held an 18-point first-half lead, and home defeats against Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and Panathinaikos. If Milan won just one of any of those five games, it would have finished seventh and face off against CSKA in the playoffs.
Others played a role in Bayern's fate
Going into Round 29 it was a seven-team race for the last three playoff spots. A team with the least chances to make it was Bayern, which ended up as the only team eliminated from the race when it lost at Darussafaka in penultimate round. A win would have kept Bayern’s playoff chances alive, but that one win alone would not have been enough for Bayern to make history and reach the playoffs. However, Bayern had plenty of other shots. In the final nine rounds, Bayern lost road games against all direct playoff-chasing rivals Baskonia, Zalgiris and Olympiacos. In addition, looking back at all the scores, Bayern was hurt the most by an Olympiacos thrilling overtime win over Baskonia back in Round 17. Who would have thought, but had Baskonia held on and survived late off-the-glass triple by Kostas Papanikolaou that sent the game into overtime on one January night, Bayern playoff chances ahead of last two regular season games against Darussafaka and Gran Canaria would have been incredibly higher. So much so that Bayern would have likely held destiny in its own hands. But one banked game-tying triple in Round 17 helped eliminate Bayern in Round 29.
Did Maccabi avoid trauma?
The Israeli powerhouse finished in 10th place, a win behind the last playoff spot. After starting the season with 1-8 record, Maccabi went on to win 13 of its last 21 games. That was not enough for the playoffs, however, in part due to dramatic home losses in Round 12 against Baskonia (79-81) and in Round 27 against Zalgiris (83-85). Maccabi had a 71-64 lead with 5 minutes to go, but Baskonia rallied and won the game on a big dunk by Vincent Poirier with 11 seconds remaining. Against Zalgiris, Maccabi led 76-67 with little over 4 minutes left, but could not hold on. However, had Maccabi won just one of those games, and all other scores remained the same, Maccabi still would have not made the playoffs. If Maccabi had beaten Zalgiris, it would have been ninth due to a tiebreaker with Baskonia and Olympiacos. If Maccabi had beaten Baskonia, it would have been ninth in a tiebreaker with Olympiacos and Zalgiris. So, Maccabi needed two wins to make the playoffs. On the other hand, let’s not forget that Maccabi lost in Round 30 on the road against Fenerbahce on a buzzer-beating triple by Kostas Sloukas. That would have been a rather painful and traumatic way to keep the team out of the playoffs.