The latest double-round week provides several teams with the chance to seal playoff spots, secure their places in the top four or move into the all-important top eight. Here is your guide to Rounds 27 and 28 of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague.
Greek giants to get physical?
The two giants of Greek basketball will meet again with Olympiacos Piraeus (11-15) hosting archrival Panathinaikos OPAP Athens (14-12) in a highly meaningful derby on Tuesday evening. Olympiacos has improved in recent weeks, winning three of its last five games with the reappointment of Georgios Bartzokas as head coach and the arrival of new signings Octavius Ellis and Shaquielle McKissic adding a new impetus to a previously faltering challenge. Tuesday’s host is now just one win short of breaking into the top eight and perhaps most importantly is turning the Peace and Friendship Stadium into a fortress again after winning its last three home games having previously gone 4-5 for the season.
Panathinaikos coach Rick Pitino believes his team was outmuscled in its last two games, which resulted in losses against FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, so the role of Ellis could be particularly significant after he averaged 5.6 rebounds in his first five games for Olympiacos. The Reds can hope to have the league’s leading rebounder, Nikola Milutinov (8.2 rpg), back in action, so Pitino’s men need to be ready for a physical battle when they make the short journey down to Piraeus on Tuesday.
Maccabi next into the playoffs?
Three teams have already qualified for the playoffs, with Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona last week booking their spots alongside runaway league leader Anadolu Efes Istanbul. And this week two more title hopefuls could follow suit, starting with Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv.
The Israeli champion could qualify as early as Wednesday by winning its own game and hoping that several other results fall the right way: Zalgiris Kaunas plus one of Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul or Valencia Basket suffering defeat would be enough, or losses for all four of Valencia, Fenerbahce, Khimki Moscow Region and AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan.
However, the tricky part for Maccabi (18-8) is the fact that its opponent at Menora Mivtachim Arena is none other than Efes (23-3), which is looking to further extend its new competition record of 12 consecutive away victories. Efes handed out a 99-79 pasting when the teams met in December and Maccabi has not beaten the Turkish team in Tel Aviv since 2011. Coach Ergin Ataman’s players also have the added incentive of knowing that one more victory will be enough to secure homecourt advantage for the playoffs.
Russian roulette for CSKA?
If Maccabi slips up against Efes, that could open the door for CSKA Moscow (17-9) to climb back into a share of fourth place by prevailing in Tuesday evening’s Russian derby against Zenit St Petersburg (7-19). The two teams know each other well from their regular domestic encounters, but a new edge to the rivalry comes from this being their first meeting since Zenit’s appointment of experienced new head coach Xavi Pascual.
CSKA is going through a rough patch of form, losing three of its last four games including a tough-to-take last-second home loss against Barcelona last week. Coach Dimitris Itoudis and his players know that being forced into competing in the playoffs without the benefit of homecourt advantage is now a distinct possibility, so the reigning champ’s motivation to secure a win over Zenit could not be greater. If all goes well, CSKA can then have the chance to seal a playoff place in Round 28 on Thursday night with a trip to Panathinaikos – which will be either coming off the back of three straight losses or buoyed by gaining a derby victory on the road at Olympiacos two days earlier.
Khimki back in the groove?
Perhaps the league’s most unpredictable team is Khimki Moscow Region, which started the season like a rocket with four wins out of five, before then slipping out of the top eight with a run of two wins in 11 games, only to re-emerge as serious contenders by winning its last three games.
Khimki’s most recent performance was particularly impressive, with last week’s whopping 108-79 thrashing of ALBA Berlin showing that the Russian team can more than match any opponent – especially when Alexey Shved is on song as he was against ALBA by combining 24 points with 9 assists to take the MVP of the Round award.
The next challenge to Khimki’s topsy-turvy season comes from a couple of fellow playoffs hopefuls, with a trip to Zalgiris Kaunas (11-15) on Tuesday followed by a home meeting with Fenerbahce (12-14) on Friday. Victory in those two games would put Khimki in a very strong position in the top eight and perhaps the biggest key – even more than Shved – is whether Coach Rimas Kurtinaitis’s men can maintain the solid team defense which restricted opponents to an average of just 73.3 points during its current three-game winning run.
Fener to find form at home?
On the subject of Fenerbahce... is this now the time for Coach Zeljko Obradovic’s men to get their home form back on track? Last week’s impressive win at Valencia – when Fenerbahce became the first team in EuroLeague history to record shooting percentages of at least 75% on two-pointers, 50% on three-pointers and 90% on free throws – showed there is plenty of life to the Turkish team yet.
However, Fener’s recent climb back towards the top of the standings has come through road victories: Obradovic’s team has won five in a row on its travels, whilst losing three of the last four at home. Overall, Fenerbahce’s record in Istanbul is a mediocre 6-7 and that needs to change on Tuesday with the visit of a Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (10-16) side which would move right back into playoffs contention with a win.
Zvezda, however, has been in freefall over the last few weeks. The Serbian champ has won only one of its last eight games and knows that this week’s trip to Fenerbahce followed by Friday's home meeting with Maccabi must yield a return to form if its playoffs hopes are to be maintained.