Round 26 had something for everyone, but the rise of formerly last-place Zalgiris to the brink of a playoff slot was its biggest story.
There was a game for all tastes in Round 26. In a matchup of top-three defenses, neither CSKA Moscow nor FC Barcelona were able to maintain their stingy ways. Entering the game, they had allowed a near-identical 0.93 and 0.94 points per possession to rank second and third, respectively, in the EuroLeague. On Thursday, CSKA scored 1.00 points per possession while Barcelona managed 1.01, earning that tiny degree of separation on Nikola Mirotic's game-winning turnaround fadeaway jump shot from the left baseline.
In a matchup of top-three offenses, Real Madrid earned a resounding 18-point victory over Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. Averaging 1.03 points per possession, the teams were effectively tied as the EuroLeague's second-best offensive entering Round 25. Panathinaikos lived up to expectations on the road, scoring 1.00 points per possession, but Real Madrid mustered 1.14 thanks in large part to 24-for-30 shooting from the foul line to secure a comfortable win.
In the round's highest-scoring affair, it fittingly took an extra period to determine the winner in a game between two teams in the thick of the crowded race for postseason possession. Zalgiris Kaunas earned its eighth win in 11 games by handing AX Armani Exchange Milan its fourth straight loss.
With a sterling perimeter performance, shooting 10-for-20 from beyond the arc, Zalgiris continued its rapid rise up the standings in that 105-97 overtime win against Milan. In a trend that started with a Round 16 victory over Bayern Munich, which snapped a nine-game losing streak, Sarunas Jasikevicius's charges have found a consistency from the perimeter that had eluded them through the first half of the season. Sitting in last place at the end of Round 15, Zalgiris has risen all the way to 10th on the heels of dramatically improved three-point accuracy. Over the first 15 games of the season, Zalgiris shooters scored only 0.88 points per catch-and-shoot three-point attempt within the team's half-court offense. They have scored 1.30 points per attempt since. That is roughly the difference between ranking dead last by a huge margin and ranking just a shade below Anadolu Efes Istanbul's current record pace.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Zalgiris's rise is that there were signs early on that this team was capable of far more than its record reflected. Many of the losses during the extended skid were by one or two possessions. At the end of that streak, when Zalgiris sat 3-12 and was alone at the bottom of the standings, it had still amassed one of the season's 10 best point differentials. Obviously, Zalgiris was due for a turnaround in the win column. Digging even deeper, Zalgiris had been scoring 0.97 points per pull-up jump shot in half-court situations through Round 15, a sign that such a turnaround on the perimeter was possible.
To understand why that is relevant requires some background on the frequency and degree of difficulty of different types of perimeter shots. All EuroLeague teams get between 12% and 25% of their shots within half-court offenses on dribble-jumpers. Falling in the middle of the pack in terms its volume of jump shots, beyond or inside the arc, Zalgiris had scored 0.97 points per attempt, ranking third in the EuroLeague.
In contrast, Zalgiris had scored only 0.88 points per catch-and-shoot attempts in half-court situations at that point. As of Round 26, no team is scoring under 0.95 points per shot and none scores less than it does on pull-ups. On average, 30% of all shots in half court situations are catch-and-shoot jump shots and they are converted at a super-efficient rate of 1.16 points per attempt. Through the end of their losing streak, Zalgiris shooters had been draining high degree-of-difficulty shots on the move out of pick-and-rolls while making a historically poor rate of some of the easiest shots that the offense was creating. A regression to the mean was inevitable, but for Zalgiris it seemed to come all at once, with K.C. Rivers, Arturas Milaknis, Thomas Walkup, Nigel Hayes, Edgaras Ulanovas and Lukas Lekavicius seeming to catch fire all at once. Even players like Zach LeDay and Paulius Jankunas suddenly found their range in limited attempts.
As a result, Zalgiris has blasted to the other end of the spectrum entirely, averaging 1.30 points per catch-and-shoot jumper in set offenses over the last 11 games. Not only does that put them just a hair behind top-ranked Efes, but the team's 1.12 points per possession overall during that stretch eclipses the 1.10 that Efes has averaged this season, which is on pace to break the EuroLeague's team efficiency record.
Looking ahead, it will be fascinating to see if Zalgiris can continue to shoot the ball at such a high a level. If so, it could enhance even more the team's climb up the standings.
Looking Ahead to Round 27
The EuroLeague's top offensive team will travel to where the top defensive team has done much of its work to earn that standing as Efes visits Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv on Wednesday in one of top strength-on-strength matchups of the season. As well as Maccabi has defended this season overall, allowing just 0.92 points per possession, the 0.85 points per possession to which the team holds opponents at Menora Mivtachim Arena presents a unique challenge for Efes's high-powered attack.