Two of the remaining three rounds in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season will be staged this week, with a number of playoffs scenarios likely to be decided over the course of 18 games between Tuesday and Friday. Fasten your seatbelts for a bumpy ride!
Big battle for Real and Efes
The week starts with a bang as Real Madrid (18-13) hosts Anadolu Efes Istanbul (20-11) for a seventh- versus third-place early tip-off on Tuesday. Efes will book its qualification for the playoffs with a victory, but just as important for Ergin Ataman's men is the need to protect its current position from three teams dangerously lurking just one win behind. While Efes's major aim is finishing in the top four to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs, Real has merely making the post-season as its priority after Pablo Laso's team has struggled at home recently, losing five of its last seven games at the WiZink Center. Realistically, Los Blancos may have to win two of their three remaining games to advance to the playoffs. And as the final round presents a daunting trip to Fenerbahce, this week's home meetings with Efes and Olympiacos Piraeus (on Friday) are veritable must-win contests. Real can take confidence from the knowledge of having beaten Efes 65-73 in Istanbul in December, when sharpshooting Shane Larkin and Vasilije Micic were restricted to a combined 0-12 from long-range. Similar defensive toughness will be required from Real on Tuesday.
Russian derby with playoffs ramifications
A similar scenario will unfold in simultaneous early Tuesday tip-off when eighth-place Zenit St Petersburg (17-13) welcomes second-place CSKA Moscow (20-10) for a Russian derby.
CSKA appears to have overcome a mid-season wobble in form – which was at least partly caused by injuries – by winning its last two games to move to the brink of playoffs qualification. The current champion will wrap up a playoffs spot with its next victory and could even (depending on many other results) secure home-court advantage for the post-season by the end of the week. Tuesday's trip to St Petersburg is followed by a much more local Russian derby, at home to Khimki Moscow Region on Friday. Zenit's involvement in post-season action is far less certain. Xavi Pascual's team is currently tied for the final playoff spot with both TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Valencia Basket on 17 wins, but is ranked higher due to having a game in hand. All of Zenit's remaining games are at home, with Tuesday's tussle against CSKA followed by visits from LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne (Friday), Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv (9 April) and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens (12 April). Zenit has more margin for error than the others, but kicking off that quartet of home games by overcoming CSKA would be a major plus.
Fifth versus sixth at the Audi Dome
Another must-watch game on Tuesday night will see FC Bayern Munich (19-12) host Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul (19-12) for a showdown which that well decide which of the two teams finishes in the all-important top four – and might also provide an immediate passage to the playoffs for the winner, depending on other results. Bayern is currently placed higher than Fenerbahce due to a higher overall point difference in a three-way tie, but has lost twice to the third team, Milan. Having won 71-75 on Fenerbahce's court in October, another victory for Andrea Trinchieri's men on Tuesday would make them almost uncatchable for the Turkish team – and definitely uncatchable if it is then followed by a home win for Bayern over Zalgiris Kaunas on Friday. But if Bayern loses, it would also fall below in any three-way tie between them that may persist. Both teams have reasons to believe: Bayern is on a four-game winning streak at the Audi Dome, while Fener has won six of its last seven on the road. And in a game that could well be decided by small margins, the court will be filled by clutch players who can produce big plays when needed: Bayern's Wade Baldwin, Vladimir Lucic and Jalen Reynolds have all consistently stood up when it has mattered the most, while maybe the most dependable big-time duo in the competition are Fenerbahce stars Nando De Colo and Jan Vesely. After the trip to Bayern, Fenerbahce returns home to face standings leader FC Barcelona on Friday. What a week!
Baskonia and Valencia jostling for position
Real Madrid isn't the only Spanish opponent desperate for a win that must face Efes, which has won nine of its last 10 easily and suffered the sole defeat by a point, this week. After Tuesday's game, Ergin Ataman's team will leave the capital and head straight north to the Basque country, where another huge contest lies in wait against Baskonia in Thursday's opening tip-off.
Baskonia (17-14) is another of the hottest teams in the competition, winning eight of its last nine games to rise from the lower reaches of the rankings to just one win shy of the playoffs places. Now, though, that run has to be continued or it will count for nothing, and Coach Dusko Ivanovic will start the week on Tuesday attempting to overcome one of his former teams, Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. If Baskonia slips up, that would open the door for Valencia Basket, which also has a 17-14 record after a run of three straight wins on the back of strong defense. Valencia allowed just 65.3 points per game in the process of beating Fenerbahce, Khimki and Bayern. The week begins for Valencia on Wednesday at home to Olympiacos, followed by a trip to face ALBA Berlin on Friday. In both cases Valencia will be playing a day later than its nearest rival, Baskonia, so Jaume Ponsarnau's team will already know at tip-off exactly what the stakes are.
Milan aiming to bounce back on the road
Another team with everything to play for this week is AX Armani Exchange Milan (19-12), which is still almost certain to qualify for the playoffs clinging to a top-four spot by its fingernails after two straight losses. Those defeats saw the Italian team hindered by problems with offensive production, scoring only 56 points against Barcelona and 69 against Baskonia.
On paper, this week's games present Milan with the ideal opportunity to bounce back: road trips to 17th-placed Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (9-22) on Tuesday and 16th-placed Panathinaikos OPAP Athens (10-19) on Thursday. Victory in either of those games could be enough for Ettore Messina's men to seal a playoffs place depending on other results, but both wins might be necessary to keep Milan in the top four by the end of the week. On the back of two tough losses and with the season on the line, this is the perfect time for Milan's veteran stars to show their leadership. Former EuroLeague champions Sergio Rodriguez, Luigi Datome and Kyle Hines have been here before, and they can use their experience to lead a return to form this week. If not, Milan is in danger of heading into the playoffs on its back foot.