The last double-round week clarified the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague race as some teams that were far from the same position last season, thanks to their improved efficiency, either qualified for the playoffs or continued challenging for the same.
FC Bayern Munich locked up its first EuroLeague Playoffs berth with a 71-70 victory over Zalgiris Kaunas in Round 33. Vladimir Lucic came up big for the historic German club by making the go-ahead free throws with only seconds remaining before blocking the potential game-winner at the other end.
What a Difference a Year Makes
Bayern's qualification for the 2020-21 postseason was the culmination of one of the most significant improvements that any team made from last season to this one. The graphic above displays the EuroLeague's four most-improved teams in terms of efficiency margin – the number of points per possession a team scores minus the number they allow. The group above comprised four of the seven teams at the bottom of the standings last season, but a year later, all have something to play for in Round 34. Barcelona has the highest efficiency differential this season, at +0.12 points per possession. Seven other teams land between +0.03 and -0.03. But all four of the teams listed above are wildly improved from last year.
Zenit St Petersburg has almost completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent history this season. After finishing last season with just eight victories, Zenit matched that mark just 10 games into the 2020-21 season. Almost all that improvement can be traced to the team's offensive performance. After averaging 0.92 points per possession last season – a mark that would rank last this season by a significant margin – Zenit has scored 1.02 points per possession this season. Behind newcomers who have boosted the pick-and-roll game, Zenit has emerged as an explosive, slow-paced offensive team that can execute well late in the shot clock. A year after finishing last, Zenit can still lock up one of the last two playoff spots this season in Round 34.
TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz is on the outside looking in with the playoffs looming but retains playoffs aspirations, although it will need help from other teams. That was also the case last season, as Baskonia was among 14 teams in the playoff picture when the season was cancelled. This season, Baskonia has three more victories than defeats, having needed every bit of its massive offensive improvement to remain in the playoffs race. Baskonia was due for a turnaround after ranking as the least efficient team in modern EuroLeague history last season. In this one, its offense has been boosted by consistency in making open shots, which has complemented the team's fourth-ranked defense nicely.
Unlike the teams above them, FC Bayern Munich's improvement has come on both ends of the floor, which is impressive given how efficient the majority of teams have been on offense this season. It has not been easy to slow down EuroLeague offenses this season, but Bayern's defense has been very stingy on the perimeter. Defending threes and midrange attempts at an exceptionally high level while forcing turnovers at a strong rate, Bayern's 11-steal effort against Zalgiris helped them stamp that historic ticket to the playoffs.
AX Armani Exchange Milan has also made some small strides defensively, but its turnaround has come primarily on the offensive end. After adding several high-level contributors, Milan looked promising on paper and has delivered on that potential by averaging a second-ranked 1.03 points per possession this season. As two of the more efficient volume scorers in the EuroLeague this season, newcomers Kevin Punter and Shavon Shields have keyed Milan's offensive growth.
Looking ahead to Round 34
Real Madrid sits seventh in the standings, one game clear of the three teams with 18 wins who are still looking to qualify for the playoffs. Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul is one of three qualified teams with 20 victories that are still vying for home-court advantage in the quarterfinals. Madrid will travel to Istanbul in Round 34 for a game that has huge ramifications for seeds four through eight.