When Zenit St Petersburg torched visiting LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne by 30 points in the second half of their Round 33 game last Thursday, the shockwaves were felt all the way from Russia to Spain.
Zenit is locked in a battle for one of the last two playoff spots with three Spanish teams: Real Madrid, TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Valencia Basket.
But, due to its Round 34 game coming on Friday -- after the other three teams have played on Thursday -- and the fact that Zenit hosts a rescheduled game from earlier in the season next Monday, the Russian team is very much a linchpin to the playoffs resolution process.
Before it exploded against ASVEL on Thursday, Zenit did not look invincible. Indeed, it had lost four of its previous five games, winning only against last-place Khimki Moscow Region.
But the last 20 minutes on Thursday changed that perception completely.
After holding a 41-37 halftime lead, but having committed 8 turnovers to just 7 assists until then, Zenit plain dominated after the break. A 15-2 run after halftime helped Zenit win the third quarter by 25-6 en route to a 34-point victory, the club's biggest in two EuroLeague seasons to date. Zenit not only outscored ASVEL 46-16 in the third and fourth quarters, but also outrebounded the visitors 20-12 while dishing 14 second-half assists to just 4 turnovers.
The win made sure that Zenit keeps its playoff destiny in its own hands the rest of the way. Zenit will reach the playoffs for sure with victories in both of its remaining games. It may also not need both of them, but rather clinch a playoff berth as soon as Round 34 on Friday, when it hosts Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv, if a day earlier Real and Baskonia both win on the road.
Zenit can still finish anywhere from sixth to 10th place. However, by having that one extra game in hand – on Monday against visiting Panathinaikos OPAP Athens – as many as five other teams could depend on Zenit to find out where they will finish in the standings.
If Real loses on Thursday at Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, for instance, Los Blancos will have to wait all the way until Monday to learn their own fate.
Meanwhile, the winner between Valencia and Baskonia might not know whether it qualifies – or in the case of Baskonia, if it can qualify at all – until Zenit plays on Friday.
The story is similar with already-qualified AX Armani Exchange Milan and FC Bayern Munich, both of whom can still clinch home-court advantage on Friday night, but they can also finish behind Zenit at the end of the regular season.
Milan will clinch home-court advantage if it beats Anadolu Efes Istanbul on Friday, but in case of a loss combined with two Zenit victories, Milan could find itself finishing as low as seventh. Bayern's path to home-court advantage is much tougher, but a loss on the road at first-place FC Barcelona coupled with two more Zenit wins could see Bayern drop all the way to eighth place.
And while all of that is true, Zenit can also be eliminated in Round 34 if it loses and Valencia beats Baskonia.
Of course, if Zenit manages to build on that strong second-half performance against ASVEL, it might end up single-handedly shaping the final playoff picture.