Three of the teams scratching behind two undefeated leaders – LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne, Olympiacos Piraeus and Real Madrid – are doing some special things well to stay high in the standings thus far.
AX Armani Exchange Milan remained perfect last week with victories over Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv and reigning champions Anadolu Efes Istanbul in the Mediolanum Forum. Its offensive performance helped Ettore Messina's team earn a first Final Four appearance in nearly three decades last spring, but it has been growth on the defensive end that helped Milan beat Efes in Round 4. Doing a better job than last year in limiting shots in transition and challenging three-point shooters, Milan's 0.88 points per possession allowed in the early going this season is a huge improvement on the 0.97 allowed last season.
FC Barcelona also moved to 4-0 last week, but not without making some adjustments. After the combination of Nick Calathes, Cory Higgins, Nigel Hayes-Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Brandon Davies led Barca to a pair of victories over German teams in the first two rounds, averaging 1.29 points per possession, that unit mustered just 0.50 points per possession in wins over Olympiacos Piraeus and AS Monaco in the double-round week. Excellent free throw shooting and timely defense was critical to the team's hard-fought win over the vaunted Olympiacos defense. Meanwhile, Brandon Davies turned in the best game of his professional career by scoring 8 of Barca's last 10 points and finishing a last-second put-back to force overtime and ultimately helped his team escape Monaco with a victory.
As the above example suggests, some early trends hold far better than others. While Barca dominated with one lineup for two games, an ability to find answers quickly when needed to pivot away from that strategy is what kept its record unblemished. Through four games, here are some reasons that have been key to several teams' placement in the standings:
LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne's daggers
Scoring one-on-one is a tall task in the EuroLeague, but ASVEL has shot an eFG% of 71% in isolation situations so far, resulting in a top-ranked 14 points per game. Both Chris Jones and Elie Okobo have made tough shots look routine, often paying off long possessions with deep jumpers or creative finishes with the shot clock running low. No team in the last five years has finished a season generating more than 7.1 points per game in one-on-one situations or shooting an eFG% over 50%, but that has not made hero ball any less effective in helping ASVEL to a 3-1 start.
Olympiacos Piraeus getting stops
Despite encountering two of the EuroLeague's five most efficient offensive teams already, Olympiacos has allowed a top-ranked 0.80 points per possession. Credit for that can be shared between this roster's collective energy on that end of the floor; teams shooting just 25% on unguarded catch and shoot three-point attempts against the Reds; and the renewal of the club's long-standing home-court advantage with the return of fans to Peace and Friendship Stadium. No team has allowed under 0.90 points per possession since the 2015-16 campaign.
Real Madrid locking down the paint
Given the presence of Walter Tavares, it is not entirely shocking that Real Madrid has allowed just 50.8% shooting in half-court finishing situations so far this season, but only one team has held teams under 55% for a full season over the last five seasons – Madrid during the 2019-20 campaign. The key for this team has been an ability to maintain the interior defense integrity with Vincent Poirier on the floor instead of Tavares. Poirier may not provide the same historic defensive presence that Tavares does, but his size and athleticism have helped Madrid thrive even when the team's anchor has been off the floor.
Looking ahead to Round 5
Sometimes the stars align in the EuroLeague schedule to create chaos in the standings and while that is generally true of all early regular season rounds, Round 5 pitting every team in the top eight against another team in that group makes it feel like a postseason week in October.