A rematch of last season’s semi-final, a summer signing charged with replacing an injured star and a rarely contested local derby featuring two scoring machines are among the biggest stories to watch during the impending double-week of action.
Olympiacos and CSKA renew rivalry
Any time between October and April, CSKA Moscow pretty much always beats Olympiacos Piraeus. These two giants of the European game have met on 19 occasions in the regular season, the old Top 16 and the playoffs so far this century, and CSKA has come out victorious 16 times compared to just three wins for the Reds. And last season duly followed that pattern, with the Russian champs triumphing 90-86 in Moscow and 75-81 on the road. The Final Four, however, is a different matter, and no discussion about matchups between these major rivals can fail to mention their famous recent tussles which saw Olympiacos win EuroLeague Championship Games in 2012 and 2013 along with semifinals in 2015 and 2017. Four Final Four meetings: four Olympiacos victories and three of those came courtesy of huge comebacks.
Coaches and players are always eager to tell us that previous results don’t matter, that history isn’t important when the ball goes in the air. But just occasionally the shadows of the past really cannot be escaped, and that may be the case when second-place hosts first in Piraeus on Wednesday. Miss it at your peril.
Can Lekavicius compensate for Calathes absence?
Few players have been more vital for their team’s well-being so far this season than Nick Calathes, whose creative passing and penetrative dribbling have been a cornerstone of Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens’s rise to share third place in the standings. The importance of Calathes is reflected on the stats sheet, with the point guard averaging 13.6 points per game and a league-best 7.9 assists. Clearly, he is a key part of Coach Xavi Pascual’s puzzle. However, he is set to sit out this week’s games against Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv and Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade with a shoulder injury, so the Greens will have to find another backcourt solution as Calathes misses action for the first time since returning to Athens in 2015.
The burden of replacing Calathes will almost certainly fall upon Lukas Lekavicius, who was signed in the summer from Zalgiris Kaunas, but has been limited to less than 13 minutes per game on the floor due to the dominant role of Calathes. Lekavicius has done a decent job from the bench, but now he has the chance to shine as a starter and
Panathinaikos’s fortunes this week will be largely dependent upon how successful he is.
Red Star rising?
It’s fair to say that most neutral fans in Europe would relish the sight of Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade competing in the Final Four on their home court in the Serbian capital next May, which would probably result in Zvezda’s famously passionate fans lifting the roof off Kombank Arena. A few weeks ago that prospect seemed remote as Zvezda occupied last place in the standings with a 2-7 record. But three straight wins have altered the course of the campaign for Coach Dusan Alimpijevic’s men, who could even find themselves in the playoffs positions by the end of this week.
It won’t be easy, though, with Round 13 presenting Zvezda with the formidable challenge of a trip to face the reigning champion, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul, which is still smarting following last week’s shock home loss to Zalgiris Kaunas. But if Zvezda’s recently unstoppable offense can continue to fire against Coach Zeljko Obradovic’s men and then win at home against Panathinaikos on Thursday, those Final Four dreams will become even more vivid.
De Colo or Shved to prevail in the new derby?
Derby dates feature prominently in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague calendar, with local showdowns between Olympiacos and Panathinaikos or Fenerbahce and Anadolu Efes always providing an extra edge of excitement. One crosstown rivalry which has hardly ever been contested on the European stage, however, is the battle for supremacy between CSKA Moscow and Khimki Moscow Region in the Russian capital – until this season, they have only met twice in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, with both meetings in the 2015-16 Top 16 won by the home team.
It’s no surprise to learn that Alexey Shved was the key man with 28 points in Khimki’s 91-89 home triumph two years ago, nor that Nando De Colo played a prominent role in CSKA’s 108-98 victory a few weeks later, combining 19 points with 8 assists. Both men, of course, are still with the same clubs and they are again enjoying outstanding seasons: De Colo ranks third in the league in scoring with 17.4 points per game, while Shved leads that category with an average of 21.5 points. It’s CSKA against Khimki, but it’s also De Colo against Shved, and the winner of their individual battle could well decide the winner of the game on Friday.
Time running out for Barcelona?
It’s too early in the season to start talking about last chances, but there’s a sense that time is starting to run out for FC Barcelona Lassa to mount a serious challenge for its first Final Four appearance since 2014. The Spanish powerhouse heads into Wednesday’s home meeting with Unicaja Malaga with a 4-8 record, on the back of a demoralizing Clasico defeat against previously struggling Real Madrid, in the knowledge that losses in this week’s games against Unicaja and another Spanish team, Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, could leave them as many as four games away from the playoffs places.
With players such as Thomas Heurtel, Kevin Seraphin and Adam Hanga in their ranks, there’s certainly potential for Barcelona to become a very good team and thumping victories over Olympiacos, Panathinaikos and Maccabi have shown what they’re capable of. But that potential needs to be consistently realized soon, and registering two wins in the space of three days against fellow Spanish sides would be the ideal way to start.