For FC Bayern Munich and Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv, the playoffs essentially start tonight, in Round 25 of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season.
The race for the final playoff spots may be the closest ever this season, and these teams know there is little margin for error. A victory in their Game of the Week showdown in Germany tonight will almost count double, not only moving the winners forward, but denying the losers one in a dwindling number of opportunities to do the same.
With a 12-12 record, Bayern is on the edge of the playoff zone entering the regular season's final stretch, and in control of its own destiny. Of its final six games, only two are versus teams higher in the standings: in Round 27 at Olympiacos Piraeus and two days later at home against FC Barcelona Lassa. Then, Bayern finishes the schedule against the last two teams in the standings: Darussafaka Tekfen Istanbul and Herbalife Gran Canaria.
It would not be wise, however, for Bayern to look too far ahead. After all, a loss against Maccabi this week could see head coach Dejan Radonjic's squad slip back to 11th in the standings. To prepare for this situation, Bayern built a roster with experienced players like Leon Radosevic, in his ninth EuroLeague season, and Petteri Koponen, in his fifth. They joined veterans Nihad Dedovic, now in his eighth EuroLeague campaign, and Vladimir Lucic, who is playing his sixth.
While that foursome combines for 465 EuroLeague appearances between them, however, not a single one of those games was in the playoffs. In fact, up and down the Bayern roster you won't find a single player who has won a EuroLeague Playoffs game. Only Stefan Jovic and Nemanja Dangubic have participated in the playoffs, and they were swept together with Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade by CSKA Moscow in 2016.
Maccabi's visiting locker room tonight has a former EuroLeague champion in Alex Tyus; Jeremy Pargo has been to two Final Fours; and Scottie Wilbekin won the 7DAYS EuroCup – after KO'ing Bayern in the semifinals – just last season with Darussafaka. Forward Jake Cohen, who will miss this game due to injury, also played in the EuroLeague playoffs in 2015 with Maccabi.
So how much does said experience – or lack thereof – count for? The answer to that is very much situational. If Bayern controls the game, it may not matter much. Even if it is a close game, Bayern has played those before and has five wins this season by 5 points or less. However, if either team storms out to a big lead, that is when experience might matter. An early double-digit deficit is normally surmountable, but if the trailing team starts to feel the weight of an entire season on its shoulders, things can go south quickly.
Of Bayern's 12 wins this season, it has twice come back from double-digit deficits: Bayern was down 17 in the second quarter against Buducnost VOLI Podgorica in Round 15 and won 93-88. More recently, Bayern trailed by 18 after 10 minutes in Round 20 at Khimki Moscow Region before rallying for a 60-71 victory. However, Maccabi is not a team that lets leads slip away; the team from Tel Aviv is 7-1 in games in which it has held double-figure leads.
Another matter hanging over this matchup is Maccabi guard Scottie Wilbekin almost single-handedly brought Bayern's promising run in the 7DAYS EuroCup last season to an end. Wilbekin was with Darussafaka Istanbul last season when he dominated Bayern in Game 2 of the semifinals for a series-clinching 83-87 win. Wilbekin went off for 41 points on 10-of-15 three-point shooting. And tonight marks his first time back to the Audi Dome since then. Seven players on the current Bayern roster were with the club that night. Will newcomers Maodo Lo or Koponen be able to contain Wilbekin in a way that Jovic, Dedovic and Braydon Hobbs could not last season?
We have a full season of data that tells us how good both of these teams can be. There is no result on Thursday that would be deemed an upset. That said, what the stats cannot show is how important it may be psychologically for Bayern not to fall behind early and certainly not to let Wilbekin get hot.
All the players will be up for what promises to be a matchup with playoff-like intensity. Experienced or not, they all know what this game means. Because for Bayern and Maccabi, it's like the playoffs start Thursday in Munich.