After a two-week break which allowed everyone to catch their breath, the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague returns with a series of crunch showdowns in Round 23 with playoffs places and home-court advantage very much up for grabs! Here are some of the best stories to look out for this week...
Efes and Olympiacos battle for fourth
A pivotal showdown will take place on Thursday evening in Istanbul, where Anadolu Efes will attempt to further strengthen its current grip on fourth place in the standings with a meeting against one of the strongest challengers for that position, Olympiacos Piraeus. The game is a repeat of the highly-contested playoff battle between the teams a couple of years ago when the importance of home-court advantage was once again borne out by Olympiacos taking the series 3-2 after winning the final game on its home floor. So these two teams perfectly understand what will be at stake and maximum intensity can be guaranteed.
Victory would send Efes three wins clear of Olympiacos – by no means decisive with seven games still remaining, but certainly a comfortable gap and even more so if Coach Ataman's team can secure a winning margin of 8 points or more, which would also seal the head-to-head tiebreaker between the teams. In this game, more than just the identity of the winners will be crucial and – whatever the outcome – both teams will play hard until the 60th second of the 40th minute.
Milan and Maccabi in playoff showdown
No game is more important in the battle to secure playoff places than the Thursday showdown between direct rivals that sees ninth-placed AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan (11-11) welcome 10th-placed Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv (10-12). Milan has been hit hard by injuries throughout the last few months, with star guard Nemanja Nedovic missing much of the campaign and now dominant big man Arturas Gudaitis ruled out for the remainder of the season. The absence of Gudaitis could give Maccabi an advantage under the boards and the Israeli champion certainly possesses plenty of weapons in that department with the likes of Johnny O'Bryant, Tarik Black and shot-blocking specialist Alex Tyus ready to wreak havoc around the rim.
Coach Simone Pianigiani of Milan will have to find another way to be competitive and, as always, that will surely involve regularly getting the ball into the hands of the league's leading scorer, Mike James. However, Maccabi cannot afford to overlook the influence of another sharpshooter who is enjoying a fabulous season, with Vladimir Micov averaging 14.6 points per game. And considering the habits of both teams – especially Milan – to keep the outcome in the balance until the final seconds, it could prove to be one of the games of the season.
Panathinaikos and Khimki to break tie
A similar meeting to the showdown in Milan will take place in the Greek capital, where Panathinaikos OPAP Athens and visiting Khimki Moscow Region will break their current tie for 11th place, with the winner advancing to 10-13. Khimki has returned to contention for the playoffs by winning its last two games under new head coach Rimas Kurtinaitis and the team is now heading into an intriguing run of fixtures against direct rivals for a spot in the top half of the standings: Panathinaikos, Milan and KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz. If Khimki can win all three, a place in the playoff shake-up beckons.
For Panathinaikos, meanwhile, the game is an opportunity to reignite its campaign by doing something that has been a welcome habit all season: winning at home. The Greens have triumphed in all three of their home games under Coach Rick Pitino and doing so again is absolutely essential ahead of a run of three consecutive road trips. Although there are still plenty of games remaining, this week's contest has a strong feeling of win or bust for both teams.
Barcelona and Baskonia with eyes on the prize
A battle for Spanish supremacy will be staged in Barcelona where the home team will attempt to overpower Baskonia in a meeting loaded with significance for both teams: Barcelona is eager to strengthen its challenge for the top four, while Baskonia needs to secure as many wins as possible in the race for the playoffs. The hosts will have fond memories of facing Baskonia in EuroLeague action earlier this season: the Round 14 meeting in Vitoria-Gasteiz was arguably the game which, more than any other, set Barca on the right path for its playoff push. On that occasion Coach, Svetislav Pesic's men shrugged off a four-game losing streak to secure a hard-fought 70-77 road victory, overturning a 6-point deficit in the final quarter.
Barcelona has won six of its eight games since that momentum-changing fixture to become a serious contender for home-court advantage in the playoffs, but Baskonia is coming into form with four wins in its last five. All of those, however, came in the confines of Fernando Buesa Arena and now the Basque team will have to do something that will be pivotal in its quest to advance to the Final Four in its own city: win a big one on the road.
Madrid and CSKA aiming for playoffs qualification
Having already overcome 2017 EuroLeague champion Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul just a few weeks ago, now FC Bayern Munich has its sights set on toppling the current title holders with a tough trip to face Real Madrid on Friday night. The German champion threatened to defeat Madrid on its home floor in Round 14 before a strong finish from Los Blancos proved decisive. Going the distance this time around would be a major boost in Bayern's bid to maintain – or even better – its current seventh place in the standings.
However, there is plenty of motivation for Madrid to stay strong on its home floor, with the reigning champ knowing that victory would secure a place in the playoffs, so there will be no lack of intensity from Coach Pablo Laso's men. A Madrid victory would also indirectly help out one of its closest rivals: CSKA Moscow can qualify for the next stage by winning at home against Herbalife Gran Canaria on Thursday evening, but only if that is followed by victories for Madrid and Milan in their respective games.