With just five rounds remaining in the regular season, the race to secure playoffs places and home-court advantage is nearing its conclusion and several games this week could leave a major impact on the final standings. Here are some of the most interesting stories to watch this week.
Milan and Olympiacos to break tie
The race for the playoffs looks certain to run until the very end of the regular season with six teams currently separated by just one win for sixth place. Two of those will go head to head on Thursday night with AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan hosting Olympiacos Piraeus in the Italian fashion capital for a game that will snap their current tie at 13-12. Olympiacos has been through a strange season, at times looking every bit as good as the team which reached four Final Fours in the last seven years, but on other occasions struggling to find penetration on offense or resilience on defense. Last week's victory at Buducnost VOLI Podgorica could prove to be a welcome turning point for Coach David Blatt's team, especially if veteran forward Georgios Printezis continues his return to form after scoring more than 12 points for the first time since Round 17.
Milan, we can be sure, will attempt to maintain the same approach it has followed all season and win the game through its offense with Mike James taking the lead role both in orchestration and scoring. But one man alone will not be enough and Kaleb Tarczewski, in particular, has a big part to playing in tying down Nikola Milutinov inside the paint.
Fenerbahce and Barcelona aim to bounce back
Two teams eager to bounce back from heavy losses meet in Istanbul with home side Fenerbahce Beko keen to restore its usual high standards following last weeks defeat at the hands of Real Madrid, where Coach Zeljko Obradovic saw his team concede more than 100 points in a non-overtime loss for the very first time in his glorious coaching career. Fenerbahce is now just one game ahead of CSKA Moscow at the top of the standings, but the need of visiting FC Barcelona Lassa is even more pressing following its loss at Anadolu Efes Istanbul, which could prove to be extremely costly in the race for fourth place.
Although Barca will finish the season with three home games out of four following this encounter, it risks falling two games behind Efes – which also now has the head-to-head tiebreak advantage. That makes this quick return to Istanbul a must-win encounter and doing so will require far greater offensive fluidity than was displayed at Efes, where Barcelona scored just 70 points. Achieving that aim against a Fener team with a point to prove on defense will be no easy task.
Maccabi and Efes on the charge
After that impressive and morale-boosting victory over Barcelona last week, Coach Ergin Ataman's Efes will seek to maintain its momentum – and potentially even ensure qualification for the next stage, depending on other results – with an extremely testing road trip to face playoff hopeful Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv. The Israeli champion was also one of last week's most significant winners, earning a commanding road triumph against direct rival FC Bayern Munich. Maccabi has been outstanding at Menora Mivtachim Arena in recent weeks, gaining seven consecutive home victories and knowing that either Milan or Olympiacos will definitely lose opens up an opportunity to climb level with the top eight places.
One obvious task for Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos's team is slowing down Efes point guard Shane Larkin, who delivered the EuroLeague's highest-scoring individual performance in six years with 37 points in last week's win. Maccabi will prefer to take the ball out of the backcourt and force Efes into the paint, where Tarik Black will relish his physical battle with Bryant Dunston. With so much at stake, the atmosphere is sure to be electric, and this could be an explosive encounter.
Last chance for Zalgiris
Although the playoffs places will probably be taken by the teams currently ranked 11th or higher in the standings, all hope is not yet lost for the next-placed team, Zalgiris Kaunas. True, Zalgiris looks a long way short of the top eight right now, with a three-game gap to close in the remaining five games. But the Lithuanian champion has the chance to damage direct rivals with upcoming games against Bayern, Maccabi and Olympiacos. Last week's thumping victory over Herbalife Gran Canaria suggested that Coach Saras Jasikevicius's men are ready to hit their stride for the stretch run.
It goes without saying, however, that Zalgiris will only maintain any realistic hopes of advancing by winning this week against another team with plenty to play for, Bayern. The German champ is aiming to recover from three losses in four games, which have sent it into the bottom half of the standings. Bayern will look for dynamic duo Derrick Williams and Danilo Barthel to establish physical supremacy on Thursday night.
Panathinaikos seeking road upset at CSKA
A battle of giants will get Friday night's action underway when CSKA Moscow welcomes Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. Nobody knows the level of expectations at the Greek giant better than CSKA coach Dimitris Itoudis, who spent more than a decade as the right-hand man to Zeljko Obradovic during a glorious spell together with the Greens. But Itoudis has matters of his own to attend to this week, with CSKA aiming for an eighth straight victory, which could be enough for a share of first place in the standings.
The visiting coach this week, Rick Pitino, will have fond memories of facing CSKA: his very first game in the competition, in Round 15, saw Panathinaikos gain an outstanding 96-84 home victory over the Russian giant. However, beating CSKA on its own floor is a very different matter and Pitino's hopes of leading his team to a much-needed third straight victory will rest to a great extent upon whether Nick Calathes can find his rhythm in the backcourt against the home team's formidable quartet of Nando De Colo, Sergio Rodriguez, Cory Higgins and Daniel Hackett. CSKA is always likely to score heavily in its own arena, so Panathinaikos will probably have to put at least 85 points on the board - which will mean Calathes creating open looks and his teammates knocking down their shots.