The second week of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs provides the tantalizing prospect of the regular season's top two teams, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and CSKA Moscow, both going on the road in a bid to wrestle back home-court advantage. It promises to be a week of thrilling action, which we preview right here...
Can Baskonia maintain home form?
With CSKA Moscow qualifying for the last seven consecutive Final Fours, and 15 of the last 16, it would be extremely unwise to write off the Russian giant simply because of one home defeat against KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz in Game 2 last week.
However, it cannot be denied that CSKA has usually been able to advance to the competition's showcase occasion on the back of sensational home form, and Thursday's defeat against Baskonia was the first home playoffs loss suffered by the Russian giants since 2008. CSKA has very rarely been in the pressure position of needing to gain a road win to keep a playoffs series alive, and doing so this week will be extremely difficult considering the outstanding home form shown in recent weeks by Baskonia.
The Spanish side, which has the considerable added motivation of attempting to qualify for a Final Four on its own home floor, boasts an 8-1 record in EuroLeague games at Fernando Buesa Arena in 2019, averaging an 11-point winning margin and beating two playoffs teams – Real Madrid and Zalgiris Kaunas – along the way. Velimir Perasovic's men have been offensively outstanding during that run, averaging 86.6 points per game, and also now have the added boost of captain Toko Shengelia back from injury. Can CSKA stop them?
Palau Blaugrana to see Barcelona home?
On the subject of home form, Anadolu Efes Istanbul also has a tough task in turning around its series with FC Barcelona Lassa after the Spanish side levelled the series with a hard-fought victory in Istanbul on Friday.
Barcelona has a 12-3 record on its own floor this season, with only Fenerbahce, CSKA and Olympiacos Piraeus inflicting home losses on Svetislav Pesic's men, who are currently on a six-game home winning streak. Efes was handed an emphatic 80-65 defeat on its last visit to Barcelona, and has only won once in its seven tries there this century – an 85-89 triumph early last season.
So history is very much against Efes, and so too will be the atmosphere inside the Palau Blaugrana, which might be one of the smallest arenas in the EuroLeague but can still be a fierce environment for visiting teams when the home supporters find their voice. That will surely be the case this week, as Barcelona go in search of a return to the Final Four for the first time since 2014.
Can Panathinaikos find inside offense?
After losing twice at Real Madrid last week, Panathinaikos OPAP Athens has its back firmly against the wall, knowing that only two victories this week at the Olympics Sport Center will keep its season alive. But then again, that's not a particularly new feeling for Rick Pitino's men after they somehow summoned the strength to scrape into the playoffs by winning seven of the last eight games of the regular season.
However, the Greens must be getting seriously sick of the sight of Real Madrid, which was responsible for the only defeat of that spectacular finale to the season and has now claimed seven straight wins over Panathinaikos in a sequence dating back to last season's playoffs.
To stop that chain of results, Panathinaikos needs to find its offense. This season's four games against Madrid have yielded just 68, 73, 72 and 63 points for the Greek team, and much more than that will be required to secure two victories this week. Nick Calathes, of course, will have a big part to play, but Panathinaikos needs one of its big men to step up after only making 35 of 87 two-point attempts (40%) in the first two games.
Former heroes to be hailed in Kaunas
A hugely positive atmosphere is guaranteed in Kaunas, where Zalgiris fans are delighted to see their team in the playoffs at all following a late charge into the top half of the standings, and even more overjoyed to see them return home with the series tied at 1-1 after the unexpected victory over Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul on Thursday.
Just to fire up the atmosphere a little bit more, Zalgiris fans will be given extra reason to cheer during the halftime interval of Game 3 on Tuesday as they greet the heroes of their club's 1999 EuroLeague title triumph, the only continental crown in the club's history, which was won on 22 April 1999 – 20 years and a day before Tuesday's meeting with Fenerbahce.
Head coach Jonas Kazlauskas and the majority of his title-winning team from two decades ago – including current EuroLeague.TV commentator George Zidek – will be invited onto the floor for a special ceremony during the interval, in the middle of the team's attempts to overturn regular season standings leaders Fenerbahce for the second time in five days. Expect a few hoarse throats around the Zalgirio Arena by the end of the game.
MVP candidates to deliver?
One hidden aspect of the first week of the playoffs was that none of the leading candidates for this season's MVP award were able to make much of an impact for their teams and strengthen their case for the competition's top individual honor. The top three players in this season's Performance Index Rating are already eliminated, with Mike James and Arturas Gudaitis of AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan joined by Nikola Milutinov of Olympiacos Piraeus in failing to reach the playoffs.
The leader among active players is Jan Vesely of Fenerbahce, but he could only average 7 points, 1 rebound and a PIR of 5.5 during the first two games of the series against Zalgiris. Will Clyburn of CSKA had solid but not spectacular performances in the first two games against Baskonia, averaging 12 points and 6 rebounds, and Panathinaikos leader Calathes has suffered so far against Madrid, averaging 9 points, 3 turnovers and a PIR of 3 while making only 6 of his 30 field goal attempts in the series.
Brandon Davies of Zalgiris and Efes forward Adrian Moerman also didn't particularly sparkle, and the MVP candidate who shone the brightest during the first week of the playoffs was Baskonia big man Vincent Poirier, who bagged a huge double-double of 14 points and 15 rebounds in the Game 2 win at CSKA. This week, we can expect one or more of those players to take a lead role in guiding their teams to the Final Four, and perhaps also putting themselves in poll position in the race to be crowned MVP.