It is fitting, perhaps, that any chance Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens has of getting home-court advantage in the playoffs – and perhaps no team craves it more than the Greens – requires that they win on the road tonight against AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan in the last Game of the Week of the regular season.
It's not fitting because of any great rivalry between Milan and Panathinaikos, but rather because of the competitiveness between non-playoff teams vs. the survivors of the 30-round regular season ending on Thursday and Friday.
Even if we don't know any of the exact playoffs pairings yet, the top eight and the bottom eight in the standings were decided by the end of the first 29 rounds. Much like last year, there has been great signs of parity between the haves and the have-nots.
The eight non-playoff teams come into this round with a combined total of 84 victories this season, and 29 of those wins – or 35% – came against the top eight teams. That is despite the fact that last-placed Anadolu Efes Istanbul didn't beat a single playoff team.
The other seven non-playoff teams all won at least three games against top-eight teams. Two of them beat five different playoff-bound teams. Two others swept a pair of opponents who are now advancing to the next phase. Indeed, no top eight team was immune to getting hurt by bottom-eight teams in the standings. Half of Olympiacos's 10 losses came at the hands of lower-rung teams, as did two of CSKA's six.
But the parity of this new EuroLeague format, now in its second season, cannot be measured by wins and losses alone. Unicaja lost five games by just 2 points, four of them against playoff teams. If a couple of balls had bounced differently, Unicaja might well be a top-eight team now. Meanwhile, 15th-placed Barcelona – incredibly enough – has a higher points differential (+48) at this moment than four playoffs teams: Panathinaikos (+43), Zalgiris (+28), Olympiacos (+18) and Khimki (-10). If points mattered instead of wins and losses, Barcelona would be in the playoffs.
In the case of Milan, the parameter that changed the season was fourth quarters. If regulation time stopped at 30 or 35 minutes even, Milan might well be in the playoffs, too. That's because in seven of its 19 defeates, Milan was tied or led in the fourth quarter, but couldn't find the key to finish strong.
Milan had an unenviable schedule to start the season, with a murderers' row of road games against CSKA and Madrid sandwiched around a home opener with Fenerbahce. Then the team lost designated scorer Andrew Goudelock for five of the next eight games, but nonetheless found a knack of winning double-round weeks, sweeping two of the season's four.
Milan also found a center tandem – Kaleb Tarzczewski as the starter, Arturas Gudaitis off the bench – that changed the look of the team as compared to recent years. Tarzczewski and Gudaitis have the highest combined rebounding average and the second-highest in blocks for any EuroLeague teammates this season. Gudaitis is among six players who average double figures in points as Milan ranks sixth in scoring, however its porous defense lets in more points than any other team.
In theory, Milan has nothing to play for tonight except pride, while Panathinaikos has to win or lose all chances of starting the playoffs at home, where the Greens have been much, much better this season. Pride is quite a motivational factor, however. Milan has actually taken half of its wins on the road, so fortifying its home court like the consistently best teams do is still a pending task. Head coach Simone Pianigiani, who's in his first season on the club's bench, has a whole lot of success - including two Final Four appearances with Montepaschi Siena – in his EuroLeague past, and can speak from experience on what it takes to win.
"Getting close to winning and winning are two very different things," Pianigiani said on the club website this week. "I do not want to underestimate it, but getting close to winning means being competitive. We definitely deserved three or four more wins to give to our EuroLeague a completely different outlook. We will start from here and from a new work method that we developed in this first year of a project that wants to be consistent."
In that process, every game counts, as tonight's will for Milan – more than some might think.