This final week of April could produce the lineup for next month's Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four… Or it could end with teams preparing for a do-or-die Game 5 the following week. Here are some of the major storylines to follow in Games 3 and 4 of the playoffs.
How many go the distance?
In six of the last seven seasons, at least one playoffs series has gone the distance to the full five games – the only exception came in 2015, when Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow and Olympiacos Piraeus all needed four games to secure their Final Four ticket, while Fenerbahce Istanbul did it in three. More often than not, playoff action continues into a third week, but will that be the case this season?
The obvious candidates to provide a fifth game are the two tied series, which will this week see Zalgiris Kaunas host Olympiacos and Real Madrid welcome Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens. But the other two series saw last week’s home teams – CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce – only manage to claim a pair of victories by narrow margins, with all four games being decided by single digits to give respective opponents Khimki Moscow Region and KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz plenty of reason to keep believing. And if there’s one thing which can be safely predicted in the ultra-competitive environment of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, it’s that predictions should only be made with great caution. Expect the unexpected.
Return of the MVP?
All eyes will be on the announcement of Pablo Laso’s roster at WiZink Center on Wednesday night, with Madrid fervently fans hoping that Game 3 of the tantalizing series with Panathinaikos will deliver the return of local hero Sergio Llull after missing the whole season so far through injury.
Bringing last season’s league MVP back into the team midway through a delicately poised playoffs series would obviously deliver a huge psychological boost for the Spanish side, but Coach Laso also knows there would be a major risk attached as well; no matter how many practice sessions and behind closed doors games Llull has successfully completed, nothing can come close to the intensity of a playoff battle and the question of how long it will take him to find his rhythm is an unknown. Nevertheless, Llull’s fighting spirit and desire to make up for lost time would give him the best possible chance of hitting the ground running, and if he is named in the 12-man roster, it could just give fresh impetus to Madrid’s title challenge.
Will Zalgiris’s ‘sixth man’ make the difference?
In a competition where ‘devotion’ is a highly appropriate motto, there was some spectacular support on show in last week’s games. Olympiacos fans more than played their part, creating a wall of sound at Peace and Friendship Stadium to roar their team to victory on Friday night, earning the post-game praise and thanks of Coach Giannis Sfairopoulos and forward Kostas Papanikolaou.
If there’s one set of fans who pride themselves on being among the most loyal in Europe, however, it is the basketball-crazy supporters of Zalgiris Kaunas. Now it’s time for the Lithuanian champs to benefit from the backing of their followers, and you can be absolutely certain that one word will describe Zalgirio Arena on Tuesday and Thursday nights: loud. Zalgiris fans would be happy to admit that their team has already exceeded all expectations for this season, but now they are hungry for more, and the prospect of a first Final Four appearance this century is sure to fire up a bunch of fans who never need an excuse in that respect. Zalgiris certainly won’t have it easy against Olympiacos this week, but the sixth man could make all the difference.
Baskonia’s rebounding priority
During the regular season, Baskonia was one of the best rebounding teams in the competition, with its average of 34 boards per game easily exceeding the 32.5 rebounds mustered by playoffs opponents Fenerbahce. In last week’s two games in Istanbul, however, those figures were turned upside-down. Game 1 saw Fenerbahce outrebound the visiting team 34-27 and two days later Baskonia lost that particular battle even more convincingly, 34-22.
There is a pretty clear priority, then, if the Spanish team wants to prolong its challenge this week: improve its rebounding. Specifically, Baskonia’s trio of excellent big men have underperformed in that respect so far: Toko Shengelia’s rebounding average has dropped from 6.1 in the regular season to 4.5 in the playoffs; Vincent Poirier has gone down from 5.2 to 4.5, and Johannes Voigtmann has dipped from 4.4 to 4. If they can return to their usual standards, this series could still have a long way to go.
Can Khimki keep spirits high and contain Rodriguez?
After suffering a pair narrow losses on the road in last week’s series openers against local rivals CSKA, there is now a massive psychological mountain for Khimki’s players to conquer. Knowing that they have to gain three consecutive victories against a team as good as CSKA is a daunting prospect, even if two of those games are scheduled to take place at home. Khimki coach Georgios Bartzokas, however, will surely be telling his players not to even think about their three-game challenge, instead taking their mission one game at a time. And Khimki certainly should not give up all hope just yet, with the closeness of last week’s games – which saw CSKA win by just 3 and 5 points – making it clear there is little to choose between the teams.
The key man could prove to be Sergio Rodriguez, who was recruited last summer in the hope that he could reproduce the form he showed with Real Madrid a few years ago in a different uniform. El Chacho has not disappointed all season, but with the smell of silverware in the air, he has really stepped up his game in the last couple of weeks, averaging 24 points and 7.5 assists so far in the playoffs. If he keeps up that form, Khimki’s resistance may well be broken.