Here come the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs! The best eight teams in the competition will battle to take the next step toward the ultimate reward, winning the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague title. Khimki Moscow Region has made it to the playoffs for the first time, Zalgiris Kaunas has reached this stage for the first time since this phase was brought back in 2005 and KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz was the last team to qualify, but leapfrogged into seventh place. Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens fights to make it to the Final Four for the first time since 2012 and all four teams from last season's Final Four - Olympiacos Piraeus, CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid and defending champion Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul - are back in the playoffs and in different series. Will we see the same four teams in consecutive Final Fours? That would be a first!
The EuroLeague Fantasy Challenge continues all the way until the Championship Game, even though the grand prize – a VIP trip to the Final Four – has been claimed already. Paulius Norkunas of Lithuania beat everyone else with his team "Lietuvos rytas" and will be our special guest in Belgrade. Still, there are plenty of prizes left to be won and a new competition from now until the 2017-18 EuroLeague is over. My team, Gancedato, finished the regular season ranked 197th overall, which is a great result, I think. At least, it is a much better result than I expected, even though I lost ground in the last few rounds. Before I tell you what I will do with my team, let me recommend one or two outsiders per series. Remember, we have unlimited trades, so keep that in mind!
CSKA MOSCOW vs. KHIMKI MOSCOW REGION - The Leningradka Derby is always hard to predict, but looking at the numbers this season, it looks like Cory Higgins is our man for Fantasy Challenge purposes. He had a PIR of 31 in Moscow and got 18 in his team's road win. As for Khimki, Stefan Markovic had a PIR of 10 in one of the games and just hit a game-winning midcourt shot in the VTB League, so he will reach this series with a lot of confidence.
PANATHINAIKOS SUPERFOODS ATHENS vs. REAL MADRID - Mike James had a PIR of 24 against Real Madrid and he seems to be the man for Panathinaikos in this series, even though he will not have it easy against Facu Campazzo, who is a great on-the-ball defender. That will be a fun-to-watch battle and one of the biggest matchups in this series.
OLYMPIACOS PIRAEUS vs. ZALGIRIS KAUNAS - I refer you to the game in Kaunas because Olympiacos missed too many players when they met in the regular season finale. Georgios Printezis has not played against Zalgiris this season and that could be an advantage for the Greek powerhouse, at least initially. I trust Kevin Pangos will have a terrific series, so that will be my recommendation. He had a PIR of 17 against Olympiacos in Kaunas.
FENERBAHCE DOGUS ISTANBUL vs. KIROLBET BASKONIA VITORIA GASTEIZ
- Both Brad Wanamaker and Jan Vesely had very strong performances against Baskonia this year. Vesely matches up pretty well against Baskonia's big men and could be a good option in the game. As for Baskonia, Johannes Voigtmann did very well, averaging just 7.0 points, but a PIR of 12 in those matchups.
So, what do I do now? Go for the best players in the game, obviously. I am buying four of what I call The Great Five Players in Fantasy - Nando De Colo of CSKA, Toko Shengelia of Baskonia, Luka Doncic of Madrid and Alexey Shved of Khimki. I am going to risk a little bit and buy Mike James instead of the obvious Panathinaikos choice, Nick Calathes, because I think James will have a better series. As for the final three spots, I am taking Jan Vesely of Fenerbahce at center, Georgios Printezis of Olympiacos and Cory Higgins of CSKA, just to be in line with my own personal recommendations.
As such, Gancedato looks like this before Game 1 of the playoffs. Adjustments will be made before Game 2 and a new lineup will be published in this blog entry.
Mike James, Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens (PG) - Arguably the quickest, most- electric playmaker in the competition - and one of the best, too. Should be a good move.
Nando De Colo, CSKA Moscow (SG) - I have complete trust in Nando, all season long. And of course, I keep the faith now. He is my team captain.
Cory Higgins, CSKA Moscow (SF) - He has played really well against Khimki this season, and I guess he will continue doing the same. Cory is having a great season.
Toko Shengelia, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz (PF) - With fewer options available at power forward, Shengelia is a must for all Fantasy Challenge teams.
Jan Vesely, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul (C) - It is do-or-die time and Fenerbahce needs its best players to step up – and Vesely is definitely one of them.
Luka Doncic, Real Madrid (G) - The PIR leader must be on your team, especially when his team is in need of a road win as soon as possible.
Georgios Printezis, Olympiacos Piraeus (F) - He always steps up in big games, so I expect a very solid series from the ambidextrous power forward.
Alexey Shved, Khimki Moscow Region (U) - He has struggled a bit against CSKA this season, but rest assured, I trust him 100%. Shved will be around as long as Khimki is alive.
Bench: Bobby Brown, Olympiacos Piraeus (G); Matt Lojeski (F) and Adreian Payne (C), Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens; Marcelinho Huertas, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz (U).
Nothing more. Enjoy the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague playoffs! I am glad to tell you I wrote this blog entry courtside at Volkswagen Arena, hours before Game 2 of the 7DAYS EuroCup Finals, which was being truly exciting! Expect even more excitement in the EuroLeague Playoffs, starting now!
GAME 2 UPDATE: I made some changes, based on the fact that Nando De Colo is out. I would have liked to add Vassilis Spanoulis or Kostas Sloukas, but there are too many good guards out there! My lineup before Playoffs Game 2 is: Calathes (captain), Doncic, Higgins, Shengelia, Vesely; James, Clyburn and of course, Shved. Good luck, EuroLeague Fantasy Challenge players!