Whatever happens in tonight's Game of the Week showdown Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz and visiting Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv for the last open Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs spot, the hosts deserve a standing O just for getting to this moment.
No team that started a EuroLeague season this century by losing its first four games has ever turned things around so successfully as this Baskonia team.
In 2003-04, Olympiacos started 0-4, squeezed into the Top 16 on a tiebreaker, but managed only one more victory before being eliminated with an 8-12 overall record. Milan did the same in 2008-09, when the regular season was down to 10 games – meaning less time to recover from a bad start – and finished 7-9 overall.
Lietuvos Rytas had the same bounce-back and final record in 2010-11, the season in which even mighty CSKA could not recover from a 0-3 start and finished last in its regular season group.
But those teams were the exceptions. Teams that started 0-4 over the years have usually won two or three more games before bowing out well before the end of a 10- or 14-game regular season. Mind you, we are not talking here about only lesser-known clubs who squeezed their way into the EuroLeague with surprise national league titles or through qualifying rounds. Apart from Olympiacos, Milan and Rytas, the likes of Zalgiris, Unicaja, Brose, Partizan and Fortitudo Bologna – the latter just two years removed from playing in the 2004 championship game – all started at least one season at 0-4, too.
But none of them roared back to life like this Baskonia team has done. With its 15-13 record now, tonight's hosts can do no worse than break even at 15-15. But of course, they are not thinking in those terms at all. With five consecutive victories at their back, they need only to hold serve at home tonight against Maccabi to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot.
But even a victory tonight doesn't mean that Baskonia won't be pushing for more. Should Real Madrid and Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens both lose their last two games – unlikely as that is – Baskonia could even have a chance to move as high as fourth place and get home-court advantage in the playoffs if it wins tonight and again in Round 30 at home against last-place Anadolu Efes Istanbul. In any case, Baskonia could move up to sixth or even fifth place and avoid CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul, two of the three teams it was unable to beat this season – yet.
One thing that makes Baskonia's situation gratifying now is that the same players who suffered through that 0-4 start in October have made this turnaround happen. No panic set in during that early slide and, to management's credit, no big-name signings were rushed in to save the day. Except for three players who left due to injuries or short contracts, the 12 core members of the team – all of whom appeared in at least one of those first four losses – are still there to try to complete their remarkable comeback season together. What's more, each one of them has come up big along the way.
Power forward Tornike Shengelia and point guard Jayson Granger have shown the stuff of leading men as they hit the primes of their careers. The young big men Vincent Poirier and Johannes Voigtmann have been huge time and again. A pair of 29-year-old sharp-shooters, Rodrigue Beaubois and Matt Janning, have filled in a lot of blanks with big shots and good defense. The veteran leader Marcelinho Huertas has picked his spots wisely to put up strong performances with great timing. And a quartet of young newcomers – a Patricio Garino, Rinalds Malmanis, Janis Timma and Luca Vildoza – have been much more than wide-eyed rookies. All had major moments that contributed to this long-term rise in Baskonia's stock.
It is enough to look at the league leaders and see that Baskonia has more different players than any other team – five – ranked among the five best performers in main statistical categories. And none of those players are together in any single category, so they cover a gamut of talents. They are Shengelia, in rebounds (second, 6.3) and performance index rating (fourth, 19.0); Granger, in assists (fifth, 5.1%); Timma, in two-point accuracy (second, 67.4%); Voigtmann, in three-point accuracy (first, 60.5%); and Huertas, in free throw accuracy (third, 97.0%).
In other words, seven teams ranked higher than Baskonia at the moment cannot boast such a variety of top performers, statistically speaking. To be a top-five performer in any stats category over a 30-game regular season requires consistency and staying power, and Baskonia has five different players who have met that test.
Add in the devoted and knowledgeable home fans in Vitoria – whom no less an expert than Dusan Ivkovic lauded this week – and there is plenty of reason to applaud Baskonia's resurrection this season. There is also plenty of reason, should Baskonia reach the playoffs, for those higher-ranked teams to fear these comeback kids.
Already one of the EuroLeague's hottest teams of late, Baskonia – having saved its season once already – will have little to lose in the playoffs. And its experience of shaking off disappointment to rise again will be very valuable, especially as it is still feeling that dynamic. A glow surrounds this team going into this crucial game tonight, and if Baskonia comes up aces again, watch out above, because the longer the season gets, the more ceilings this team breaks through.