The penultimate round of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season opened on Thursday with four games that included some pretty memorable results. Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz won to clinch a playoff berth, FC Barcelona Lassa tied a EuroLeague record, Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul polished off a potential playoff opponent and AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan added another road win to its cap. The EuroLeague Gurus take you inside the games and break down their importance.
Defense, free throws propel Fenerbahce past Khimki
For 28 minutes, Khimki Moscow Region stood toe to toe with the reigning champs. In fact, Vyacheslav Zaytsev's three-pointer tied the game at 52-52 with 2 minutes left in the third quarter. However, Kostas Sloukas shined in a 5-17 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters and put Fenerbahce in control for good. That run was characterized by two main things: a big difference in free throws and tremendous Fenerbahce defense.
When Thomas Robinson committed a foul on Sloukas away from the basket with his team in the foul penalty, he compounded that error by making a technical foul. Sloukas took advantage by making 3 free throws and James Nunnally was fouled on the ensuing play and made 2 more. Robinson had a chance to make amends, but missed twice from the foul line and Alexey Shved only split his free throws. Nicolo Melli added 2 more free throws for the visitors, meaning that over last 2 minutes of the third quarter, all the points came from free throws: Fenerbahce was 7 for 7. Khimki was 1 for 4.
For the game, Fenerbahce was 22 for 27 on free throws (81.5%) and Khimki was 7 for 13 (53.9%). As Khimki head coach Bartzokas noted after the game, "There was a huge difference in the free throws; they scored 15 more, so in a game that was more or less tight, more or less the same statistics, it was one important part of the game."
Of course, free throws only tell part of the story. Over the final 12 minutes of the game, Fenerbahce outscored Khimki 12-21. In that stretch, Khimki was 1 of 8 (12.5%) from downtown after making 10 of 22 threes (45.5%) in the first 28 minutes, while Fenerbahce outrebounded the hosts 7-11. The visitors' defense held Khimki to just 4 points over more than 9 minutes after Zaytsev's game-tying three.
The telling numbers from this game are lessons for both teams heading into the playoffs. Fenerbahce, playing without star center Jan Vesely, showed that even on a slow offensive night – Coach Zeljko Obradovic summed it up: "Our offense was not so good. We played very slow, we didn't recognize some situations to punish the Khimki defense." – great free throw shooting and fantastic defense can deliver wins. And Khimki, which was also missing key players Tyler Honeycutt and James Anderson, will need to avoid mental mistakes and late game slumps when the bright lights of the playoffs are shining.
Barcelona goes three-point crazy on record-breaking night
It's really very easy to identify the key element behind FC Barcelona Lassa's blowout 83-107 victory over Anadolu Efes Istanbul at Sinan Erdem Dome on Thursday night: inspired three-point shooting. Barca was on fire from long range from the third minute of play, when Adam Hanga and Petteri Koponen struck from deep. Another trio of triples in just over 2 minutes from Koponen and Pau Ribas (twice) protected Barcelona's lead, and when the second quarter started with a pair of long-range bombs from Victor Claver, it appeared the barrage would never end. Indeed, Hanga and Ribas then struck again before Thomas Heurtel joined the party with his team's 10th triple shortly before the break. By then, Barcelona had made an outrageous 10-of-13 three-point shots and set itself on track not only for a resounding victory, but also to beat the EuroLeague's single-game record for three-pointers: 19, achieved by Montepaschi Siena against Asseco Prokom Gdynia in 2012.
The record-setting pace continued after the interval with strikes from Ribas and Adrien Moerman, before Huertel and Phil Pressey also connected to improve the team's long-range conversion rate to a scarcely believable 14-of-17. Then came a few misses, but the final two quarters were bridged by 2 more threes from Claver, followed by strikes from Edwin Jackson and Heurtel. Before long, Jackson netted another triple to tie Montepaschi's record, with still nearly five minutes to play…but that was it. Barcelona failed to make another deep shot and therefore had to settle for a share of the record rather than claiming it outright.
However, it was still a record-breaking night as Barcelona set a new club mark for triples – breaking its previous best total of 17 achieved against Stelmet Zielona Gora in November 2015 – and also tied the club record in scoring alongside the 107 points made against Pinar Karsiyaka Izmir, also in the 2015-16 regular season.
Road warriors from Milan
Unusual for a team with a 10-19 record, second-worst in the EuroLeague, AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan registered its fifth road win of the season on Thursday. Once again, despite being eliminated, Milan showed resilience and a never-quit attitude in coming from behind in the final quarter to beat Brose Bamberg.
"We are trying to play the EuroLeague until the end in a positive way," Milan head coach Simone Pianigiani stressed, pointing out how five road wins are what playoff teams do. Indeed, Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens has the same amount, while Zalgiris Kaunas and Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz have six road triumphs apiece. All those teams are not only playoff-bound, but still battling for home-court advantage. Meanwhile, Milan has long been eliminated.
"It is incredible how many games we lost that we were leading or were tied in the last quarter," Pianigiani said. "We lost a chance to fight for the playoffs by losing many games at home, and losing games by one shot or in the last minutes."
Now, Milan has as many road wins as they have at home, thanks to this win in Bamberg. Pianigiani's countryman and his former assistant of six years, Brose coach Luca Bianchi, explained after the game that Milan used the aggressiveness of its guards in the fourth quarter to have its way on the offensive end. The combination of Curtis Jerrells's quickness and Dairis Bertans's suddenly hot shooting hand, along with Vladimir Micov and Andrew Goudelock playing their parts, was too much for the Brose defense in the fourth quarter. Milan moved the ball well enough to get open shots, but also knocked down a couple of tough ones.
Those were the back-breakers, like Bertans's triple that made it 73-77 with 4 minutes to go. Meanwhile, after Brose exploited Milan's interior defense to score in bunches there for majority of the night, Arturas Gudaitis and Amath M'Baye anchored the fourth-quarter defense that held Brose to just 14 fourth-quarter points and just 5 in the final 5:30 of the game. It led Milan to a late-season feel-good win.
Baskonia makes history, reaches playoffs
Baskonia has reached the EuroLeague playoffs for the 11th time since the format was re-adopted in the 2004-05 season. The team has only missed the playoff three times – in 2012, 2014 and 2015 – while making five Final Four appearances over that period. However, there are reasons to believe this playoff appearance could be one of the most special in club history.
First, the team rallied from a 0-4 start; no team in EuroLeague history had lost its first four games and ended up qualifying to the playoffs before. Second, Baskonia is set to reach the playoffs in its best form of the season. It is currently on a six-game winning streak and a home win against last-place Anadolu Efes Istanbul next week would guarantee at least a seventh-place finish, avoiding mighty CSKA Moscow – the team that swept Baskonia at the same stage last season – in the playoffs.
The game against Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv was another example of team effort and determination in the most decisive moments. Nine players scored 6 points or more, led by Johannes Voigtmann, who had 14. Baskonia had 22 assists and just 10 turnovers and held Maccabi to just 21-of-45 shooting inside the arc (46.7%). Maccabi fought hard, but with the game tied at 53-53, Baskonia reminded everyone that any of its players can step up at any given time. Patricio Garino had a wild three-point play late in the late quarter and added back-to-back dunks, the second off a midcourt steal, to put Baskonia ahead for good, 60-53. Baskonia showed no weaknesses in crunch time, scoring 27 points in the fourth quarter and 16 in the final 5 minutes to give Maccabi no chance to come back.
"The whole team did a hell of a job. I think we were incredibly aggressive in the second half. We owe it to the fans, too. They were great and there was a great atmosphere. It was a team MVP," Patricio Garino said after the game. If Baskonia keeps putting team first, no team will feel comfortable against them in the playoffs.