The last round of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season started on Thursday with non-playoff teams seeking -- and, in a few cases, taking -- revenge in five very interesting games. Along the way there were two overtimes three road wins plus a 17-point comeback victory. Let the EuroLeague Gurus spell out what happened.
CSKA gets into playoff mode
The last regular season game is one that CSKA Moscow will quickly try to forget, or perhaps better said, will try to use as a reminder that its 24-6 record guarantees nothing the rest of the way. CSKA struggled for three quarters on Thursday against visiting Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade, and that wasn't because of the absence of its top scorer Nando De Colo or the leg injury at the start of the second quarter that sent Kyle Hines out of the game. It was an overall lack of energy, which was mostly visible on defense, but was also on display on offense, and made CSKA struggle.
The start of the game was so bad that when Zvezda was up 0-7 after 2 minutes, CSKA head coach Dimitris Itoudis called a timeout and changed his entire starting lineup. Zvezda had a double-digit lead less than 2 minutes later, but thanks to buckets that Vitaly Fridzon and Cory Higgins provided in bunches, CSKA got the lead. But the hosts could not take control of the game.
The ups and downs continued throughout the second quarter and Zvezda restored its double-digit lead shortly after halftime, only to lose it all and grab another lead late in third quarter. CSKA allowed a big number of open looks defensively, but lacked its usual offensive efficiency despite scoring 92 points on the night.
Coach Itoudis was looking for a spark and finally found one with shot-making and playmaking of Leo Westermann and Sergio Rodriguez in the fourth quarter, just in time to avoid last-minute drama.
"In the second half we were sharing the ball better, we found better ways to find open looks and actually be effective," Itoudis said after the win. "That's a part of the game, we have to read every game differently."
CSKA did win the second half 55-37, but the way the team started the game can certainly put its effort in a category of rare lackadaisical performances for CSKA. Nonetheless, the EuroLeague leader still woke up in time – and won. It might not be a boost-of-confidence type of victory, but CSKA surely has plenty of that after registering 24 regular season wins, a new EuroLeague record.
In the end, its Round 30 performance might raise something even more important for CSKA – awareness, just in time for the playoffs. And that might not be very good news for its playoff opponent and city rival, Khimki Moscow Region.
One year later, Unicaja gets another big win
April 5, 2017 is a date written in golden letters in Unicaja Malaga's history. On that day, Unicaja played Game 3 of the 2016-7 7DAYS EuroCup Finals on the road against Valencia Basket. Down by 13 early in the fourth quarter, Unicaja used a 0-18 charge to come back and win its first EuroCup title. It was also the club's first trophy of any kind in 11 years and Alberto Diaz was chosen as the 7DAYS EuroCup Finals MVP after leading his team with 12 points.
A year later, competing in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, Unicaja had its last regular season game against defending champion Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul. Maybe inspired by its memories from a year ago and despite being out of the fight to make it to the playoffs, Unicaja had a phenomenal start, leading 20-38 late in the first half. Fenerbahce, led by Kostas Sloukas and James Nunnally, managed to take the lead, 69-63, with more than 4 minutes left. Just as it did a year ago, Unicaja improved its defense and fought back. A 0-7 run that Adam Waczynski capped with a three-point play put the guests in charge, 69-70, and a three-pointer by Diaz seemed to seal the outcome, 81-83, with 7.9 seconds left. Fenerbahce had a final chance and made the most of it, as a tip-in by Sloukas forced overtime.
Unicaja showcased its best side in the extra period, scoring 16 points in 5 minutes. Six of them came from Nemanja Nedovic, who finished the game with a career-high 31 points on 13-of-13 free throws. Waczynski had 18 points and no misses of any kind. Unicaja had a team PIR of 120, matching its season high against FC Barcelona Lassa. It was also it third-best mark ever on the road, after having previously reached a PIR of 124 against Pau-Orthez in 2004 and 132 against Nizhny Novgorod in 2015. Most important, it forced Fenerbahce into 21 turnovers, the biggest number since Zeljko Obradovic joined the team in 2013.
The victory bookended a noble season for Unicaja that started with a home victory against Fenerbahce, meaning that last year's EuroCup champs swept the EuroLeague champs this season. One year later, Unicaja remembered one of the biggest night and also fabricated new memories for its fans to be proud of their team.
Greens conjure road win on OT buzzer
If it somehow ends up getting home-court advantage in the playoffs on Friday night, Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens will have earned it. Down 17 points on the road against AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan with 3 minutes left in the third quarter on Thursday, there was little hope that Panathinaikos would save its last chance for home-court advantage by winning the game.
But Nick Calathes, James Gist and Mike James didn't see it that way. They combined for the last 9 points of that third quarter, cutting the difference to 69-61, and like that the path was lit. When Milan seemed to be in charge again at 77-70 with under 5 minutes left, that trio was joined by Marcus Denmon. Those four players combined for all 17 of their team's points til the end of regulation time. But the first Panathinaikos lead of the game, 84-85 on a lefty runner by James with 14 seconds left, lasted only 10 seconds until Diaris Bertans of Milan tied the game 87-87 on 3 perfect free throws, sending it to overtime.
The extra period was no picnic for Panathinaikos, either. James tied it once, Gist tied it again and then hit the go-ahead free throw with 27 seconds left. But Milan's Andrew Goudelock was good to go with his next shot stealing back a 95-94 lead with 7 seconds left. It was no surprise when Panathinaikos came out of a timeout and got the ball to James again.
Some basketball gods must have been looking down on him, because when James drove and let the ball fly with one hand, it looked exactly like a lob pass to Gist, who was angling in from another direction. Except that Gist never got near the ball, which touched the rim and seemed to be falling long and toward the hands of Milan big men Amath M'Baye and Arturas Gudaitis, who were trying to block Gist's way. Whether or not one of them touched it or not was unclear, but the ball righted itself above the rim and was soft enough to bounce in for the 95-96 victory.
Panathinaikos had led for less than a minute total in a game with two endings, but somehow came away with a buzzer-beating victory on a shot that didn't look like a shot at all. Now the Greens will hope that their good fortune continues for 24 hours, because if either Olympiacos or Real Madrid lose at home on Friday, that mystery game-winner will be the difference between starting the playoffs – and potentially playing a Game 5 – in the comfy confines of the Olympic Sports Center Athens.
Navarro impresses, flirts with a career-high
FC Barcelona Lassa really made an effort to finish its season on a high. After hitting a record-tying 19 three-pointers on the road against Anadolu Efes Istanbul last week, Barcelona nailed 17 triples on Thursday to win over a playoff-bound Khimki Moscow Region.
Making 8 of its first 11 three-point attempts, Barcelona never trailed in the game against Khimki and needed only a quarter and a half to open a 20-point lead. It was a margin that the hosts later needed to defend, but it was an impressive first quarter nevertheless. In the opening 8 minutes, Barcelona dished 8 assists and hit 11 field goals, 6 of which were triples, in scoring 29 points.
Despite its struggles this entire season, Barcelona rarely had troubles with its offense. It set a club record by averaging 20.5 assists per game – which not only leads the EuroLeague this season but ranks as the third-highest average this century. Barcelona also posted the season's fourth-best scoring, 81.7 points per game. For a team with an 11-19 record, Barcelona is the only side ranked in the top five in scoring and the top seven in assists that is not playing in the playoffs.
What made Thursday's game special was the performance of Juan Carlos Navarro. EuroLeague's scoring king played a season-high 23:50 minutes and torched Khimki's defense with 17 points, making 5 threes of 11 attempts. Navarro was one shy of his single-game record of 6 three-pointers, which he set for the last time in March of 2007. Not at all bad for a 38-year old who hit 623 career triples, which is 152 more than any other player this century.
Another interesting tidbit: of the eight games in which he hit 5 three-pointers, four came against Russian teams – two against Khimki, one against Lokomotiv in December of 2015, and one against CSKA in third-place game at the 2013 Final Four. This one could not have come in worse time for the visitors, as it left Khimki in eighth place, facing a playoff clash against CSKA.
Efes shows pride, leaves with a win
Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz is famous for its character, which is a brand for basketball fans in the city. Anadolu Efes Istanbul arrived knowing it would be the bottom-ranked team in this year's EuroLeague, without three injured players – Derrick Brown, Dogus Balbay and Zoran Dragic – and playing against a Baskonia team that had a six-game winning streak and was hungry to keep it going. When everything was against the Turkish powerhouse, Efes showed character and fought hard for the win.
"I think that we played our most aggressive game in maybe the last two or three months in the EuroLeague," head coach Ergin Ataman said after the game. "Strange for us, but sometimes basketball is a very interesting game. Baskonia needed to win but we won the game."
A 0-10 run early in the second half allowed Efes to take full control of the game for long stretches but Baskonia managed to rally and get a 77-76 lead going into the final 2 minutes. Far from being done, Efes got some defensive stops, sending two of its most experienced players, Toney Douglas and Krunoslav Simon, to the foul line to seal the outcome down the stretch. Errick McCollum scored 20 points or more 10 times this season, but only once between Round 22 to 29. His 21 points on 9-of-10 two-point shots, mostly jumpers and floaters, gave Efes the boost it needed to win the game.
"It was our last EuroLeague game and we wanted to leave on a good note," center Bryant Dunston said after the game. "Defensively, we came out very aggressive, pressuring the ball. We helped each other, played together on both ends and towards the end of the game, we did the right things that helped us get the win."
Another proof of character is that while Baskonia had a much higher PIR, 91 to 75, Efes won the game down the stretch. Baskonia will face another Turkish team, defending champion Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul, in the playoffs, and could use this home loss as a wake-up call right before the most important games of the season.