Head to head records, a sleeping giant threatening to wake up and a walking triple-double are some of the key storylines to watch as the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season enters its second half this week.
Head to head matters
The onset of the second half of the regular season, where teams start playing against each other for the second time, brings a new dimension to many games: head to head records. As stated in the competition’s rules: the first tie breaker for teams with the same number of wins is the “best record in head-to-head games between all tied teams.” Therefore, we can now get used to the sight of teams in the final seconds of already-won games desperately attempting to improve their winning margins, or losing teams fighting hard to claw back the scale of defeat.
This week, for example, Brose Bamberg doesn’t only want to beat Khimki Moscow Region – after suffering an 82-73 defeat in Russia a few weeks ago, the German champion will want to win by at least 10 points to ensure it has the advantage in the highly plausible scenario of the teams finishing level on wins at the end of the regular season. In the highly competitive Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, that scenario will be repeated on many, many occasions in the next few weeks, and it could ultimately make all the difference between qualifying for the playoffs or an end of season disappointment.
One of the league’s most surprising negative streaks was finally ended last week when FC Barcelona Lassa gained its first road win of the season at the seventh time of asking. And the manner of Barcelona’s convincing 65-79 victory over Khimki suggested there could be plenty more to come from Coach Sito Alonso’s men, who delivered a serious, focused and intense performance in the Russian capital, winning the rebounding battle by a 2 to 1 ratio and setting a new club record with 32 assists.
This week, Barcelona could not face a more difficult or potentially more rewarding opportunity to prove it is for real: a visit from league leading CSKA Moscow. A defeat could kill the renaissance in its track, but another win would make it clear Barcelona is a team to be feared in the second half of the regular season. And Barcelona isn’t the only Spanish team looking to build momentum. After a first couple of months which saw all five teams from the Iberian Peninsula fall below expectations, now Real Madrid and Unicaja Malaga have both won four straight, Valencia last week ended a long losing sequence, and Baskonia has gone 6-3 since mid-November. Watch out Europe, Spain is on the charge.
Two races within a race
When you think about it, the battle to secure a position in the playoffs is really two races within a race. Firstly, everyone is desperate to prolong their dreams of glory by climbing into the top eight. And secondly, within that elite group there’s an equally fierce struggle to finish in the top four, securing the home-court advantage, which nearly always proves crucial. As things stand, the playoffs series would look like this: CSKA Moscow vs. Khimki; Olympiacos vs. Maccabi; Panathinaikos vs. Real Madrid; Zalgiris Kaunas vs. Fenerbahce.
What a set of games they would be! Can you even begin to imagine the atmosphere in the Zalgirio Arena as the local heroes took on the reigning champs? What about the added drama of a local derby in Moscow? Maccabi’s fast-running offense against Olympiacos’s iron-clad defense. Nick Calathes against Luka Doncic and Xavi Pascual against Pablo Laso. It would be fantastic.
But there is a very long way to go before those potential fixtures become reality, and teams like Baskonia, Unicaja and Crvena Zvezda will be determined to burst into the top eight, while powerhouses like Fenerbahce and Madrid have every intention of securing home-court advantage. So if you think this season has already been full of excitement and drama…you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
Doncic continues quest for triple-double
Considering everything he has done this season, it would be no surprise at all if the league’s top-ranked performer, Luka Doncic of Real Madrid, finally achieves a milestone he has regularly threatened to reach: the first triple-double in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague for more than a decade. Doncic has already come close on several occasions, most recently in last week’s MVP-winning performance against reigning champ Fenerbahce, where he combined 20 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds. In fact, he did achieve a triple-double of sorts by also drawing 10 fouls, and it’s only a matter of time – surely? – until he makes it in a more conventional manner.
One of Doncic’s flirtations with a triple-double came last season at home to Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv, when he had 10 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists, winning the second of many MVP of the round awards. This week Maccabi travels to Madrid again, and it would be highly appropriate if the teen sensation makes the magic mark against the Israeli club because the only player to have recorded a triple-double in the EuroLeague this century is Maccabi general manager, Nikola Vujcic.
(Euro)League of nations
Slovenia, France, Georgia, Russia, Czech Republic. That’s not just a random list of European countries, but the nationality of the top five-ranked performers in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague at the midway point of the regular season. Of course, Luka Doncic, Nando De Colo, Toko Shengelia, Alexey Shved and Jan Vesely aren’t the only ones who have been making waves. When you add in leading players in other statistical categories such as rebounding (Thomas Robinson, the United States, and Vladimir Stimac, Serbia), assists (Nick Calathes, Greece/US), shot-blocking (Bryant Dunston, US, and Tibor Pleiss, Germany) and three-point shooting (Sergio Rodriguez, Spain, Kevin Pangos, Canada, and Arturas Milaknis, Lithuania), it becomes clear just how multicultural and all-embracing the competition really is.
And as we head into the New Year, it is worthwhile to take a moment and contemplate how this shows that sport really can bring people together. The slogan of Euroleague Basketball’s social responsibility program states, “We are all One Team,” and that motto is truly brought to life by the cosmopolitan makeup of the league’s teams. Happy New Year to everyone, everywhere!