This week: Last champs tip off double-round

Jan 13, 2020 by Print
This week: Last champs tip off double-round

The first double-round week of 2020 tips off on Tuesday with a rematch between CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid, semifinals opponents from the last two seasons, the winner in each having gone on to win the title. It's the perfect way to start four days of thrilling action which could have a major impact on the race for the playoffs. Here's your quick guide to the action in Rounds 19 and 20.

Last two champions open the week

Real Madrid (15-3) has raced to joint first place with a club-record 13 consecutive victories, but this week the Spanish team faces a major challenge to its two-month unbeaten run with a double-header in Moscow that starts with Tuesday's crunch clash at reigning champion CSKA (12-6), where the visitors have not won since 2008, losing six in a row since then.

The game is a rematch of last season's semifinal, which saw CSKA roar back from a 14-point deficit to claim a dramatic victory. But CSKA is in many ways a very different team now, with Mike James arriving in the summer and showing his leadership with an average of 20.9 points per game. Slowing down James is a clear priority for Real.

Pablo Laso is hoping to have Gabriel Deck and Sergio Llull back from injury, but Real's greatest strength this season has been its collective excellence with every member of the roster capable of stepping up when it matters.

These are the most prolific two long-range shooting teams in the competition, with CSKA leading the league by firing 11.6 three-pointers per game at 39.7%, closely followed by Real with an average of 11.3 triples at a slightly better conversion rate of 40.5%. Long bombs could be decisive in this super showdown.

Top-four duel

After suffering a home loss against Anadolu Efes last Friday night to fall two wins behind first place, third-place FC Barcelona (13-5) has a tough task in bouncing back this week with highly demanding road games at fourth-place Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv (12-6) on Tuesday and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul on Thursday.

Maccabi has been a dominant force at home this season, winning all eight games at Menora Mivtachim Arena, and the Israeli team has the added incentive of knowing it can climb level with Barca in the standings with a win (or even jump ahead with a victory of 23 points or more).

Head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos has retooled his injury-hit roster with the acquisition of Aaron Jackson and Jalen Reynolds along with the reintegration of Angelo Caloiaro. Maccabi's confidence on its home floor – not to mention the red-hot atmosphere sure to generated by its passionate fans – will present a stern test to a Barca team anxious to avoid losing momentum in the race for the playoffs.

Maccabi will aim to strengthen its challenge for the top four by gaining home wins this week over Barca and then fellow playoffs hopefuls AX Armani Exchange Milan (10-8). Being in attendance at Menora Mivtachim Arena in the coming days will be a pulsating experience.

Fenerbahce on a roll

Two days after that game in Tel Aviv, Barca faces another daunting trip to resurgent Fenerbahce (7-11), which has climbed to within two wins of the playoffs and has started to show shoots of recovery by winning consecutive road games at Olympiacos Piraeus and KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz.

With injuries to Jan Vesely and Ahmet Duverioglu affecting Fenerbahce's ability under the boards, coach Zeljko Obradovic has added size and aggression with the return of James Nunnally and the recruitment of Malcolm Thomas. The latter has made an instant impact, averaging 5 rebounds and 2 steals in those two road wins, and Nunnally is sure to receive a warm welcome on his second home debut for the club where he won a EuroLeague title in 2017.

The Ulker Sports and Event Hall, usually such a fortress, has been a difficult venue for Fenerbahce this season, with Obradovic's men losing their last three home games. Ending that sequence this week – against LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne (8-10) on Tuesday and then Barca on Thursday – would lead to the firm conclusion that Fener is well and truly back in business in time to make a serious run for the top eight.

Greek giants to make a mark?

A lot of basketball will be played this week in the Greek capital with a pair of games apiece in Athens and Piraeus as Panathinaikos and Olympiacos stay at home for the double week.

Both teams have shown flashes of promise interspersed by outbreaks of inconsistency, and Olympiacos (7-11) heads into its meetings with FC Bayern Munich (6-12) and ALBA Berlin (5-13) buoyed by a good road win at Valencia Basket last week. They have also called Georgios Bartzokas, who coached them to the club's last EuroLeague title in 2013, back to the bench. The Reds have not yet gained three straight wins this season – and only won two in a row once – so stringing together a winning sequence this week could be the launchpad for surge up the standings.

Panathinaikos (10-8) has held its ground in the top eight despite losing four of their last six games. The split personality of Rick Pitino's men is evident from the fact that those two wins were against defending champion CSKA in Moscow and Fenerbahce. The key man for Panathinaikos in this week's home games against Bayern and Zalgiris Kaunas (5-13) could be Jimmer Fredette, who is averaging 15.1 points per game in his first EuroLeague season and netted a season-high 28 points in last week's loss at Milan. If Fredette can start scoring like that on a regular basis, the Greens should make their top eight place safe.

Home comforts for Efes

In the wake of last week's impressive victory at Barcelona, Efes (15-3) now returns for a pair of home games against Milan on Tuesday and ASVEL on Friday.

The victory in Spain was achieved without Vasilije Micic, who missed the game with an ankle injury. But the absence of the team's chief playmaker did not prevent Efes from maintaining its usual offensive fluidity, as Shane Larkin added to his scoring heroics by also becoming the prime distributor with 5 assists, while Krunoslav Simon played more than 32 minutes, well up on his usual playing time average of 23:43.

Perhaps even more notable was the fact that Efes outrebounded Barca 40-31 despite the ongoing absence of Bryant Dunston, and it's clear that Ergin Ataman has engineered a multi-faceted team with many weapons at its disposal.

This week's visitors to the Sinan Erdem Dome will have it tough: Milan has lost five away games in a row and ASVEL only has one road victory all season. Turning that around against this explosive Efes will be no easy task.