The race for the playoffs intensifies as the action keeps coming in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague with a double-round week providing plenty of opportunity for surges up the standings. Here’s your quick guide to Rounds 23 and 24.
Efes seeks to banish CSKA demon
The latest double-round week could not have a more explosive start as a battle royale will be staged at Megasport Arena on Tuesday night with in-form reigning champion CSKA Moscow (16-6) hosting runaway league leader Anadolu Efes Istanbul (19-3) in a rematch of last season’s championship game.
Efes has revenge on its mind, not only for its loss at the Final Four, but also following this season’s first meeting between the teams, which was won by CSKA in an 80-81 thriller in Istanbul in Round 15 – the last time that Efes lost. The Turkish champion has conquered every other opponent in the EuroLeague over the last season and a half but now needs to prove – to itself, more than anyone else – that it can also overcome CSKA after losing the last 10 games against the Russian giant, a sequence dating back to 2013.
The outcome could be decided by a straight shootout by two of the league’s most exciting and dynamic shooters with CSKA’s Mike James going up against Efes star Shane Larkin. James scored 28 points in the victory in Istanbul a few weeks ago, while Larkin has netted at least 20 in six games straight. Get ready for a thrilling confrontation.
Injury-hit Spanish derby
A Spanish derby will provide exciting viewing on Wednesday night when FC Barcelona (16-6) makes the three-hour journey down the Spanish coast to visit playoff aspirant Valencia Basket (11-11). Valencia has been outstanding at La Fonteta in recent weeks, holding serve in seven of its eight last home games, most recently with an MVP of the Round performance from Bojan Dubljevic and a barrage of three-pointers securing a hard-earned win over Panathinaikos OPAP Athens last week. But Barca is also in fine form, recovering from a mid-season dip to win its last three games and reassert its position in the all-important top four.
Physical issues could be significant: the host has been hit by a double injury blow in the backcourt with playmaker Sam Van Rossom and shooter Jordan Loyd both ruled out for a few weeks, whereas Barca has been boosted by the return to fitness of point guard Thomas Heurtel after several months out. The visiting team, however, will probably still be missing Cory Higgins. Whoever copes best with those absentees could take the victory.
Zalgiris on the charge…again?
Is history repeating itself? Last season saw Zalgiris Kaunas make a slow start and spend the first few months of the season in the bottom half of the standings before Sarunas Jasikevicius fitted all his pieces together and his team embarked on a powerful finale to the regular season to qualify for the playoffs. The same might be happening now. Back in December, Zalgiris’s season looked like it was nearly already over after a horrible run of nine consecutive defeats saw the Lithuanian champion plummet to the foot of the standings. But, just like last season, Zalgiris (8-14) has now turned the corner and can look ahead to the remainder of the campaign with confidence after winning five of its last seven games.
The double-round week starts with a key battle against a direct opponent as Olympiacos Piraeus (9-13) heads into town on Tuesday looking for its first win at Zalgirio Arena in five attempts. Then comes a trip to take on Efes on Thursday, a game which Zalgiris can treat as a "nothing to lose" occasion and hope to catch the host off-guard after its demanding meeting with CSKA two days earlier.
Fenerbahce on the brink
Could this be the week for Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul to break the top eight? Zeljko Obradovic’s team appears to have fully shaken off their early-season blues and is now just one win shy of the playoff zone.
Fenerbahce (10-12), which has won five of its last six games, starts the week with a trip to take on joint-last Zenit St Petersburg (7-15) before returning home for a mouthwatering showdown with fifth-placed Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv (14-8).
Although a game-by-game approach is Obradovic's mantra, secretly there must be some ambition among his players to climb as high as possible into the top eight over the next few weeks. In that case, overhauling Maccabi will be a prime target and that will require a big victory over the Israeli champs following October’s 67-55 loss in Tel Aviv. If Fenerbahce wants to maintain a strong chance of finishing the season fifth or better, a victory by 13 points or more on Friday would serve it well. For its part, Maccabi would love the confidence boost of a major scalp on the road after going 4-6 on its travels this season.
Khimki and Zvezda aim to bounce back
Khimki Moscow Region coach Rimas Kurtinaitis was not a happy man last week, blasting his team for making "children’s mistakes" and for lacking "masculine qualities" following a derby loss against CSKA, which saw Khimki (9-13) slip to its sixth defeat in the last seven games. After making such a bright start to the season, Khimki’s challenge for the playoffs is in danger of spinning into freefall and a reaction is needed in this week’s games at Maccabi on Wednesday and at home to Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (9-13) on Friday.
The meeting with Zvezda, a direct rival, will be particularly important as it pits together two teams that are currently tied a couple of games short of the playoff places and have recently been heading in the wrong direction. Zvezda, which beat Khimki 90-78 at home back in Round 6, is on a four-game losing streak and time is starting to run out for these two teams to get their seasons back on track. Whichever team grabs the win on Friday could use that as a springboard for the final 10 games.