After a bye week to pause for breath, the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague roars back to action this week with a scintillating set of games in Round 25. Here's our quick guide to the best stories to follow.
Big guns meet in Istanbul
There have been some memorable meetings between Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and Real Madrid in recent years, including showdowns at four of the last five Final Fours. A new chapter will be written in the history between these two heavyweights in Turkey on Thursday night with host Fenerbahce (11-13) aiming to boost its playoffs challenge while visiting Real (18-6) seeks to strengthen its position in the top four. Fenerbahce has won six of its last eight games and did so mainly on the back of its defense, scoring more than 80 points in only two of those games. Restricting an explosive Real offense will be far from straightforward, with Pablo Laso's men registering at least 90 points on six occasions this season, including a thrilling 97-103 victory at ALBA Berlin in its last game.
Expect a big battle in the paint as the competition's leading shot-blocker Walter Tavares goes up against reigning league MVP Jan Vesely. There will also be a tussle for backcourt dominance with Kostas Sloukas and Nando De Colo confronting Sergio Llull and Facundo Campazzo. And, without doubt, expect maximum intensity from the stands as Fenerbahce fans attempt to roar their team towards a key win.
Can Panathinaikos join the top-four race?
At the moment, the battle for the all-important top four seems to be set between five teams, with Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, CSKA Moscow and Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv fighting for the right to join runaway league leaders Anadolu Efes Istanbul in claiming homecourt advantage for the playoffs. That could change this week, though, with sixth-placed Panathinaikos OPAP Athens (14-10) eager to take the opportunity to join that particular party by overcoming visiting Barcelona (18-6) in the Greek capital on Friday night. Barca bested Panathinaikos 98-86 when the teams met in Spain in December and can now go a long way toward eliminating the Greek champion from top-four contention.
The Greens will be hoping to prolong a pattern that has seen the home team win each of the last nine meetings between the teams. Panathinaikos can also feel confident after winning four consecutive games - and seven of the last eight - at home. And with this encounter kicking off a brutal schedule which also offers meetings with Real Madrid, Olympiacos Piraeus, CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce, this is a game Panathinaikos simply needs to win.
Valencia and Maccabi playoffs bound?
A pair of teams currently positioned in the playoff places meet in Spain, with Valencia Basket (12-12) hosting Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv (16-8) in the final game of the week on Friday night. Valencia suffered a painful 76-77 last-second loss to Barcelona in its last home game, but bounced back to win at FC Bayern Munich before the bye week and Coach Jaume Ponsrnau's men will look to maintain their status as one of the best offensive-rebounding teams in Europe after averaging 11.5 second-chance possessions so far.
However, Maccabi boasts the best defense in the competition, allowing just 77.0 points per game, and comes with added self-belief after holding on for a narrow 76-77 win at Fenerbahce in its last outing on the back of a highly-efficient inside shooting night (23 of 34 two-pointers converted, 67.6%). That win was especially important because it proved Maccabi can grind out tough away victories, something it has largely failed to do in recent months, and there will be playoff-style intensity when these two meet at La Fonteta.
CSKA to stand firm in Belgrade?
CSKA Moscow has bitter memories of its last visit to Belgrade, after losing to Real Madrid in the 2018 semifinals in the Serbian capital. This week the Russian powerhouse (16-8) returns to Stark Arena for the first time since that harrowing occasion, aiming to deflate the playoff challenge of a Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade team (10-14) currently placed just one win short of the top eight.
CSKA has stumbled in recent weeks, suffering losses against Efes and Olympiacos in its last two outings and Coach Dimitris Itoudis's men will be particularly motivated to cast aside their memories of the shock Round 24 loss in Greece. CSKA only scored 59 points in that game - its lowest total for nearly seven years - and a team with the pride and talent of the reigning champions will not allow that to happen again.
Zvezda, which could give a debut to new backcourt signing Kalin Lucas, has gone through a strange sequence of the home team scoring exactly 78 points in its last three games. Considering the above-mentioned determination of CSKA to rediscover its offensive rhythm, a lot more than that could be required on Friday night.
Pascual back at the helm
A coaching change was made during the break, with Zenit St Petersburg swapping one Spanish sideline chief for another as Joan Plaza departed and Xavi Pascual was hired as his replacement. Pascual, of course, has a great deal of EuroLeague experience after his nine campaigns at the helm of FC Barcelona followed by two and a half seasons in charge of Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. And although Zenit - which is joint-bottom of the standings with a 7-17 record - has only the slimmest of playoff hopes, Pascual will be hoping to make his new team a real banana peel for other top eight candidates in the coming weeks.
That starts this week with a home game against ALBA Berlin (8-16), which is running out of chances to rise towards playoff contention after losing three of its last four games. Zenit's players will also have revenge on their minds after suffering an 85-65 pummelling in Berlin on the opening day of the season and this showdown on Pascual's Zenit debut could set the temperature for these two teams for the weeks ahead.