This Week: Back for the final stretch

Feb 15, 2021 by Print
This Week: Back for the final stretch

After a one-week break, Europe’s elite basketball competition returns to action with the continent’s top talents getting ready for the final stretch of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season. Round 25 features several big showdowns in the race for the playoffs... Here is the pick of the bunch.

Saras seeks bounce-back against former club

The last round of games before the domestic cup break was notable for shock outcomes with all of the top four in the standings losing. That includes leader FC Barcelona (17-7), which was well beaten at home by Anadolu Efes Istanbul and will now attempt to bounce back by overcoming dangerous visiting Zalgiris Kaunas (13-10) on Thursday. Both teams come into this game on a high after winning their respective cup competitions on Sunday. Barcelona bounced archrival Real Madrid in the Spanish King's Cup final, while Zalgiris repeated at Lithuania's King Mindaugas Cup winner with a 76-69 victory over Lietkabelis Panevezys.

Reunions will be a strong theme of the game with Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius welcoming his former club for the first time, while ex-Zalgiris players Brandon Davies and Leo Westermann will also seek to inflict pain upon the visitors. Zalgiris is currently placed just outside the playoff zone after a mixed run of form and knows it will need to produce a better offensive effort than the last meeting between the teams. That game saw Barca hold firm for a 62-73 road win in Round 12 with the hosts restricted to a measly 2 three-point conversions on 18 attempts. That was a real aberration for a Zalgiris team that is best in the league in three-point shooting (42.7%), so restoring its usual long-range shooting standards could be a key to this week’s outcome.

Efes aims to hold home court

On the back of that promising victory over Barcelona, Efes (13-10) will aim to continue climbing the standings. After winning five of its last six games, Efes takes on Olympiacos Piraeus (11-13), which has conversely been desperately struggling in recent weeks with a run of four consecutive losses. Offensive fluidity has been the biggest problem for Olympiacos, which has not scored more than 79 points in any of those last four losses, and an intriguing back court battle will be important to establishing dominance this week.

Olympiacos will look for veteran stars Kostas Sloukas and Vassilis Spanoulis to maintain control, but it will not be easy against an explosive Efes lineup led by Shane Larkin and Vasilije Micic, who sparkled with 26 points and 5 assists in the victory at Barcelona. Thursday’s meeting starts a run of four home games out of five for Efes, which has won three on the bounce at the Sinan Erdem Dome and knows that extending that sequence over the coming weeks can propel the team into a strong position near the top of the standings.

Milan and Maccabi reopen rivalry

Another of the big losers in the last round was AX Armani Exchange Milan (15-8), which saw a six-game winning run come to an end with a surprise defeat at LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne. Milan’s chance to get back to winning ways comes at home against Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv (10-12), which is running out of time to string together the victories needed to climb into the playoffs zone.

There have been some fantastic games between these two teams in the last few years, most recently in November when Milan snatched an 85-86 road win in Tel Aviv in an overtime thriller ultimately decided by Malcolm Delaney’s game-winner with just 3 seconds remaining. Close finishes have very much been the order of the day whenever Milan and Maccabi meet, with their last seven games being decided by single digits. Many of those were high-scoring thrillers, too, including a remarkable 102-111 away victory for Maccabi in January 2018 – the highest-scoring EuroLeague game for more than five years. So if history is a guide, expect this one to go to the wire.

Can ASVEL's march continue?

In the early weeks of the season, it looked as though LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne’s ambitions for the season would be limited to avoiding a last-place finish, with the team winning just one of its first seven games. But ASVEL has enjoyed a remarkable upsurge in form since the dawn of 2021, winning four games in a row – and five of its last six – to improve to 10-14 and launch a late challenge for a place in the playoffs.

This week’s opponent for Coach TJ Parker’s men is FC Bayern Munich (15-9), which is currently sitting in fifth place after repeatedly showing a happy habit of grinding out hard-fought victories – most recently with an epic German derby comeback overtime win over ALBA Berlin before the cup break. So both teams will be feeling good about themselves as they head into Friday’s game in France and a key to the outcome could be long-range shooting. ASVEL has the fifth-best three-point shooting record in the league, making 39.4% of its shots. But Bayern boasts the second-best defense in that category, only allowing its opponents to convert 33.7% of three-point attempts.

Spanish duel with playoffs implications

An all-Spanish affair closes out the week's action and it will be a quick reunion for Valencia Basket (12-12) and Real Madrid (15-9), who met last weekend in the Spanish King's Cup quarterfinal. Real won that game, gaining revenge for a heavy EuroLeague loss at the start of the season – Valencia was a 77-93 victor in the Spanish capital in Round 2 behind a 24-point performance from Bojan Dubljevic, whose head-to-head battle with Walter Tavares in the paint will be a highlight of this encounter.

It’s a key game not just for these two teams, but for everybody around them. Real is placed fourth, with an identical record to Bayern, while Valencia is two places and one win short of the playoff zone. And although this week’s home team has been in poor form in recent weeks, memories of a stirring overtime victory over reigning champion CSKA Moscow in its last EuroLeague outing will be a boost for Coach Jaume Ponsarnau's men as they seek another win over Los Blancos.