"From the beginning of the season, regardless of all the theories and whatever you say, with all respect, as to who is the favorite and who is not, all 18 teams are chasing the eight golden spots that lead to the playoffs."
Coach Dimitris Itoudis said the above words to EuroLeague TV shortly after his CSKA Moscow side disposed of Zenit St Petersburg on Tuesday to clinch a berth in the EuroLeague Playoffs. As he was congratulations his charges, three other coaches were doing the same since AX Armani Exchange Milan, Anadolu Efes Istanbul and later Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul all claimed road wins to secure their safe passage into the playoffs.
It took these four famed franchises more than 90% of the regular season before ensuring they would make the playoffs, however, there is little time to rest. The remaining two rounds – plus a makeup game for CSKA – will determine the playoff seedings and home-court advantage, which at least one of these teams will not enjoy.
It is perhaps fitting that these teams crashed the playoff party together during a season where all of them have faced hardships, while league-leading FC Barcelona, perhaps the only team to cruise safely for much of the season, on the same night lost in overtime and missed out on its first chance to clinch first place in the standings.
CSKA has lost back-to-back games four times this season. Milan had lost five of its last nine games, including coming off its third losing streak of the season. At the midway point of the season, Efes had a losing record and looked very little like a title contender. Fenerbahce's hole was even greater at 5-10.
All four teams have tasted even greater sweet moments. Milan enjoyed a six-game winning streak. Efes at one point reeled off eight consecutive wins. Fenerbahce triumphed in 10 straight. And CSKA enjoyed the season's longest run with 12 victories in a row.
On Tuesday, over a few hours, the conversation about the standings changed drastically from who will qualify to the playoffs to the hunt for home-court advantage, because only three of these teams can potentially join Barcelona in the top four at the end of the regular season, which means there could very well be a quarterfinals showdown between two of these sides.
The drama will continue later this week when TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz, which also won on the road Tuesday to climb into one of the top eight spots in the standings, hosts Efes on Thursday. The next day, Barcelona visits Fenerbahce. And Milan and Efes square off in the regular-season finales.
With all that to come, perhaps the time is right to reflect on Coach Itoudis's words. Eighteen teams started the season eager to make the playoffs. Four did so on Tuesday. It's the time to salute CSKA, Milan, Efes and Fenerbahce for their accomplishments.
And for the five teams within two wins of one another for three remaining three playoff berths... Note that the playoff wall has been breached and there is little room for error anymore.