One set of fans in Spain, those of Valencia Basket, was glued to the progress of some rare Monday night action in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, a rescheduled Round 6 game between Zenit St Petersburg and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. A loss by Zenit would have sent Valencia to the playoffs instead of the Russian team.
But after Zenit passed its test with flying colors and the highest point total of this EuroLeague season, downing Panathinaikos 112-83, another set of fans down south, those of FC Barcelona, will want to pay close attention to this playoffs newcomer from up north.
Fresh off having won three do-or-die games in the last 11 days to finish in eighth place, Zenit will match up in a best-of-five series with league-leading Barcelona starting on April 21. Granted, all three of Zenit's victims were eliminated from the playoffs before arriving in St. Petersburg, but two of them – LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne and Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv – had by then defeated Barcelona twice this season.
What's more, Zenit did more than just beat all three; it won those games by an average of 26.6 points despite not leading any by more than 7 points at halftime. And Zenit finished up on Monday against Panathinaikos by setting its team record for points (112) and performance index rating (139) in EuroLeague play, fueled by club individual records and career highs of 33 points and 41 PIR by Kevin Pangos and 7 steals by Mateusz Ponitka.
Although the name Zenit might sound new to them, Barcelona fans will recognize Pangos, who was their point guard in the 2018-19 season but didn't play the last, pandemic-shortened season for them due to injury. Pangos got his team over the hump Monday by doing something no player had done before in 9,579 EuroLeague games over the previous 20 seasons: score as many as 33 points while dishing as many as 11 assists.
Those fans will have no trouble placing Xavi Pascual, a son of their city and club, not to mention the head coach of Barcelona's last EuroLeague title team, in 2010. They won't be surprised that he guided Zenit to the playoffs, which Pascual has done now in all 12 out of 12 springs that he has been on a EuroLeague bench, including nine with Barcelona. And they will recognize how Pascual got that job done, with the EuroLeague's second-best defense, after that of Barcelona itself. Finally, they will not ignore the fact that five of the nine playoffs to which Pascual took their team ended up with Barcelona reaching the Final Four.
And finally, those Barcelona fans will want to hear how Zenit's protagonists celebrated the historic occasion of reaching the playoffs in the team's first full EuroLeague season.
"We don't feel like we're done," Pangos said.
"We're not finished," said Will Thomas, who didn't miss a shot in scoring 18 points against Panathinaikos.
"We will be the same team that we were during the season; we will make our preparations and approach the game well," Pascual said. "After that, of course, we will play against the best team in the EuroLeague, which is the complete favorite in this playoff. But we will try to find our possibilities – the way to play on offense, the way to play on defense – and to play serious in all situations. We will try as hard as we can."
Zenit's task is huge. Fully 80% of the teams with home-court advantage have won in the 60 playoff series to date in the EuroLeague, including 77% of those playing five-game series since 2009. Not only has no eighth-seeded team ever beaten a top seed, but going back to when the playoffs were filled from two Top 16 groups, neither has a fourth seed beaten a first seed.
All that said, just four victories separate Barcelona (24-10) and Zenit (20-14) at the end of this singularly different regular season. That is by far the shortest distance in wins between first and eighth place since the EuroLeague went to a round-robin format in 2016-17, half the average over the previous four seasons.
Zenit has now made history once already this month. Now, Pascual, Pangos and friends are packing their bags for Barcelona to try to do it again.