Games 1 and 2 of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs take place this week with the top four teams from the regular season aiming to make their respective home-court advantages count at the start of the best-of-five series. Here’s your guide to the week’s action.
Can Real win at Efes again?
The opening tip-off for the first playoff action in two years comes on Tuesday in Istanbul, where Anadolu Efes will attempt to hold off visiting Real Madrid, with Game 2 following fast on Thursday. Efes has been unstoppable at home in recent months, winning eight consecutive games at Sinan Erdem Dome in a sequence dating back to December. However, the last visiting team to win at Efes was none other than Real Madrid with a 65-73 win in Round 17, and Coach Pablo Laso’s men have another reason to feel good about traveling to Istanbul after taking a powerful road win at Fenerbahce to qualify for the playoffs in the final game of the regular season.
The key for Real in this week’s two meetings will be finding a way to stop Efes’s spectacular backcourt, after Shane Larkin (16), Krunoslav Simon (15), Vasilije Micic (13) and Rodrigue Beaubois (12) all scored in double figures to lead an 83-108 blowout victory in Madrid as recently as Round 32. Real will no doubt look to its defense in the hope of making Tuesday and Thursday’s games low-scoring affairs similar to its road victory over Efes in December.
Punter and Baldwin reunited
Tuesday and Thursday night will also present the first two games in the meeting between AX Armani Exchange Milan and FC Bayern Munich in the Italian fashion capital. The series is a homecoming for Bayern Head Coach Andrea Trinchieri, who started his coaching career with a long spell as an assistant at Milan, his native city. But Trinchieri has bad memories of his last trip ‘home’, suffering a 75-51 defeat – Bayern’s heaviest loss of the season – at Mediolanum Forum in January. Milan also won in Munich on the opening day of the season, so the Italian team will have no fear in facing Trinchieri’s dark horses.
Two players who were briefly teammates last season will be key. Milan’s Kevin Punter and Bayern’s Wade Baldwin IV – the two teams’ leading scorers with 15.0 and 15.2 points per game respectively – both got their first taste of the EuroLeague with Olympiacos Piraeus in the 2019-20 campaign. Milan’s experienced stars attempting to overcome Bayern’s relentless hunger will provide a compelling series, but the battle for backcourt supremacy between former teammates Punter and Baldwin could be the most decisive factor.
Lundberg looking to lead CSKA
Wednesday’s action begins in the Russian capital, where CSKA Moscow will attempt to overcome Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul. This has been one of the most exciting and dramatic matchups in the competition over the last few years, including a memorable 2016 championship game that was won by CSKA in overtime. Fenerbahce can take confidence from the knowledge that it has already won in Moscow this season, triumphing 83-89 in January behind a superb performance from Nando De Colo, who bagged 22 points, 9 assists and 4 steals for a PIR of 38. And De Colo will undoubtedly have to play a key role again for Fenerbahce, whose preparations have been hindered by several COVID-19 cases ahead of Wednesday and Friday’s games.
CSKA is in fine form after finishing the regular season with a run of six consecutive victories to secure second place. One particular player to watch is CSKA guard Iffe Lundberg, who was signed in mid-season and has settled brilliantly into his first EuroLeague season, registering 23 points, 4 assists and 3 steals in the Round 34 win over LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne. In an old rivalry featuring many familiar faces, Lundberg could be a key new addition to the mix.
Is Gasol ready to shine?
The playoffs picture is completed by regular-season leaders FC Barcelona hosting Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday and Friday night.
Zenit Head Coach Xavi Pascual certainly won’t be intimidated by taking his team to the Palau Blaugrana, having made his name with eight successful years in charge at the Spanish side. And another former Barca man will also be vital for Zenit, with Kevin Pangos holding the keys to the Russian team’s offense. Pangos delivered one of the best individual performances of the season – 33 points and 11 assists – to lead his team to a playoffs-clinching win over Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in the final game of the regular season, and Zenit will need him to deliver big again this week.
One player Pascual and Pangos have never faced before is Pau Gasol and a huge question ahead of the playoffs will be how big of a role the recently-signed icon will play. Gasol made a strong debut in the final round of the regular season, contributing 9 points and 4 rebounds in 13 minutes on the floor. If he can start to step up his minutes in the intense environment of the playoffs, Gasol could help his team establish a strong advantage on its home floor.