Just how great were the 2021 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs? So much so that the three teams that lost Game 5s on Tuesday to end their respective seasons can all turn to at least one play in the series that had it gone differently, they could be preparing for the Final Four in Cologne, Germany, too.
In Tuesday's early game, Real Madrid forced Anadolu Efes Istanbul guard Krunoslav Simon into a long, tough three-pointer with the shot clock winding down in the final minute and the score tied. A Simon miss and Los Blancos would have had the ball with an opportunity to win it. However, Simon's shot swished through the net and Sergio Llull missed a three on the next possession, which paved the way to an Efes win.
FC Bayern Munich rode an improbable late comeback at AX Armani Exchange Milan to have the ball for a final possession down 2. The play that was drawn up after a timeout worked as Wade Baldwin IV beat his man and got to the paint with a chance to tie it. However, a spectacular defensive play by Kyle Hines saved Milan and Paul Zipser's desperation three on the buzzer to tie it missed.
Zenit St Petersburg fell behind early in Game 5 at FC Barcelona and never really threatened late. However, its players and fans cannot help but wonder "What if?" when thinking back to the end of Game 2. After stunning Barcelona in Game 1 on the road, Zenit's Kevin Pangos had the ball for the final shot in regulation in Game 2. A basket would have given his team an unthinkable 2-0 series lead, however, he missed and Barcelona prevailed in overtime and won Games 3 and 5 to get back to the Final Four.
All three teams are surely gutted after coming so close, but still missing out. Though as time passes, they will each appreciate the shows they put on for fans across the world and the fear they each injected to favored teams with home-court advantages.
Winning coaches don't give away compliments for free, however, all three winners in Game 5 made sure to complement their counterparts in a nod to the great series they had all played.
After losing the first two games of the series by a combined 50 points, Real scored the final 16 points of Game 3 for one of the biggest comebacks in playoff history, edging visiting Efes 80-76. Two nights later, Efes led by 13 in the fourth quarter before Real's defense stifled the visitors en route to another come-from-behind win. Paced by club icon Sergio Llull in Game 3, it was future star Usman Garuba who dominated Game 4.
"Congratulations to Real Madrid because I knew it would be very difficult to challenge them, because they have very experienced players and a very experienced coach," Efes's Ergin Ataman said. "They hustled in all the games. They never gave up, also today they never gave up."
Bayern had Milan on the ropes in Game 1 when it led by 19 in the second quarter and double figures early in the fourth, but Milan fought back to win on the buzzer and then took control of the series with an 11-point win in Game 2. Vladimir Lucic erupted for a career-high 27 points to keep Bayern alive with a Game 3 win and Paul Zipser's dunk over Hines in Game 4 will go down as one of the signature plays in club history as Bayern tied the series. In the end, Milan outscored Bayern by 6 points over the series, which is the narrowest ever margin in the EuroLeague Playoffs for a series that went five games.
Coach Ettore Messina of Milan used the phrase "an excellent team" about Bayern after the game. "We want to congratulate the team for a great season and a great series. I think [sports director] Daniele Baiesi put together a very good team with a lot of toughness, a lot of size, a lot of shooting. They are very well-coached and their players have a big heart, so congratulations to Bayern and good luck in the future."
Zenit's five-game battle against Barcelona was all the more remarkable considering that it lost Mateusz Ponitka to injury before the season started and starting center Arturas Gudaitis was injured in Game 1 and did not play again. Nevertheless, Zenit fought on and finished the series with seven players averaging at least 8.0 points scored per game.
"With all my respect, congratulations also to Xavi [Pascual] and Zenit for this amazing season, for an amazing series," Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius of Barcelona said. "I told Xavi after the game that for me, as a young coach, it was really amazing to go to the series against him and to learn and to experience this. It made me a better coach, for sure, for my future."
Coach Pablo Laso, Llull and Garuba of Real Madrid. Coach Andrea Trinchieri, Lucic and Baldwin of Bayern Munich. Coach Xavi Pascual, Pangos and Will Thomas. The season will move on without them as the focus moves on to the Final Four. But the 2020-21 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague wouldn't have nearly as many magical memories if not for the hard work of these gentlemen. And all of the teams that lost in Game 5 should go home with their heads held high.