Closer Look: Cologne thrillers cap most competitive season

Jun 02, 2021 by Print

The 2021 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four in Cologne, Germany, followed the script that had been written throughout the regular season and the playoffs, making the 2020-21 season the most competitive on record.

Starting from the finishing points, both semifinals and the championship game at Lanxess Arena came down to the final minutes, if not the final seconds. Will Clyburn missed a go-ahead three late in the first semifinal for CSKA Moscow and Cory Higgins score the game-winner for FC Barcelona in the last season and the second semifinal. The total margins victory, 5 points, in the semifinals were the closest ever.

Together with the championship game, which was tied with 4 minutes remaining and saw Barcelona give chase until the final buzzer, the margin of victory of the three decisive games was just 10 points. That made it the third-closest Final Four in history. The only closer ones were in 2012 in Istanbul and 2009 in Berlin. On both of those occasions, the semifinals finished with a combined 6-point difference. In 2012, Olympiacos Piraeus famously rallied from a double-digit deficit to edge CSKA Moscow on Georgios Printezis's legendary shot. In 2009, Panathinaikos Athens edged CSKA only when Ramunas Siskauskas's three-pointer rimmed out.

Such a close Final Four should not have been a surprise given the performances of the teams that competed in the EuroLeague's longest ever regular season. The expansion of the league to 18 teams – the most in the era of a full round-robin regular season – only strengthened the level of play. The proof can be seen from the final regular-season standings, in which only four wins separated regular-season champion FC Barcelona (24-10) from its playoff opponent, eight-placed Zenit St Petersburg (20-14). The previous closest difference came in 2016-17 when Real Madrid's 23-7 record gave it seven wins more than eighth-placed Darussafaka Istanbul (16-14).

The competitiveness from the regular season only rose in the playoffs, where for the first time since the quarterfinals stage went to a best-of-five format in 2009, three of the series went the distance. Twice before two of the four series reached Game 5, but never before had the EuroLeague Playoffs witnessed as many as three decisive fifth games.

And even in those three Game 5s, eventual champion Efes only reached the Final Four after a fourth quarter that featured six lead changes and wasn't decided until Krunoslav Simon broke an 80-80 tie with a desperation three-pointer with 38.6 seconds remaining. Later, FC Bayern Munich had possession of the ball down just 2 points in the final 14 seconds before Kyle Hines came up big on defense to protect a Milan victory.

There is no other way to look at it other than to say that this season was the most competitive and closest on record. Indeed, the tightest regular season, most Game 5s in the playoffs, closest pair of semifinals ever and a championship game that was in the balance till the final minute all gave countless thrills to fans across the globe and ensure that 2020-21 was a season to savor.