Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul welcomes FC Barcelona Lassa to Turkey on Friday for a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Game of the Week that could look, from afar, as one of no outsized consequence to either team. But what you're seeing might be a false calm before the playoffs storm ahead.
The hosts are in first place and have already clinched home-court advantage in the playoffs. And the visitors seem to be a sure playoffs team, too, sitting three victories ahead of the nearest pursuer who could change that fate.
But everything gets looked at through the playoffs prism, now, and the fact is that both of these teams can certainly use this win, not least to recover from the double-digit road bashings that each suffered last week. More than one big loss now will be seen as chinks in any team's armor.
"More than one big loss now will be seen as chinks in any team's armor."
Fenerbahce has held first place alone since Round 11 back in the first week of December, and anything short of keeping that position until the end of the regular season will be a letdown. It might even embolden Fenerbahce's future opponents for the title in ways they could not have felt a short while ago, when the team mowed down everyone in its path for 12 games in a row.
Barcelona had the chance to take an upper hand in the race for fourth place, the last one with home-court advantage in the playoffs, but let it slip a week ago by losing big to Anadolu Efes Istanbul, its direct rival for that privilege. Efes followed up that good performance this week by stopping Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv's seven-game home winning streak on Thursday, which effectively requires Barcelona to win three more games than Efes in the last five to seize fourth place.
Barcelona may still catch Efes – the calendar seems to work in its favor – but would be wise, also, to steel itself for the likelihood of needing to win at least one playoff game on the road in order to reach the Final Four. And since no team has beaten Fenerbahce in Istanbul so far this season, there could be no better way for Barcelona to send a message of strength going forward than to be the first tonight.
You see, even though Barcelona has a respectable 6-7 road record, none of those victories have come against the top four teams whom they might well need to beat away. In fact, Barcelona lost by 20 to second-place CSKA in Moscow, by 27 to third-place Real Madrid in the Spanish capital, and by 22 last week on the court of Efes. Playoffs are always different, it's true, but having a major road win in its pocket will do wonders for Barcelona's playoffs confidence after a two-year absence from that phase.
Besides the stature of its opponent tonight, Barcelona could draw extra motivation from the fact that Fenerbahce has, in effect, replaced it in the Final Four. Barcelona made half the Final Fours over a dozen years ending in 2014, and won the title in 2003 and 2010. Fenerbahce played no Final Fours up to and including 2014, but has been in every one since then – effectively taking what once belonged to Barcelona.
"Now, Barcelona is the hunter and Fenerbahce the prey."
When these teams met in Barcelona back on the last day of November, the hosts were in the process of rebuilding their mojo after two down seasons. They had won six of their previous seven games and anticipation was high at Palau Blaugrana for Fenerbahce's visit. What resulted, instead, was a 19-point loss for Barcelona. Fenerbahce just did everything a little methodically better, but what you notice most from that first game is that everyone Fenerbahce put on the floor contributed, making up for the absence of team leader Kostas Sloukas and subduing almost every threat on Barcelona save Adam Hanga.
The night started a four-game losing streak for Barcelona, but since then, the team has proved its mettle with an 9-3 run that has included signature wins over Efes, Madrid, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz (twice), and Olympiacos Piraeus, among other. In fact, you might say now that Barcelona lacks only one big road win to put a scare in whoever it comes to face should it make the playoffs, as expected, whether with home-court advantage or not. It won't be easy against a Fenerbahce that is still smarting from a 101-86 road loss to Madrid last week, just one week after Barcelona had stopped the same team, albeit at home. But getting back to the elite is never easy.
Before, teams hunted wins over Barcelona to raise their own status. Now, Barcelona is the hunter and Fenerbahce the prey, until something happens to change the dynamic again, as it most certainly will sooner or later, whether between these teams are others.