By Rob Scott / @robscott33
There are three weeks to go in the Euroleague Top 16. Whilst Group E is relatively serene, over in Group F, there are two fronts emerging in an almighty skirmish for playoff qualification and homecourt advantage. Anadolu Efes and Laboral Kutxa are duking it out for the fourth and final playoff spot, while above them Fenerbahçe, CSKA Moscow and Olympiacos scrap over spots one to three, with everything up for grabs. Whoever drops to third will have to win a series on the road, most likely over Barcelona. Yikes.
Group E is pretty straightforward, as barring something unusual happening. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Panathinaikos hold the playoff tickets and they will probably punch them in that order, although not necessarily, as we speculate later on.
Here’s how the Group F standings and the rest of the schedule shakes down, with some scenarios laid out for your studious consideration.
After Week 11:
Fenerbahçe Ülker (vs Unicaja, @ Laboral Kutxa, vs Anadolu Efes)
Their destiny is in their own hands – if they win out and reach 12-2, they can’t be caught as the top seed. This is by virtue of a +3 advantage over their two games with CSKA Moscow, the only other team who can get to 12 wins. The schedule is no cakewalk, but it’s negotiable. What is certain is they will have a big say in who grabs that fourth spot, playing both protagonists. The good news for Baskonia is that they should still play hard in Week 14, as either CSKA or Olympiacos should still be able to catch them if they lose.
CSKA Moscow (@ Nizhny Novgorod, vs Olympiacos, @ EA7 Milano)
Whisper it, but the Red Army could conceivably finish third in this group. That would probably mean overcoming Barcelona without homecourt advantage. How could the Russian giants slide down? They should take care of business at Nizny Novgorod this week, but after that Olympiacos come into Moscow with an eight point advantage in the tiebreak, having won 84-76 in Piraeus back in week 6. If the Greeks come away with a win, that sets up a likely tie at 11-3. If that’s a straight two-team deal then Olympiacos would have won both games. If it’s a three-way tie then the Greeks vault up to top spot with 3-1, Fenerbahce drop to second on 2-2 and CSKA would come out with a 1-3 record.
On the other hand, if they defend homecourt against Oly then they can catch Fenerbahçe at 12-2. As we said above though, they’d need the Canaries to drop one, perhaps against an Efes team desperate to qualify? If CSKA comes in second, that sets up a series most likely with Maccabi Tel Aviv, who gut-punched them in the Final Four last May. There really is no wrong answer here.
Olympiacos (vs Anadolu Efes, @ CSKA Moscow, vs Nizhny Novogorod)
Even though they could still win the group, the Reds come into the stretch run off a loss, dropping one in Vitoria-Gastiez, just as they did in the Regular Season. Vassilis Spanoulis was absent, which puts an asterisk on everything, and his health will be crucial, needless to say. They have a tough few games, as Dusan Ivkovic comes back to SEF in need of a win, then the trip to Moscow next Friday. Still, with two home games out of three, it really should come down to that battle with CSKA, one which you might remember has recently been pretty one-sided.
Even more recent experience shows that the Reds are pretty unbeatable at home in the playoffs, as I keep tweeting until people get sick of it, they haven’t lost a home playoff game since 2011. They would say that they’d have overcome Real Madrid last year if they just had that third home game, and given how those games played, it’s tempting to agree. In 2013 they won in five against Anadolu Efes with each game going to the home team. So it might seem pretty crucial to grab a top-two seed.
Still, if you really squint, despite what I said at the top about Group E, Panathinaikos is one game behind Maccabi Tel Aviv for the third seed, and holds the tiebreak. PAO has three winnable games left (at Galatasaray, vs ALBA Berlin, at Crvena Zvezda). Maccabi plays Real Madrid on the road this week. Just saying….
Anadolu Efes (@ Olympiacos, vs EA7 Milano, @ Fenerbahçe)
On the one hand, Efes holds the tiebreak over Baskonia, which could end up being crucial. On the other, that’s a pretty brutal schedule. They have fallen into this predicament having dropped four in a row before pulling one out at home to Nizhny Novgorod last week. The main trend from that run is that the games were close. The four defeats were to Fenerbahçe, Baskonia, Unicaja and CSKA, none by more than six points.
The annoying thing about Efes is that they should be so much better, capable of giving Real Madrid a scare in the playoffs, but I don’t see it. Thomas Heurtel has settled in and started becoming really productive, but that hasn’t necessarily made them a better team. Dario Saric has been relegated to prowling around the perimeter like he’s Milko Bjelica or something. The ceiling of a team built on Heurtel and Nenad Krstic is about where it should be. What’s even more surprising is that Stratos Perperoglou, a guy Duda knows all about, has also been similar demoted to just filling in the gaps, when he’s one of the most awkward mismatches for wing defenders in the post in Europe.
This team should have been a creative, positionally-fluid matchup nightmare, but instead its just a fairly standard decent-ish outfit. It’s outright tragic, given the talent on the floor and prowling the sideline, that it won’t really matter if they make the playoffs or not. They only go into one of their last three games as favourites.
Laboral Kutxa Baskonia (@ Milano, vs Fenerbahçe, @ Unicaja Malaga)
Baskonia on the other hand has successfully pulled off a huge midseason transition, and making the playoffs would be a massive bonus. I’ve already gushed about Ibon Navarro and the new additions here so I won’t add too much. The only additional point is that Darius Adams has already adjusted to the pace of Euroleague, and cemented his role as their lead guard. He dropped 31 points in the tight loss to CSKA three weeks ago, and even if he won’t be banking in threes as he falls out of bounds every week, it looks like he’s already making improvements in not holding onto the ball too long. If he nails the pull-up two, he’s pretty damn hard to guard. The quick release on a slightly pushed jumpshot means he can get it off in a flash, combined with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it little stepback move means it’s tough to stop. Mike James was in a shooting slump lately but he bounced back with 17 points and five steals in the win over Olympiacos.
Baskonia has an easier run-in than Efes, on paper, but now that Daniel Hackett has pulled his eFG% above 20, Milano isn’t a complete pushover at home. Week 14 at a familiar Unicaja team with nothing to play for is about as forgiving a final task as they could hope for. They took Fenerbahçe and CSKA to the final possessions,showing that they aren’t scared by reputation. They need to finish one game above Efes, but its entirely possible that they do.
Just for fun (never let it be said we take things too seriously here at ELA) I’ll lay out my predictions for how this might go down, give us yours in the comments.
I’ll take Fenerbahçe to run the table and come out on top, sending them to face either Panathinaikos or Maccabi in the quarter finals. Zoc vs PAO would be a nice little series, no?
I’ll also take CSKA Moscow to prevail over Olympiacos at home, putting them in second, with the Reds dropping to third. But I don’t see why they couldn’t steal a win in Barcelona in a playoff series, so all is not lost for them.
As for fourth, I haven’t changed my mind since the end of the last section, and I’ll take Laboral Kutxa to sneak into fourth spot for an all-Spanish matchup in the playoffs with Real Madrid. The Copa del Rey was poorer for their absence, so this would be a nice consolation. Fernando Buesa Arena will be deafening.
March Madness, Euroleague style. Get ready.