By: Rob Scott / @RobScott33
It’s March once again, and that means the start of the most exciting few months of the year in basketball. Euroleague is obviously the most important part of that, and with five games to go in the new behemoth of a Top 16, the playoff race is beginning to take shape. We’re not sure what that shape is, but it’s definitely interesting to look at, a bit like modern art. Without further ado, here is the emerging geometry:
Lock it in
The following teams are making the playoffs: Real Madrid, Anadolu Efes, CSKA Moscow, Panathinaikos, Barcelona, Montepaschi Siena and Olympiacos. You could look at all kinds of fancy math numbers, and in fact we encourage you to do that, but if not, just take it from us. It might be a surprise to see Panathinaikos on that list, but consider that they are two games ahead of Zalgiris with five to play, and own the head to head. They should beat Unicaja in Malaga on Friday, and a 3-2 record over the final five would leave them at 9-5, a record both Unicaja and Zalgiris would both have to go 5-0 to match.
The main intrigue in Group E lies in who grabs the top two spots and homecourt advantage in the playoffs. Real, Efes and CSKA can all lay claim to this, but the two incumbents are more likely to hold onto their positions, Efes holding a two point advantage in head-to-head, with the return in week 14, April 4th.
Three way battle for fourth
Over in group F, the top three sides appear to be locked in, with another three teams headed for an almighty collision that will leave two of them dazed, bloodied and lying in the gutter. Let’s look at how things are shaping up there:
BC Khimki Moscow Region (5-4)
Remaining games: vs Siena, at Maccabi, vs Fenerbahce, vs Caja Laboral, at Olympiacos
The Russians are damn good at home, and have three games in suburban Moscow left to play. They are 8-1 at home overall, losing only to Olympiacos in the Top 16. Maybe opposing teams are thrown off as much as I am by the early starts? Of their remaining games, only Fenerbahce could be considered a shoe-in, but they have had problems with that matchup this year, losing 85-82 in week five of the Top 16, by 92-80 in the opening week of the Regular Season and only winning their second matchup by KC Rivers’ phantom (or was it?) buzzer beater. But that was then, and this is now. The Turks are a beaten, dishevelled mess of a team. If Khimki can’t see them off at home, they needn’t bother qualifying.
All of their games are vital, but of particular interest are the trip to Tel Aviv on March 14th and hosting Caja Laboral on March 29th, the penultimate week. They hold the tiebreak advantage in both, a whopping 21 points over Maccabi and a more fragile 8 over Baskonia. This could be ultimately crucial, as they currently also hold a one game lead over both. If they go 3-2, that would bring them an 8-6 record, which Maccabi and Caja Laboral would have to go 4-1 to match. Maccabi will probably need to go 5-0, given the above head-to-head deficit.
Maccabi Tel Aviv (4-5)
at Fenerbahce, vs BC Khimki, at Olympiacos, vs Besiktas, at Barcelona
Here is where it gets tricky for Maccabi. Not only are they probably going to have to go 5-0 to best Khimki should they go a modest 3-2, but two of those five are at two of the most difficult places to win in European basketball. The good news is that if Khimki does collapse, Maccabi hold the tiebreak over Caja Laboral, but let’s face it, that is unlikely. There is a small possibility that Barcelona would rest key players in the final week if they have the number one seed sewn up, but again, this is clutching at straws. Their 92-61 blowout of Siena revealed just how much of a false record the Italians may have, but unfortunately, that isn’t going to get Jordi to give them a wildcard into the playoffs. At least, we think not. The pressure will really be on to win at Ulker Arena on Friday if Khimki have won the night before. If not, and if Maccabi take care of Fenerbahce, Khimki’s visit to Yad Eliyahu is going to be even juicier.
Caja Laboral (4-5)
at Besiktas, vs Fenerbahce, at Barcelona, at BC Khimki, vs Siena
It’s a similar picture for Caja Laboral. Khimki goes 3-2, they probably have to go 5-0, although if they managed to overcome that 8 point deficit in two weeks’ time, one defeat might not be a killer. If all three finish tied, there will be the inevitable “mini-league” calculations. For Khimki not to come out on top of that, they would have to lose to both of their games against the other two.
It seems much more likely that if there a sting in the tail, it will be from Tel Aviv, not Vitoria. Although they did beat Barcelona again in the ACB on Sunday, and Nemanja Bjelica is looking like the natural successor to Mirza Teletovic (in a good way), it will be an uphill struggle for Tabak’s team, especially given the recent in-house drama.
PREDICTION: All the odds go with BC Khimki to take the fourth place and create a delicious playoff matchup with either Real Madrid or Anadolu Efes. It could yet be CSKA, creating a Moscow (region) derby, and also ensuring that nobody in Western Europe with a daytime job gets to see the games. Let’s hope not.
Battle for Homecourt
The other big race within a race is for homecourt advantage in the playoff series, that is, a top two seed in your group. Real Madrid and Anadolu Efes hold the advantage in Group E, with the aforementioned finale on April 4th being the potential decider for number one.
Fans of gamesmanship, unsporting deliberate failure or plain old “tactical deployment of resources” may question whether, if a victory in that game means taking on BC Khimki, and losing it would mean matching up with Siena, quite what the incentive to play to the best of one’s ability might be. But that depends on how much stock anyone puts in Siena’s legitimacy in having the second best record. Certainly every time anyone (me) has declared them about to fall back to earth, they go and win another game. The only other contender for that number one spot plays in Piraeus.
vs Barcelona, at Siena, vs Maccabi, at Fenerbahce, vs Khimki
The Reds are placed third at the moment, two games behind Barcelona and one behind Siena. Of course, they lost to Siena by two points in controversial circumstances, but since then have racked off five wins on the bounce. At least the final three weeks will be played knowing what they can and can’t achieve, as they host Barcelona on Thursday, and travel to Siena the following week. In order to take the top spot – and a potential matchup with Panathinaikos – they would probably have to beat Barcelona by more than the eight points they lost by back in January. Since then they have added Doron Perkins to replace the injured Evangelos Mantzaris, and Georgi Shermadini has been integrated properly into the rotation. If last season showed us anything, it’s that it would be foolish to bet against this team, even without Dusan Ivkovic patrolling the sidelines.
PREDICTION: Olympiacos fall just short of taking top seed, but tie up the homecourt advantage, possibly setting up a repeat of last year’s final against CSKA Moscow. Greek police breathe a sigh of relief.
What is beyond doubt is that some of the instant drama that, in my opinion at least, was lost in the new format, will be born again as we enter the final five weeks. You might say that something like the old Top 16 is just beginning.