It’s been a season that’s seen a wonderful mix of overachievers, unbelievable disasters, Bamberg being Bamberg, and Efes signing pretty much any shooter they can get their hands on. With less than ten games to go, the playoff landscape is really starting to take shape.
Kaunas’s unexpected hot streak has yet to cool off, Baskonia is hitting form at exactly the right time, and the rest of the pack are fighting it out for homecourt, or padding out a record in a bid for respectability.
Here’s a quick look at what to watch for as the regular season draws to a close.
Hustling for Home Court
Currently, only one game is separating Real Madrid (13-8) in 4th and Khimki Moscow (12-9) in 7th, with Panathinaikos & Kaunas jammed in the middle. And given their form of late – losing 3 of the last 5 – Olympiacos (14-7) could very easily be dragged into this dogfight. For Panathinaikos in particular, this is huge.
Their record at home is highly publicized and, barring a disaster like last year’s series against Fenerbahçe , would give them a gigantic advantage in a series. Both Fenerbahçe and Madrid ran close with them in Athens this year, but the race to keep PAO away from home court could get interesting. Khimki probably don’t have it in them to really put up a fight for HC, and Kaunas would have to pull off some great results in order to snatch it (but I’ve learned the hard way, never ever write that you don’t believe in a Šaras team).
But Madrid have a legit chance, and with the worst of their injury bug behind them, they should be expected to start hitting some consistency and hopefully ease the offensive burden on Dončić. Earlier in the season Madrid lost in Athens in do-or-die time, and Calathes is possibly the only lead guard in EuroLeague that (almost) negates Luka’s size advantage – coincidentally, in the regular season fixture Dončić did cough the ball up 8 times.
For me, I’m trying to avoid playing PAO in Athens as much as possible. I’d pencil in a few offensive explosions from Dončić and his less than consistent supporting cast in a bid to snatch a slight advantage come playoff time.
PREDICTION: PAO sneaks into playoffs with home court, Madrid to finish 6th behind Kaunas
Frantic Fight for 8th Seed
Well, this got interesting. After a rough start to the campaign, dropping 5 of their opening 6 fixtures, my Berlin Final 4 drinking buddies have come out swinging! A change in coach and trimming the rotation seems to have done the job for Baskonia who now sit at 10-11, with Maccabi (11-10) and Khimki (12-9) in their sights. All three sides have a tough run, especially Baskonia who face a trip to Athens, then away to Moscow to play CSKA in their next two fixtures.
However, form is everything. Baskonia is hitting stride just in time for a late playoff push. And although the only thing consistent about this Maccabi side is their questionable shot selection, they have just enough offensive power to shoot their way to a playoff spot. Already this season, Khimki snuck past a poor version of this Baskonia side and dropped a game to Maccabi. And as much as Shved will continue to take almost TEN threes a game (203 attempts through 21 games), I don’t think it’ll be enough to keep Khimki out of Baskonia’s eager playoff paws, especially given their reliance on results at home (8-3) with only 4 games left – three of which are against CSKA, Fenerbahçe, and Panathinaikos.
PREDICTION: Maccabi gets 7th, Baskonia 8th, Shved gets mad and jacks up twenty 3PT attempts in the final round.
It Gets Personal
In the season’s early goings, it appeared that this was Luka Dončić’s award to lose. The nightly triple-double threat was dropping some serious numbers for a barren Real Madrid side that was managing to stay relevant.
However, Nick Calathes has captained an impressive Panathinaikos side while regularly flirting with triple-doubles, and performing some late game heroics despite his limited scoring abilities. On the other hand, Kevin Pangos has been the heartbeat of this resurgent side and is in the middle of a career season, facilitating (8.2 assists per game since the season’s halfway mark) and scoring in equal measures in the ever-efficient Šaras offense (14.4 PPG the second half of the season). Aleksey Shved deserves some recognition too – but as I see Khimki just missing out on the playoffs, I’m ruling him out on that basis.
In reality, Luka’s midseason slump opened this award right up, so much so that I’m going to say he MIGHT finish the season 3rd. I’m not in any way suggesting he’s underserving – he’s a teenager carrying a team who spend more time in the hospital than the team bus to a playoff berth, and done so in spectacular fashion. But given the expectations for both PAO & Kaunas earlier in the year, and their respective play – I’m putting Calathes as the front runner now, followed by Pangos.
The run in will be crucial for this coveted individual honour. If Calathes can’t cement home court for the Athens side, orDončić forces his way to a 3 or 4 seed? That could be decisive. Look to when these teams face each other in Madrid on March 8th as a deciding fixture. Truthfully, I think Pangos won’t get the individual credit regardless of finishing position purely on the system he’s in, but he deserves a mention after his incredible season.
PREDICTION: Calathes to win, But Pangos is the People’s MVP ™.
Are the Muscovites Mortal?
The club the rest of EuroLeague loves-to-hate have done nothing to endear themselves to the rest of the continent this season – CSKA is seemingly immune to the injury bug sweeping the rest of the continent, with Leo Westermann the only notable absentee. (Seriously, I’ve never seen a side manage to avoid the injuries plaguing the rest of EuroLeague like CSKA — someone should look into that.)
And they have undoubtedly exploited this – running away at the top of the standings with a 17-4 record. However, I was in attendance for one of those loses @ FC Barcelona (again – apparently, I’m the CSKA curse in human form) and it made me think – is CSKA as good as we all think? Could Chacho carry them the way, let’s say, Dončić has carried Madrid?
I’m not disputing they are a very, VERY good side who can lay a beatdown on any day. But are they better than, for example, a fully fit Real Madrid? Or a functional Fenerbahçe side that took some time to gel? If Madrid gets anything from Sergio Llull this season, with Dončić on a mission and an almost entirely healthy roster, CSKA suddenly look extremely beatable given Madrid’s potential depth. And Fenerbahçe has finally started to resemble an Obradović side – losing only one game since the start of the year, and finally getting their turnover issues under control. Could this side, who already defeated CSKA in Moscow this season, bulldoze CSKA now they have found form in a fight for glory in Belgrade? With the sides set to meet again on March 16th in Istanbul, expect to see a playoff style game as each side tries to get an early psychological edge in this likely Final 4 matchup.
PREDICTION: CSKA are human, and Kill Bill is already licking his lips.
Text edited by: Nick Flynt