Round 22 of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season will be preceded by two previously-postponed games and all of this week’s games will have significant meaning in the increasingly intense race for the playoffs. Here’s a snapshot of what lies ahead.
Milan and CSKA set for big showdown
This week’s action features two bonus games as a result of previous postponements due to COVID cases, with Tuesday seeing AX Armani Exchange Milan host ALBA Berlin and LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne take on AS Monaco. Milan (11-6) is heading into its own personal ‘double round week’ high on confidence after becoming the first visiting team to overcome FC Barcelona with a dramatic road win last Wednesday and will hope to take that feelgood factor into Friday’s big showdown at CSKA Moscow (12-7). With CSKA currently placed fifth and Milan sixth, the game clearly has direct implications for the race to secure homecourt advantage in the playoffs – and Milan is in a strong position to gain the crucial head-to-head advantage after beating CSKA 84-74 in the first game of the season.
A key for the Italian team will be stopping one of its former players: CSKA guard Daniel Hackett is in sensational form after earning back-to-back MVP of the Round honors by guiding his team to last week’s wins over Panathinaikos OPAP Athens and ASVEL and will need some special attention from Coach Ettore Messina’s men.
Can Zenit hold onto fourth place?
After that meeting with ASVEL on Tuesday, Monaco (8-11) will complete its week on the road with a much longer journey by traveling to face a Zenit St Petersburg (12-6) team which is aiming to protect its current grip on fourth place. The battle for a top-four finish – which delivers homecourt advantage in April’s playoffs – is looking extremely tight, with five teams separated by just one win between Olympiacos Piraeus in third place and UNICS Kazan in seventh.
Victory for Zenit would therefore count for a great deal in this game between the teams with the best and worst defensive records in the competition: Zenit has allowed just 71.9 points per game (the same as Real Madrid) while Monaco has conceded a league-high 82.8 points. Zenit has also restricted its opponents to a league-low 6.4 three-pointers per game and will be focused on maintaining that strength against a dangerous Monaco team featuring the long-range shooting abilities of Mike James (1.7 three-pointers per game), Paris Lee (1.4) and Danilo Andjusic (1.4).
Canaan seeking revenge over Barca
Thursday’s opening tip-off is a repeat of one of the best games of the season as playoffs challenger UNICS Kazan (11-7) hosts first-placed FC Barcelona (16-4). When the teams met in late December it looked as though UNICS would claim a famous road win, holding a 15-point lead deep into the final quarter. But then Barca staged a remarkable comeback to force overtime and eventually won a real thriller 111-109.
One UNICS player particularly keen to avenge that loss is sharpshooter Isaiah Canaan, who inadvertently sparked Barca’s comeback a few weeks ago by ‘shushing’ the fans after he hit a three-pointer to make it 69-84 with six minutes remaining. That gesture seemed to provide two extra gears of energy for Barca’s previously struggling players and also got the home fans seriously into the game – especially when Canaan later missed 2 free throws that could have given UNICS victory with 14 seconds of overtime remaining. You can be sure Canaan is desperate to have the final word when his team hosts the league leaders on Thursday, and the veteran guard – who has made more three-pointers this season than any other player in the competition – will surely be at the center of Thursday’s action.
Laso and Gonzalez reunited… at last
If Barca slips up in Kazan, that would open the door for Real Madrid (15-3) to strengthen its challenge for the top spot by overcoming ALBA Berlin (6-11) in the German capital on Thursday. Real is technically already top of the standings despite currently having one win less than Barca, because Real has played two fewer games and boasts a better win percentage (83.3% to 80%).
This week’s game in Berlin will be special for both coaches. ALBA boss Israel Gonzalez made the big breakthrough of his coaching career 15 years ago when he was an assistant at Cantabria, filling the role on a part-time basis while working as a sports teacher. But his life changed forever when he was persuaded to take up coaching full-time by the Cantabria head coach… none other than Pablo Laso. The old friends were prevented from going up against each other as head coaches when ALBA traveled to Real last month because Laso missed that game through COVID and so, all being well, this will be their first time as direct adversaries.
Sfairopoulos seeks change in fortunes against former team
Ioannis Sfairopoulos will be at the center of attention when Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv (7-11) hosts Olympiacos Piraeus (12-6) on Thursday evening. The Maccabi coach has seen his team slip down the standings by losing eight consecutive games and will attempt to reserve that run – and ease the pressure on his own position – by overcoming an Olympiacos team which he took to its last Final Four appearance in 2017.
Extra motivation for Maccabi comes from the fact that the first game of its long winless run was against Olympiacos, which cruised to a 90-73 victory in Piraeus in November. The Reds produced an impressively efficient all-round performance on that occasion, converting 62.1% of their two-pointers and 34.4% of three-pointers while dishing 22 assists with just 7 turnovers as five different players scored in double digits. So Maccabi knows it will need a strong collective display to succeed in its first game of 2022 and has to particularly improve its perimeter defense after allowing the highest percentage of converted three-pointers (38.7%) in the competition.