After the first regular season with the new schedule in place, with all the teams playing against each other in a 30-week season, in Euroleague, it’s now time for the most exciting period of the year: Euroleague Playoffs. Despite the absence of a couple of proven teams (Barcelona, KK Crvena Zvezda, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Anadolu Efes all missed the qualification to the post-season), Euroleague Playoffs are going to show the best of the best in Europe right now.
Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow got the no. 1 seed and will play against the fellow country team of Khimki. The reigning champs Fenerbahce Dogus finished the regular season at the second place and will play against the no.7 seed, the Spanish side Baskonia. The two historic Greek sides, Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, finished at the no.3 and no.4 seed respectively. The team led by Euro legend Spanoulis will play against Zalgiris Kaunas, one of the rising forces of Euroleague, while Panathinaikos, and his hothead president Giannakopoulos, will face Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, in what will likely be the most exciting matchup of the Euroleague Playoffs.
Every member of Def Pen’s International basketball team picked one matchup and analyzed it, to understand what could happen and what should we expect from these games. So let’s start!
(1) CSKA Moscow vs. (8) Khimki (Dmitry Planidin / @DemanPlan)
The most intense and heated Russian rivalry of the modern era this April will not be exclusive to the native audience but will be also available in the Euroleague Playoffs. Top-seeded CSKA with a 24-6 record will try to eliminate Euroleague’s top scorer Alexey Shved and his band as soon as possible.
Here is a classic no.1 vs no.8 matchup so don’t fool yourself with wrong aspirations. Khimki will need to do a ton of things and even more to go through arguably the most complete team in Europe right now. CSKA’s well-known stellar defense wasn’t that adamant in a regular season (79.2 PPG allowed, 7th), but it doesn’t mean that Dimitris Itoudis guys won’t hit a gas pedal in the playoffs. What can be more surprising is that Moscow powerhouse won’t probably need to dig deep on the defensive end with Nando De Colo and Sergio Rodriguez both having an amazing season. CSKA also possess one of the most versatile forwards in Europe. Will Clyburn will make you forget about Kyle Hines’ gruesome injury. And don’t forget about Cory Higgins providing a variety of options in their half-court offense.
Alexey Shved will be in a Russell Westbrook mode regardless, so there is no need to talk much about him really. It’s his supporting cast performance that will truly matter. And he has a hell of a support behind Thomas Robinson, Anthony Gill, James Anderson, Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Thomas. Rebounding battle will be crucial especially considering Hines’ absence. Malcolm Thomas and Tyler Honeycutt are in no way build to outrebound true bigs but they are scrappy on both ends of the flour. Thomas Robinson could be another headache for Dimitris Itoudis. His comeback campaign after breaking his hand was less than spectacular, but there is no chance Georgios Bartzokas will hesitate to give him at least 15 minutes. There is now or never.
While rebounding is a struggle sometimes for both squads, three-point shooting is where the real separation lies. CSKA has been killing rivals with their shooting from deep all season long. They might not take many shots but their league-best almost 43 percent accuracy is where all problems begin. Khimki will match this only with volume shooting, however, their best snipers are limited with opportunities. A total number of Charles Jenkins, Tyler Honeycutt, and Anthony Gill’s three-point attempts are not even close to a total number of Alexey Shved. CSKA’s shooters on the other side have zero problems sharing the ball on a perimeter.
Khimki relies heavily on Shved’s shooting outbursts. They live and die by his killing instinct and it’s never enough against CSKA’s defense. They limited Shved to a 38.2 FG percent in a regular season and it may be even worse in the playoffs. Khimki will need a net-plus performance from all major factions to make it competitive, something that we rarely saw this season.
(2) Fenerbahce Dogus vs. (7) Baskonia (Fatih Emre / @emrepopovich)
The reigning EuroLeague champs are again the favorite team in this playoff series. After the slow start, Fenerbahce found his natural form and clinched the home court advantage.
When star players Bogdan Bogdanovic and Ekpe Udoh left the Turkish side, many EuroLeague fans thought “They will not reach the trophy”, but on last games, Obradovic’s soldiers showed great defensive abilities and dominated the painted area. Ahmet Duverioglu is not a star but his development is too valuable for Fenerbahce. In the last games, Ahmet Duverioglu and Serbian shooting guard Marko Guduric’s rising performances kept the team afloat. Also, former NBA player James Nunnally’s 3-point shooting and energy were valuable. But let’s not forget about Jan Vesely, he’s an MVP contender for this season. This sentence will enough for him.
Also, Baskonia has great players. They have a system and chemistry but Baskonia’s level of talent is not enough compared with Fenerbahce. The team’s veteran player Jayson Granger achieved a lot in his EuroLeague history, also Janis Timma, Matt Janning, and Ilimane Diop are great players for the team. But the real leader of the team is definitely Tornike Shengelia
Shengelia is MVP contender like Jan Vesely. In this season, Shengelia improved his game and became the leading force of Baskonia. His plays are too important for the team. If Shengelia plays big, Baskonia will win 1 or 2 games over Fener. But, I think they have no chance to win this series of Euroleague Playoffs.
Olympiacos (3) vs. Zalgiris Kaunas (6) (Orazio Cauchi / @paxer89)
This will probably be one of the most interesting matchups of the Euroleague Playoffs. Olympiacos finished the regular season at the third place but lost both games against Zalgiris, something that doesn’t give too much security before the start of the series. The two teams played against each other in the last regular season game, so their last meeting is definitely fresh. This will be the first time ever in the playoffs for Zalgiris and the difference of experience at this level could make an impact in the series. Olympiacos, in fact, has played 43 playoffs games, the most among Euroleague clubs, and Spanoulis and Printezis, the two leaders of the team, have more playoffs games under their belt than all Zalgiris players combined.
But despite the lack of experience in the playoffs, Zalgiris has shown this season that can make the life difficult for every single team in Europe. Sarunas Jasikevicius has transformed a bunch of good players without a clear superstar into one of the most exciting things to watch in Euro:eague. A team with a very high basketball IQ and great chemistry, capable of beating teams with much bigger budgets like Barcelona, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Fenerbahce and so on. Under Jasikevicius, former Gonzaga alum Kevin Pangos has become one of the best point guards in Europe and former NBA faces like Brandon Davies and Axel Toupane have turned into fundamental pieces of the team.
Over the last six years, Olympiacos has won two Euroleague, in 2012 and in 2013, and played in other two finals, in 2015 and in 2017. That kind of experience is simply something that you cannot teach to your players, you just have it or you don’t have it. But if there’s a coach that can tell his players what it takes to win a Euroleague title, that’s Sarunas Jasikevicius. During his career, in fact, Jasikevicius has won four Euroleague titles (one with Barcelona, two with Maccabi Tel Aviv and the last one with Panathinaikos) and has already shown how quickly he can improve the level of talent of this team.
Will the clutch gene of Olympiacos back at it in this series? Or Zalgiris will be able to make the historic upset? The answer is pretty hard to find but we’ll most likely see five games in this matchup and there’ll be a lot of fun for sure.
(4) Panathinaikos vs. (5) Real Madrid (Nicola Lupo / @NicolaLupo99)
Panathinaikos finished the regular season on a high note with five wins in a row to secure the #4 seed and the home-court advantage for the first round of the EuroLeague Playoffs against Real Madrid. The two teams met two times during the regular season and got one victory apiece, with Panathinaikos winning 82-80 at home and then being defeated on the road 92-75 by the Spanish powerhouse.
The Greek club will rely on their leader Nick Calathes, who’s having a career season this year. The former Memphis Grizzlies point guard has had a great impact on both ends of the floor, averaging 14.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game. His pick-and-roll with veteran big man James Gist is definitely one of Panathinaikos’ deadliest weapons as the two can finish at the basket but can also involve shooters such as Chris Singleton, K.C. Rivers and Marcus Denmon. Alongside Calathes, Mike James is another guard who can really have a significant impact on the series with his explosiveness and killer instinct. Coming back from a brief stint in the NBA, James has averaged 14.8 points in eight games with Panathinaikos on 67% shooting from inside the arc.
Real Madrid didn’t have such an extraordinary season this year but still, it’s a dangerous team that can hurt the opponent in so many different ways, especially in transition. Coach Pablo Laso has in Luka Doncic a 19-year-old sensation who can do it all to lead his team. The duel between him and Calathes will definitely be a great one to watch in these Euroleague Playoffs.
Doncic, a projected top-3 pick in this June’s NBA draft, is the team’s No. 1 offensive option as he can create for himself as well as make his teammates better. Doncic has averaged 16.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game in the regular season. In the paint, big men Walter Tavares, Felipe Reyes and Gustavo Ayon are ready to battle underneath the basket. Sharpshooters Jaycee Carroll and Fabien Causeur can have a good impact for their team by finding the rhythm from outside the 3-point line as well as Trey Thompkins, a former NBA big man who can stretch the floor and shot almost 41% from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, they just lost point-guard Facundo Campazzo for the rest of the season. A tough loss for a team that has already missed Sergio Llull from the beginning of the season.
Panathinaikos vs Real Madrid is expected to be a very intriguing matchup as well as one of the most unpredictable of this year’s Euroleague Playoffs. Game 1 is scheduled for Tuesday, April 17 at O.A.K.A., one of the most heated arenas in the world.