SOME regular season games matter a little more. Sometimes, as the EuroLeague campaign winds down, the playoff permutations count for much. Or, as on Thursday night, a huge psychological edge is on the line as the top two square off in a potential dress rehearsal for this year’s finale.
CSKA Moscow host leaders Fenerbahce and although the Turks, with two fewer defeats, are secure in top spot whether they win or lose, the will to prove they stand above the Russians and Real Madrid trumps all else.
With three rounds remaining, both have home advantage in the playoff quarter-finals secured. Job number one done. Yet there is a real advantage for finishing first, come Final Four time, with the fourth seed – currently Efes Istanbul but with FC Barcelona poised to trade places – a considerably more inviting proposition that either of their close rivals.
— Yeni Şafak English (@yenisafakEN) March 20, 2019
It is a prize Fener will want to keep, especially after a heavy loss to Real three weeks ago. A win here might be enough to cement their supremacy. But they will need to play much better than on Tuesday’s labouring triumph over lowly Buducnost when a fourth quarter spurt was required.
Yet that was the kind of game when Fenerbahce underlined why they are they 2.75 favourites for a second title in three years. The old adage that good teams find ways to win even when they are playing badly was underscored and the pacesetters are 5-1 in games decided by five points or less this term.
One of those – and a vital one – came mid-season when they defeated CSKA 79-75, again coming from behind in the fourth behind 19 points and ten rebounds from Jan Vesely in a duel where the Turkish outfit shot badly but got to the foul line 25 times.
That aggressiveness has served them well although it is the Muscovites who are the specialists in earning free throws with 554 attempts to date – narrowly behind Zalgiris Kaunas – and converting 81%.
— World of Basketball (@wofbasketball) March 20, 2019
CSKA, for all the wealth of talent that keeps them at 3.25 for the title, have made their fans sweat repeatedly with 12 games determined by under 5 points. In those, they are 8-4, and here they are priced to come out ahead on a handicap of -5.5 at 1.91.
They are coming off another nail-biter, having edged out Efes 80-78 earlier this week behind Cory Higgins late game-winner.
And with a little extra fatigue in their legs, Fener – who are a very appealing 3.20 to win in regulation – will hope to capitalise.
— ACB Jornada Virtual (@ACBJV) March 16, 2019
In the category of crucial games, Wednesday’s meeting of Panathinaikos and Baskonia in Athens rates highly.
Under coach Rick Pitino, the Greeks have hit their stride by wing their four last games, including a road win at CSKA Moscow last week.
However, Baskonia has won five of its last six games to keep alive their ambitions to take part in a Final Four which they will host.
When these two met previously, the Basque side took an 86-77 victory. Very different times for both though.
But with Baskonia – who are 4.70 for a repeat – sitting eighth and Panathinaikos ninth, the victor will take immense spoils. And with both hanging their hat on tight defence of late, it’s worth a punt under 160 total points at 2.12.