Aleksandar Nikolic Hall will make an appropriately loud setting for the final Game of the Week of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season even though the host team, Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade, has no extra reward at stake beyond the adoration of its devoted fan base.
Game of the Week: Efes is the elephant in the room
In this game, all eyes will be on the visiting opponent, Anadolu Efes Istanbul, the elephant in the room of the upcoming playoffs.
Everyone who follows the EuroLeague is intrigued to know if the defending champions are ready for a playoffs series in which they will have to win on the road in order to defend their trophy all the way to Belgrade again for the Final Four next month.
Efes was the EuroLeague's most dominant team the last two seasons, and the latter part of the one before those, but has been somewhat baffling in this one.
The champs opened losing four games in a row, and rebounded in November to win as many consecutively, but otherwise has just a three-game streak in December and no more than two victories in a row since.
That Efes is capable of running any opponent off the floor on a given night, there is no doubt. The question is can they do that consistently enough to repeat as champion. It is safe to say that Efes will use tonight's game to help answer that question for itself.
Efes doesn't have to beat Zvezda, but it surely wants to, and badly, for several reasons.
One, the all-important question of momentum.
A victory would make it three straight for Efes going into the playoffs, with tonight's -- if it happens -- coming in one of the EuroLeague's toughest gyms to visit. All will have been won with two major players missing: Vasilije Micic, the defending MVP and current EuroLeague top scorer, and Rodrigue Beaubois, the team's third-best scorer. Neither has serious injuries: they could be seen laughing together during Wednesday's home win against FC Bayern Munich. In other words, Efes can expect to be much stronger very soon, especially if it is already winning without them.
Two, without a win tonight, Efes will have to wait five days to know its final place in the standings and therefore its playoffs opponent.
Efes, tied with Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv at 16-11, holds the tie-break advantage between them, so beating Zvezda would resolve their situation tonight, when all other teams in the playoffs race also finish the regular season. A victory will not only cement fifth place for Efes but name its playoffs opponent: AX Armani Exchange Milan or Real Madrid, depending on the latter's result tonight. Just having five more days to focus on one opponent will help with the huge task of trying to win a best-of-five series without home-court advantage.
Three, the "it's time" mindset.
Efes is nothing if not confident, but that confidence has not prevented a back-and-forth season so far. After tonight, almost any loss could be fatal, so the ups and downs need to end. Or, as team talisman Shane Larkin put it this week: "We know what it takes to win championships. We know this is the most important time of the season to be playing well. And we've been doing it for a few years. So, at this time of the year, we're always dangerous. We're a legitimate title contender every single year. We're in the same situation this year. We've just got to go in and play hard in every game, take it a game at a time, and try to win another title."
In other words: it's time.
Added up, what Efes needs most right now is no interruptions. Keep the wins coming, get the injured players rested, and allow no doubts to creep in. All those are more than necessary because Efes has a history of long playoffs series, four that reached five games since 2013. Of those, it lost both Game 5s away to Olympiacos and won both Game 5s at home, over FC Barcelona two years ago and over Real last season.
If there's a Game 5 for Efes this time, it will be away again. No team has ever won Game 5 on the road, but if any can blow up that precedent, it is Efes. All of which makes tonight's regular season finale on the court of a Zvezda team that always plays playoffs-like defense a good test.
Efes will have to be an elephant in the playoffs, too, if it wants to return to Belgrade.