Welcome back to the Experts Round Table, where we ask a variety of the most knowledgeable Turkish Airlines EuroLeague followers across the continent their opinions on the topics of the day. This week's panel includes Ermal Kuqo, long-time EuroLeague player and recent Final Four Ambassador; Juan Antonio Casanova, the former long-time EuroLeague writer for La Vanguardia in Spain; journalist Donatas Urbonas of leading Lithuanian website 15min.lt; Nikos Varlas, Publishing Manager, Eurohoops.net Global; and Frank Lawlor, Editorial Director for Euroleague Basketball. Check out their opinions on three key questions before Round 26 of the regular season!
1. Which team's Round 25 victory was most key to surviving the playoffs race or getting home-court advantage?
"As far as surviving is concerned, I think Maccabi's win over Bayern at the Audi Dome was of utmost importance for the Tel Aviv team. Playing in front of a full crowd and against one of the most in-shape teams in Europe, Sfairopoulos's crew kept their quest alive going into the last five rounds. As for home-court advantage, obviously Efes's win over Barcelona was huge, because they managed not only to get the win, but also the point-difference tiebreaker, should that come into play."
Juan Antonio Casanova
"I expected Efes to beat Barcelona, but not to overcome its 15-point disadvantage from their first game. Even so, the calendars of both teams make me think that Barcelona will end up ahead of Efes. For that reason, Maccabi's win in Munich against Bayern – its seventh victory in nine rounds – could prove the most significant from Round 15. That let Maccabi even Bayern on victories but also gain a tiebreaker over the Germans. Maccabi's possibilities of making the playoffs improved greatly, while a loss would have minimized those chances."
"Maccabi. Considering the fact that both teams face the final stretch of the playoffs race, and it was an away game for Maccabi, this victory in Munich was huge. Losing there could have minimized Maccabi's hopes to make the quarterfinals, and now it's completely different. Since Ioannis Sfairopoulos took over Maccabi, the team has improved a lot, winning 11 of 17 games. Only the top three teams have had a better run. Victory against Bayern took Maccabi closer to the top eight. With the upcoming schedule and games they play, Maccabi has it all to make the playoffs."
"With regard to the playoffs race, Maccabi had the biggest win, away at Bayern, two teams who share the same goals. Ioannis Sfairopoulos's team continues its last-ditch effort, and their schedule allows Maccabi to aim for another four wins that might be enough to get them a ticket to the playoffs. Concerning the home-court advantage, Efes made a huge step not just by winning, but also by covering the difference, as they now have the advantage in case of a tie with Barcelona. Efes have a tough schedule, but now they only need to have a win less than Svetislav Pesic's team until the end. That's when – barring the unforeseen – they will fight against the same opponent, Barcelona, to make the Final Four."
"The victory by Maccabi accomplished a few things last week, one of which was a sweep of Bayern, which could matter not only in a head-to-head tie, but one of three or even four ways, as well. Considering how tight the race is, those are not impossibilities. Just the same, Olympiacos climbing off the mat after five straight losses – and doing so at Buducnost, where Madrid, CSKA, Baskonia and Barcelona have all lost – might prove to be the life-saving victory of this race. If Olympiacos wins in Milan this week, its momentum change from Round 25 will have proven to be very highly significant for many teams."
2. Which player do you want most taking a do-or-die shot in this playoffs race?
"There are a couple of crucial clutch shot-makers in the Euroleague playing at a high level right now, some of them relatively young and ambitious, such as Scottie Wilbekin or Shane Larkin, others more experienced, like Vassilis Spanoulis or Jeremy Pargo. I'm having a really hard time going with one name only, but if I really have to choose one, that'd be Spanoulis."
Juan Antonio Casanova
"Sean Kilpatrick of Panathinaikos. In his last five games (four of them victories), the American shooting guard who arrived in Athens in January has made 63% of his two-pointers. He had never played before in Europe, but in both the NCAA – where he became the second all-time scorer at University of Cincinnati, behind Oscar Robertson! – and in the NBA – where he averaged 10.3 points in 157 games – Kilpatrick showed that, in addition to being a good defender, he doesn't get nervous in the big moments. And his team can expect close games against some tough opponents ahead."
"I pick Mike James. He already made many game-winning shots in his career and he is a guy who has no fear. His skill set lets him kill the opponent in any way he wants. James will be essential in the last five regular season games and Milan will do or die with his clutchness."
"The most likely possibility, based on the schedules of the teams fighting for playoff spots, is that Olympiacos will advance without the need of one big shot. But as long as Vassilis Spanoulis is in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, he has earned the title of most clutch player in Europe when it comes to a single deciding shot. This has been true for years now and he will continue to be my first choice even if he's still playing in the league after he's 40!"
"Matt Janning of Baskonia started the season 10 of 44 from downtown, or 22.7%, in the first seven games. Since then, he's 49 for 115, or 42.6%, elite numbers for a high-volume shooter. He has won big games on the buzzer more than once in the past. He has the experience to understand situations and know how to get his shot. He can also pass well enough that teams will have to cover him honestly in end-of-game situations. If there's a do-or-die shot to be taken, I'd trust him."
3. Which team is in the biggest must-win situation going into Round 26?
"Unfortunately, Zalgirisis on the brink of elimination from the playoffs race and they have no other choice but to win at Zalgirio Arena against Bayern. Another team in a must-win situation is Maccabi, who cannot afford a home loss with so many few games left. And last but not least, Olympiacos has to win in Milan if they want to keep their chances alive. A road win for the Reds would be very welcome for Coach Blatt's guys, who have had a very up-and-down season so far. Once again though, the more drama there is on the court, the more we the fans will be enjoying watching the games. So I'd just say that it's a good week to be a Euroleague basketball fan."
Juan Antonio Casanova
"Milan. This team is in great form, having won five in a row before last week's loss to CSKA in Moscow. But Milan also has an absolute need to win this week, because the schedule that awaits them is terrible: visits to Madrid and Efes, plus home games against Panathinaikos and Fenerbahce. This week's guest, Olympiacos, has the same 13 victories as Milan, but is on an opposite path, having lost five straight before last week's win over Buducnost, but facing an easier stretch run, with Bayern, Zalgiris and Darussafaka at home, plus Gran Canaria on the road."
"Milan. They have the toughest schedule among the playoff race teams, so a victory against Olympiacos is a must. With Madrid, Panathinaikos, Fenerbahce and Efes on their schedule, every home win is necessary to make the playoffs. I don't see Milan making the playoffs if they lose to Olympiacos."
"I'm going to choose two teams that are in a tie with Panathinaikos, with a 12-13 record. Maccabi, who are hosting Efes, and Bayern, who are playing away at Zalgiris Kaunas. Both teams are in dire need of a win to maintain their hopes of making the top eight. Neither can afford to lose any ground. Maccabi wants to take advantage of the momentum they've built and take another step. For Dejan Radonjic's team, only an away win at the Zalgirio Arena can keep alive their dream of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in their history."
"Anything can happen in this race, but you've got to win your home games to survive. That puts Milan and Zalgiris, both with playoffs-chasing visitors, on the spot in Round 26. But Zalgiris can't afford to lose even more. Not only does Zalgiris have three fewer wins than Milan already, but a loss would mean getting swept by Bayern and also falling three wins behind the German champs with four games to go, and there would seem to be no exit after that."