Just six rounds remain in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season and several games in Round 29 will directly affect an incredibly tight playoff battle. Here's a guide to the best of this week's action.
Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos seeking fast redemption
After suffering costly setbacks last week, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul (13-15) and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens (14-14) go head to head on Friday for a crunch clash which will go a long way towards deciding the playoff fate of these two high-powered but faltering teams. Panathinaikos was on the receiving end of its heaviest ever defeat with a 31-point home loss to CSKA Moscow in Round 28, a performance described as "embarrassing" by veteran big man Ian Vougioukas. The Greens have now lost six of their last seven games to see their place in the top eight threatened, and Coach Rick Pitino's men know that a continuation of their current form will make it almost impossible to achieve a playoff position.
Fenerbahce had been looking better and better until having its steady progress checked with a convincing loss at Khimki Moscow Region last week and the Turkish powerhouse will be eager to ensure that loss is quickly forgotten in order to avoid a slip back into its early-season troubles. A thunderous atmosphere is guaranteed as Fener coach Zeljko Obradovic faces his former club in a game that both teams will feel is a must-win encounter and the whole occasion will provide a taste of playoff-like intensity a month early.
Can Olympiacos gain the edge over Milan?
Illustrating the ferociously competitive nature of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, seven teams are separated by just one win between seventh and 13th place in the race for the playoffs. Two of those meet face to face on Thursday evening when AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan welcomes Olympiacos Piraeus for a game that will break the 12-16 tie between the teams. After a poor run of form, Milan reignited its playoff challenge in Round 28 with a dramatic last-gasp overtime victory at Valencia Basket. That win was propelled by the veteran trio of Luis Scola, Sergio Rodriguez and game-winner Vladimir Micov, who will again look to come to the fore with the visit of an Olympiacos team which also boosted its morale by beating local rival Panathinaikos last week.
Olympiacos gained one of the biggest wins of its season with a 91-70 thrashing when Milan traveled to Greece in Round 11, so Coach Georgios Bartzokas's team has the added incentive of knowing a road victory would effectively be worth two wins if it can end a run of four consecutive road losses.
10 out of 10 for Barca?
FC Barcelona (22-6) held off a spirited challenge from visiting FC Bayern Munich to record its ninth consecutive victory on Friday night and this week the Catalan side will go for 10 out of 10 against one of its most popular former players as Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius leads his playoff-chasing Zalgiris Kaunas (12-16) team into town. Even though its playoff ticket is already assured, Barca knows there can be no let-up as it seeks to maintain its three-game advantage over Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow in the quest to secure a top-four finish and homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
With February's league MVP Nikola Mirotic continuing his sensational form by downing 28 points to inspire the win over Bayern, the home team will be confident of possessing the necessary firepower to overcome a Zalgiris team which has only won twice in Barcelona this century. But Jasikevicius, who won the EuroLeague with Barca under Friday's opposite number Svetislav Pesic in 2003, will be intent upon spoiling the party as Zalgiris aims for its sixth road win of the season.
Playoffs hopefuls aim to upset top two
Two teams on the fringes of the playoff zone will be aiming to cause a major upset on the road at already qualified powerhouses, with Valencia Basket (12-16) traveling Anadolu Efes Istanbul (24-4) on Thursday before Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (11-17) makes the journey to Real Madrid (22-6) later the same evening. Table-topping Efes has already secured homecourt advantage and will look for Shane Larkin to repeat last week's 40-point heroics in the quest to overcome a struggling Valencia team that has suffered a blow to its morale by losing seven games in a row, all of them by 7 points or fewer.
Zvezda, on the other hand, gave fresh life to its own chances of making post-season play by gaining a convincing win over Maccabi last week. And the Serbian champion has happy memories of its last trip to Madrid, having beaten Real in an 83-87 thriller a couple of seasons ago. A repeat of that triumph this week would put Zvezda right back in the mix for the playoffs.
Baskonia to maintain momentum against Maccabi?
Another fascinating aspect of the closing weeks of the season will be (assuming Efes, Real and Barca avoid meltdowns) the race between reigning champ CSKA Moscow and Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv to secure the fourth and final position that bestows homecourt advantage for the playoffs. Both teams are at home on Thursday night, starting with the round's opening tip-off when CSKA (19-9) welcomes ALBA Berlin (9-19). The German side is close to being mathematically eliminated from the playoff race after losing three games in a row, but remains a dangerous offensive opponent having scored just 1 point less than CSKA this season (2,304 vs. 2,305).
Maccabi (19-9) faces a team with much more to play for in the shape of KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz (12-16). The injury-hit Spanish side looked to be almost out of contention for a top-eight finish a while ago, but three consecutive victories have given Coach Dusko Ivanovic's men fresh hope. Tornike Shengelia has been outstanding in Baskonia's recent revival, averaging 17.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2 steals during the winning run and the Georgian force will now aim to disrupt Maccabi's top four quest.