FC Barcelona was the first team to qualify for the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague playoffs. It soon clinched home-court advantage and then wrapped up first place. Zenit St Petersburg was the last team to qualify, sealing the eighth spot in its final regular-season game. Now they start from scratch and battle to get to the 2021 Final Four in Cologne.
Playoffs returnees vs first-timers
FC Barcelona is back in the EuroLeague Playoffs for the first time since 2016. Before that, Barcelona reached the playoffs in 11 consecutive seasons, from 2006 to 2016. Only one of its players, Alex Abrines, was with the team the last time Barcelona competed in the playoffs. Barcelona has not handled the home-court advantage well over the years, losing playoff series under these circumstances in 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2016 against Real Madrid, Panathinaikos Athens, Olympiacos Piraeus and Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, respectively.
Zenit is in the playoffs for the first time in only its second season in the competition. It has become the sixth Russian team to get this far in the competition, behind CSKA Moscow, Dynamo Moscow, UNICS Kazan, Khimki Moscow Region and Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar.
Defense comes first
Two of the best defensive teams in the competition are set to test their strengths in this series. Barcelona leads the 2020-21 EuroLeague with the fewest points allowed (73.6 ppg.), using its physicality to protect the paint. It has the best defensive shooting numbers, too, holding the league to the lowest two-point (49.4%) and three-point shooting percentages (34.4%). It also forced rivals into 14.1 turnovers on average.
Zenit is a great defensive team, too. Only Barcelona allows fewer points than Zenit's 74.9 per night. Zenit also forces opponents into low shooting percentages (52.8% 2FG, 36.1% 3FG) and has been even better on the road (51.5% 2FG, 35.9% 2FG). Zenit boxes out better, thus allowing fewer offensive rebounds (9.1 orpg.) than its opponent in this series (10.1 ppg.).
Zenit head coach Xavi Pascual led FC Barcelona for the best part of nine seasons. He was promoted from assistant to head coach late in the 2007-08 season and was with the team until the end of the 2015-16 campaign. Pascual led Barcelona to five Final Four appearances, including the lifting of the EuroLeague trophy in 2010. Pascual also guided Barcelona to four Spanish League and three Spanish King's Cup titles as head coach.
Zenit playmaker Kevin Pangos was with Barcelona for the previous two seasons and helped it win a Spanish King's Cup crown in 2019. He also played alongside Barcelona big man Brandon Davies at Zalgiris Kaunas, which they led to the 2018 Final Four. Barcelona shooting guard Kyle Kuric played for Zenit in the 2017-18 campaign, as did swingman Cory Higgins in the 2013-14 season when the team was still called Triumph Lyubertsy.
Earlier this season
In Round 2, Zenit edged Barcelona 74-70 at Yubileyny Sports Palace. Billy Baron and Alex Poythress led the winners with 16 points apiece. Pangos added 15, KC Rivers had 11 while Will Thomas got 10 for Zenit. Nikola Mirotic led Barcelona with 14 points while Abrines had 11. Barcelona led 63-68 but Zenit improved its defense during crunch time, in which Pangos, Poythress and Rivers made the difference down the stretch.
Barcelona bested Zenit 85-81 in a Round 22 thriller. Davies led the way with 18 points. Kuric scored 16, Higgins and Mirotic each added 14, while Nick Calathes dished 12 assists for Barcelona. Andrey Zubkov and Arturas Gudaitis led Zenit with 15 points apiece. Pangos added 13 while Baron and Mateusz Ponitka each had 10 for the visitors, who trailed 69-50 after 30 minutes and fought back, but came up short.
Elite (and streak) shooters
Kuric leads the 2020-21 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague in three-point shooting percentage, having made 58.6% of his shots from downtown until now. No other player has made as many three-point shots (58) with a percentage over 51.0%. Baron ranks ninth in that list (47.1%) with as many 153 attempts. His accuracy has been even better (53.8%) in home games.
There are several other shooters who can give their team a boost on good days. Abrines has averaged 32.3% (11 of 34) from the three-point line in losses and 46.7% (42 of 90) in victories. For Zenit, both Thomas (46.2%) and Pangos (42.7%) have a much better three-point shooting percentage in wins (Thomas 36.7%, Pangos 36.1%).