The incredibly competitive nature of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season is underlined by the fact that several playoff qualification matters still have to be settled as we head into the final round of the regular season. Here is your quick guide to Round 34.
Zenit controlling its destiny
With six of the eight playoffs places already taken, four teams – Real Madrid, Zenit St Petersburg, TD System Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Valencia Basket – are competing for the remaining two slots. One of the teams controlling its own destiny is Zenit (18-14), which has two remaining home games against Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv (13-19) on Friday and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens (11-20) next Monday. The Russian team knows that if it wins both those games, it will definitely qualify for the playoffs, placed anywhere between sixth and eighth depending on other results.
That simplifies the task for Coach Xavi Pascual's men, who can take further encouragement from the fact that both upcoming opponents have little to play for other than pride. Maccabi will also be somewhat less than fresh, playing its fourth game in nine days as it clears a backlog of outstanding fixtures. Sunday's home defeat against LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne will be followed by a home game against Khimki Moscow Region on Tuesday before Maccabi travels for Friday's meeting with Zenit.
Powerhouses collide in key showdown in Istanbul
Real Madrid (19-14) can avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012 by booking post-season passage with a victory in its final game of the regular season. That will be far from easy, however, as Los Blancos travel to take on a mighty opponent with plenty of incentive: Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul (20-13). The Turkish team has already qualified for post-season action and now has the chance to secure fourth place – and therefore home-court advantage in the playoffs – by beating Real on Thursday and then hoping that AX Armani Exchange Milan loses its remaining game, at home to Anadolu Efes Istanbul, on Friday.
Fenerbahce will be without star center Jan Vesely for at least two weeks due to an ankle injury, giving Real further encouragement to attempt to win the game through inside dominance. Clearly, then, visiting big man Walter Tavares will be a key protagonist. Without Vesely, Fenerbahce will be hoping even more for the availability of backcourt leader Nando De Colo after he, too, limped out of last week's loss to Barcelona with a knee injury. Real can still qualify for the playoffs if it loses at Fenerbahce, but only if Zenit loses either of its remaining games.
Playoff for the playoffs in Valencia
If Real loses at Fenerbahce early on Thursday, there will be a clear prize on offer to the winner of that night's late tip-off between Spanish rivals Valencia Basket (18-15) and TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz (18-15): a place in the playoffs.
Baskonia will look for inspiration from outstanding forward Achille Polonara, who has averaged 20.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2 steals over the last three games, while Valencia can take confidence from winning four of its last five games. The usual home-court advantage might not count for too much, however, as Valencia lost its last game at La Fonteta convincingly against eliminated Olympiacos Piraeus, while Baskonia is in excellent away form with four road wins out of five.
This season's first meeting between the teams was a real thriller, eventually won 71-70 by Baskonia after overcoming a 17-point deficit and seeing Valencia unable to score on its final possession. Don't be surprised if this potential playoffs-decider has a similarly nail-biting conclusion.
Milan in quest for home-court advantage
Another big battle will take place when AX Armani Exchange Milan (20-13) hosts Anadolu Efes Istanbul (22-11) on Friday night. Efes has already secured the home-court advantage in the playoffs and will definitely finish third if CSKA Moscow wins either of its remaining two home games, against LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne on Thursday or Panathinaikos next Wednesday. So the Turkish team may well effectively have little to play for when Friday's game tips off, but that's definitely not the case for Milan, which can only guarantee itself home-court advantage with a victory. In fact, Milan could finish as low as seventh with a loss, so Coach Ettore Messina's men will be approaching the meeting with Efes like a final despite already having a playoff spot secure.
With just one win in four games, Milan can use a boost heading into the playoffs in any case. Efes, having scored 108 and 111 points in last week's wins at Real Madrid and Baskonia, respectively, shows no sign of taking its foot off the gas. It's also possible that this matchup will be repeated in the playoffs, if Efes finishes third and Milan sixth, so Coach Ergin Ataman's men will be keen to keep roaring as they head into the post-season.
Bayern's chance for top-four finish
If Fenerbahce and Milan both lose, the home-court advantage will be there for the taking for FC Bayern Munich (20-13) as it heads into the considerable challenge of a final day trip to FC Barcelona (24-9). As with the meeting between Milan and Efes, this matchup may be repeated in the playoffs: victories for Efes, Real and Zenit would see Bayern finish eighth if it loses, therefore lining up a swift rematch with Barca.
Having last week become the first German team to ever qualify for the playoffs, however, there is no way Coach Andrea Trinchieri's players will be heading into the game with such a negative mindset. Bayern will attempt to cast aside the complications of all possible permutations and instead focus on finishing the regular season in the best possible form – especially as the Milan-Efes game tips off only 15 minutes earlier, so Bayern won't know what is at stake until its own game is finished.