The summit of the Euroleague is finally in sight after a regular season marked precisely by irregularities. Anadolu Efes, champion of the last two editions, has vacated the throne of Europe after a disastrous campaign, 11th with 17 wins for 17 losses. Baskonia, which led the standings until January, was shipwrecked on the shore and, on the last day, was out of the playoffs. Barcelona and Real Madrid did seal their ticket for the prelude to the Final Four, the quarterfinals that start this Tuesday with the first duel of the best-of-five series between Chus Mateo and Partizán (20.45, Dazn ) in Wizink. On Wednesday it will be Barça’s turn, which receives Zalgiris at the Palau (8:00 p.m., Dazn).
The two Spanish colossi have the home court factor in their favour, a historically decisive element in the Euroleague. 83.6% of the teams that have started the series in their pavilion have gotten into the Final Four. If they succeed, the blaugranas and madridistas will face each other in Kaunas in the semifinals, as happened last season (white victory). On the other side of the draw, Olympiacos will face Fenerbahçe, and Monaco against Maccabi Tel Aviv. The Greek team has been the most reliable and in the best form of the first phase, leader of the regular season. But what comes next is another story. “The playoffs are the hardest moment of the season, because of what you risk and because you face a great rival every two days,” says Chus Mateo, who is facing his debut in a European tie as head coach.
Despite facing the ‘curse’ that maintains that the regular phase champion has never won the Euroleague, Olympiacos is the favorite in many of the pools due to its excellent numbers and the sensation of being a well-connected team with the clear ideas. Those from Piraeus have the second best offensive average (points per 100 possessions: 104.2) behind Partizan (105.7), and are the best defensively (94.7) according to InStat data. In addition, they are the ones that have had the most distance on the scoreboard on average compared to their rivals (+8.26).
Barcelona and Real Madrid have suffered in their flesh from the troops coached by Georgios Bartzokas, Euroleague champion with Olympiacos in 2013, and led by power forward Sasha Vezenkov, the great favorite for MVP. The games against Palau, Wizink, and both at home against the blaugranas and whites were victorious. Fenerbahçe, their rival now in the quarterfinals, also defeated them in the two regular season games.
Barça and Madrid arrive at this stage of the season a step below in terms of confidence and, above all, regularity in the game. It was difficult for the Catalans to start the machine until they recovered Mirotic 100% and his greatest virtue is at the same time a drag at times. The outside game continues to be the hallmark, the team in which the three-pointers have more weight (42.4% of their shots are from the perimeter) and the one with the best success rate (40.5%). But on the other side of the coin, they are also the group that scores the least in the inside game, the second with the fewest two-test baskets and with the worst success (33.9 per game with a 54.5% success rate). This abuse of the triple causes that, when the aim is not fine-tuned, the annotation suffers enormously, and this leads them to be the second team with the fewest points on average of the eight classified after Zalgiris.
For its part, Real Madrid has diversified its attack compared to last season, when the outside game was less powerful. Musa, Hezonja and Sergio Rodríguez have renewed the offense, making the team less dependent on Tavares, whose performance has defined Real Madrid in recent years. Now capable of feasting from the triple, as against Maccabi (18), the whites continue to feel comfortable when they orbit around the Cape Verdean giant, Yabusele and Deck.
Chus Mateo has more alternatives than Laso last year, but his offensive exuberance is overshadowed by his biggest ballast this season, the losses. The Whites are the team that gives away the most balls (13.1 per game) of the qualifiers, which causes very quick transitions from the rivals and makes Madrid the team that is shot the most in the Euroleague (64, 9 times per game). So much concession would prevent any team from having options, but Real Madrid has its winning card: Tavares. The center is averaging 2.2 blocks per game, the best figures of his career, half of those of his team and more than several entire teams such as Barça (2) or Olympiacos (2.1). With him on court, the Whites are the team that catches the most rebounds (36.7 per game, 6.5 for the Cape Verdean) and they manage to ensure that 56.2% of their opponents’ shots do not end in a basket, the best in this section of the Euroleague.
Barcelona and Madrid have homework for these quarterfinals and a hypothetical Final Four. Both must increase the physical intensity since they are the two teams that cause the least losses (10.8 per game for Barça and 11.3 for Madrid). Jasikevicius’s men need to reinforce their inner zone so as not to depend so much on three pointers, even more so when facing a team like Zalgiris, the second with the fewest shots from the perimeter (23.3 per game with a hit percentage of 36 2%), the team with “the most character in the Euroleague”, according to Saras’ own words. With Madrid it is even clearer. Mateo must cut the bleeding of losses so as not to concede so many baskets against Partizán, the second best in the Euroleague in percentage of success in field goals (50.08%) and in triples (39.6%). Luckily for both of them, the balance of the regular season raises the importance of the field factor: the Spaniards took the victory at home against the teams with which they are now measured, but lost at home.
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