When Zenit St Petersburg hosts Panathinaikos OPAP Athens tonight, a spot in the 2021 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs will be on the line. Unlike in the final regular-season dates, the math is very simple this time: If Zenit wins, it will be eighth and face FC Barcelona in the playoffs. If Panathinaikos wins, Valencia Basket will be the eighth-seeded playoff team.
This game is just the latest in a long string of do-or-die EuroLeague showdowns to reach the playoffs. To date, these games have featured everything from epic comebacks to teams that could not take the heat and lost their chance to qualify as well as lucky losers that reached the playoffs due to a combination of results in their favor. Here is a look back at those do-or-die games.
The early years
The playoffs were reintroduced for good ahead of the 2004-05 season and with a short, six-round Top 16, there were many do-or-die games at the end of this stage. In fact, five of the eight playoff teams punched their tickets on the final Top 16 date in 2005 - Tau Ceramica Vitoria-Gasteiz, Panathinaikos Athens, Ulker Istanbul, Benetton Treviso and Efes Pilsen Istanbul. Ulker rallied from a double-digit deficit in the final 7 minutes to edge Cibona VIP 64-68, using a 1-13 run to return to the game and a go-ahead triple by Tutku Acik to take the win.
In 2006, all four teams in one Top 16 group - Cibona, Efes, Panathinaikos and Benetton - finished with 3-3 records. Efes qualified with a 77-84 road win in Zagreb behind 23 points from Henry Domercant. Panathinaikos beat Benetton 81-70 thanks to 18 points from Jaka Lakovic. The Greens started the Top 16 with a 0-3 record and survived three consecutive do-or-die games to reach the playoffs.
2008's unforgetable finales
Half of the eight playoff qualifying spots in 2008 were decided in perhaps unexpected fashion. The biggest bomb dropped when Partizan Belgrade knocked out defending champion Panathinaikos with a memorable 82-73 victory before a euphoric home crowd in the Serbian capital. Fenerbahce Ulker reached the playoffs with a 75-59 win over previously undefeated Tau. Olympiacos topped Real Madrid 72-63 to reach the playoffs after starting the phase with back-to-back losses. Barcelona edged CSKA Moscow 64-62 to go through. If CSKA's last-second three-pointer had fallen, Barcelona would have been eliminated, but since J.R. Holden missed, Unicaja was ousted.
Two teams qualified in 2010 on the final date, one of them without needing to win. Partizan qualified with a win or if Panathinaikos beat Maroussi Athens. Since that game was scheduled a day earlier and Panathinaikos edged Maroussi 82-79, Partizan clinched a playoff spot before it even took the floor. Caja Laboral Vitoria-Gasteiz made a miracle leap into the playoffs by rallying from 14 points behind with 3 minutes left to tie and then defeat Cibona Zagreb 102-90 in overtime. Mirza Teletovic led the way with 25 points.
A year later, three teams won do-or-die games to reach the playoffs. Caja Laboral downed Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius 68-77 in the Lithuanian capital behind a big night from Fernando San Emeterio: 19 points and 12 rebounds. Panathinaikos bested Unicaja 61-77 to reach the playoffs and Power Electronics Valencia KO'd Fenerbahce 82-68 in a winner-take-all showdown. It was Valencia's first trip to the playoffs.
In the last-ever, six-round Top 16 in 2012, four teams qualified in Round 6: Montepaschi Siena, Olympiacos, Gescrap Bilbao Basket and UNICS Kazan. UNICS and Montepaschi each advanced despite losing. In UNICS's case, Milan defeated Fenerbahce 85-72 to deny the Turkish champs’ a playoff berth. Montepaschi lost by 12 points at home against Real Madrid, but other results were enough to see it through.
Longer Top 16 changes everything
Once the Top 16 moved to a 14-round phase, do-or-die games became less common. In 2013, only Laboral Kutxa needed a victory to qualify to the playoffs and it beat Montepaschi 76-64 to go through. In 2014, it was Galatasaray Liv Hospital Istanbul which claimed the final playoff spot by defeating Partizan 64-55 at home.
A year later, at the end of a memorable Top 16, reigning champion Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, Panathinaikos and Anadolu Efes claimed the remaining playoffs spots in Round 14. Maccabi outlasted ALBA Berlin 64-73 in the German capital, automatically sending Panathinaikos to the playoffs, too. Efes needed to beat Fenerbahce, which didn't happen, or for Unicaja to defeat Laboral. Unicaja topped Laboral 93-85 to send Efes to the playoffs. In 2016, victories for Barcelona and Real escorted those two teams into the playoffs.
The introduction of a round-robin regular season did little to keep the do-or-die games from coming. In such a game to reach the 2017 playoffs, Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul thrashed Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade 78-62 to finish eighth in the standings. Brad Wanamaker led Darussafaka with 22 points. Three teams qualified in the final regular-season round in 2019. Zalgiris made history by beating Real 86-93 in the Spanish capital. It won in Madrid for the first time in 10 tries this century to complete a six-game winning streak that clinched eighth place and a playoff berth in come-from-behind fashion. Panathinaikos walked tall into the playoffs behind a historic triple-double from Nick Calathes to beat visiting Buducnost VOLI Podgorica 87-67. And Baskonia backed in with a loss due to other results.