The most dominant team this season is the only higher seed to drop a game during the first week of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs.
While Anadolu Efes Istanbul, AX Armani Exchange Milan, and CSKA Moscow all held serve through the first two games of the quarterfinals last week, top-seeded FC Barcelona dropped a game in Palau Blaugrana to Zenit St Petersburg. With the series shifting to Sibur Arena for Games 3 and 4 this week, the pressure is on the team that sat atop the standings for the last third of the season and finished the year with the best point-differential.
The Anatomy of a Playoff Upset
Although an eighth seed had never beaten a first seed to start a playoff series, Zenit's early success against Barcelona is not unprecedented. Two other eighth-seeded teams in the last four postseasons won Game 2 on the road. The question moving forward is whether Zenit can manage to win again as both of those predecessors dropped Games 3 and 4 at home.
Regardless of whether Zenit can overcome its injuries to capitalize on its newfound home-court advantage, on paper this team plays a style conducive to upset victories by playing at the slowest pace of any team in recent memory while ranking first in short-shot-clock efficiency and third in overall offensive efficiency. The way Zenit can control the pace of games magnifies the value of every possession, and in turn, every hot-shooting night they get from one of their key scorers and every mistake made by their opponents.
During their first two games against Barcelona, it was the play of Kevin Pangos and Will Thomas that proved to be the difference. Scoring a combined 70 points over just 57 possessions, including 28 with the shot clock under 4 seconds, the veteran duo delivered to help Zenit score a narrow win in Game 1 and keep them competitive in an overtime loss in Game 2 against a Barcelona defense that separated itself as the league's best this season thanks to stingy shot defense.
By scoring 1.03 points per short-shot-clock possessions last week – 62 points over 60 possessions – Zenit exceeded even the lofty standard it had set while leading the league in such situations during regular season. Its ability to maintain that level of play moving forward figures to factor prominently into whether Zenit can continue to push a Barcelona team that won a EuroLeague-best 13 games on the road this season.
Another game during the first week of the quarterfinals that proved to be a nail-biter was Milan's 79-78 home win over FC Bayern Munich in Game 1. That narrow loss sets up a pair of do-or-die dates this week for Bayern, whose 13-4 record at the Audi Dome was the best on any home court in the EuroLeague this season.
The strength of Bayern's performance in home games has been defense. Allowing 0.99 points per possession on the road, but 0.93 points per possession in Munich, Bayern has done a far better job defending the perimeter and forcing turnovers in its own gym. That creates a fascinating strength-on-strength matchup against a Milan team that led the EuroLeague in both turnover percentage and points scored per game on jump shots.