It only took only two rounds for a marquee matchup to deliver a thriller and for one five-man lineup to emerge as a difference-maker.
In a rematch of last spring's semifinal opener at the Final Four, CSKA Moscow earned a hard-fought 100-96 victory over reigning champion Anadolu Efes Istanbul on the road in Sinan Erdem Sports Hall to avenge their 89-86 loss five months ago in Cologne. The difference for CSKA was apparent in what wound up being an equally competitive contest. Scoring around 1.05 points per possession in half-court situations in both games, CSKA tallied 15 points over 8 transition possessions on Friday compared to just 7 points over 4 such possessions back in May. Doing a better job turning defense into offense, CSKA's opportunism switching ends off steals and creating advantages off rebounds ultimately tipped the scales in its favor to stave off a comeback effort sparked by Vasilije Micic's 32 points and 7-for-11 shooting from beyond the arc for Efes.
Barcelona's fearsome fivesome
While Efes fell to 0-2 with that loss, the champions' resume from last season offers plenty of reasons not to panic. They set the EuroLeague standard on the offensive end and came around defensively in the second half of the season to close out one of the most competitive seasons in league history as the titleholders. While Efes has stumbled early, last season's runner-up FC Barcelona has found itself on the opposite end of the spectrum. Finishing the 2020-21 regular season with the best record and top point differential, Barca has taken a head-start on achieving both feats again this year, thanks in large part to a five-man unit that is establishing itself as the league's one watch through two rounds.
Last year, the four-man unit of Nick Calathes, Cory Higgins, Pierre Oriola and Alex Abrines were on the floor for only 12% of Barcelona's possessions but produced a +79-point differential over the course of the season. That was a higher mark than 12 entire teams and one of the top such point differentials for one unit in recent history. It is still too early to buy into any surefire trends this season, but as the graphic above illustrates, the five-man group of Calathes, Higgins, Nigel Hayes-Davis, Nikola Mirotic and Brandon Davies is already a +21 through two games.
Given the continuity between these groups – indeed, Mirotic and Davies filled a lot of the wildcard minutes as the fifth player in last year's unit – it is not particularly surprising that Barcelona has been able to lean on a familiar recipe for success. However, with this group being on the floor for 27% of all Barca's possessions so far, it is worth wondering if this lineup's early dominance and heavy usage are a sign of things to come for Sarunas Jasikevicius's club and how he will adjust his rotation when Alex Abrines returns from injury.
Looking ahead to Round 3
Conveniently, Barcelona will host the team currently sitting second in the standings, Olympiacos Piraeus, in Round 3. Allowing opponents to score just 0.72 points per possession, top-ranked among all teams through two rounds, Olympiacos has relied on a strong ability to get stops in taking home wins against Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Real Madrid. Going on the road now against Barcelona's lineup of doom, the Olympiacos defense will be put to the test again. It will be particularly interesting to see how Greek powerhouse approaches guarding Nikola Mirotic, who is coming off one of the most efficient individual offensive seasons in EuroLeague history and has scored an absurd 33 points over only 16 possessions to start the 2021-22 campaign.