The 2020-21 season will be remembered for having the most balanced and thrilling Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs in competition history. For the first time in the 12-year history of best-of-five series, the playoffs in spring of 2021 came down to three do-or-die Game 5s that sent the winners to the Final Four and left the losers to hope for better luck in the future.
Two teams, Real Madrid and FC Bayern Munich, rallied from 2-0 deficits in their series against Anadolu Efes Istanbul and AX Armani Exchange Milan, respectively, to force winner-take-all fifth games. In the other series, FC Barcelona and Zenit St Petersburg exchanged wins on each other’s courts to push the series to Game 5. The make-or-break fifth games in all three series were played on Tuesday, May 4, among the most decisive dates in EuroLeague history, with six teams starting the night just 40 minutes and one victory from joining already-qualified CSKA Moscow at the 2021 Final Four in Cologne, Germany.
Efes was the first team to qualify, downing Real 88-83 at Sinan Erdem Sports Hall to take their best-of-five series 3-2. The game was not decided until the final minute and featured six lead changes and five ties in the fourth quarter alone. With the game tied at 80-80, Krunoslav Simon stepped up with one of the most iconic plays in EuroLeague Playoffs history, a desperation three-pointer with 38.6 seconds remaining. When Sergio Llull missed from beyond the arc on Real’s next possession, Chris Singleton drew a foul and made a couple of free throws to seal Efes’s ticket to Cologne. Singleton tied his career-high with 26 points in the game and added 8 rebounds. Vasilije Micic added 18 points and Simon 17, while Shane Larkin had all 10 of his points in the fourth quarter. Nicolas Laprovittola led Real with 17 points.
In the night’s next thriller, Milan made it to the Final Four for the first time since 1992 by edging Bayern 92-89 at home. Shavon Shields scored a career-high 34 points to lead Milan to Cologne. Milan was ahead by as many as 17 points and still led by 12 points with 78 seconds left in the game. Bayern did not give up and fought until its last breath, getting within 91-89 with 14 seconds remaining. Kyle Hines provided the key defensive stops, which allowed Shields to draw a foul and split free throws with 5.8 seconds left. Bayern had a chance to send the game to overtime but Paul Zipser missed a catch-and-shoot 10-meter desperation shot at the buzzer, allowing Milan to celebrate. Malcolm Delaney had 16 points for Milan and Hines added 12. Jalen Reynolds led Bayern with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
Last but not least, Barcelona reached its first Final Four since 2014 by routing Zenit St Petersburg 79-53 at Palau Blaugrana. Brandon Davies and Pau Gasol allowed Barcelona to get a safe lead, 23-14, after 10 minutes. Kyle Kuric and Leandro Bolmaro boosted the margin to 43-30 at halftime and little changed after the break, as Barcelona increased its margin to 57-39 at the end of the third quarter and had plenty of time to celebrate a historic win. Barcelona finished the game with 9 blocks, matching the club’s playoffs record. Gasol had 4 of those, matching a Barcelona playoffs record that Gregor Fucka had set against Real Madrid on April 4, 2006. Cory Higgins led the winners with 15 points and Nick Calathes added 12, while Alex Poythress led Zenit with 11.
After a busy night, two EuroLeague Playoffs facts remained intact. No team has ever come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a series. Bayern and Real had a chance to rewrite history, but fell short by narrow margins. And no team has ever won Game 5 on the road, a tradition that Efes, Milan and Barcelona managed to keep alive.
Will either of those facts change in 2022? We will find out at the end of the 2021-22 regular season!