Fenerbahce Istanbul has had arguably the best start in any playoffs series in Turkish Airlines EuroLeague history, getting back-to-back road wins against Panathinaikos Athens to be just one step away from reaching the Final Four, which will be played in its own city in less than a month. Fenerbahce had been battling injury problems throughout the season but managed to have a full roster available right at the start of the playoffs. As he was last season, center Ekpe Udoh has been a pillar for Fenerbahce in this one, too,, currently leading the 2016-17 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague in rebounds (7.5 rpg.) and blocks (2.18 bpg.). That also allowed Udoh to lead all of the competition's big men in performance index rating (19.9 PIR), trailing only Nando De Colo of CSKA Moscow and Keith Langford of Unics Kazan. Udoh has boosted his PIR to 23.5 and his scoring to 15 points from 12.1 per game in the first two playoff games against Panathinaikos. He played a stellar role in Game 2 with 22 points, 9 rebounds and a 34 PIR. Udoh knows another win against the Greek powerhouse will send Fenerbahce to the Final Four but, at the same time, nothing comes for free in the playoffs. "We are a veteran team. We have been there before and we're going to have our crowd behind us," Udoh told Frank Lawlor of EuroLeague.net minutes after Game 2. "I know we are going to lay it on the line for this game. It is the most important game of the season. That is how we approach every game in this series, as the most important game of the season."
Hello, Ekpe. This is the first time in eight years of five-game playoffs series that any team goes up 0-2 on the road. Were you thinking of that possibility, winning both games, on the way to Athens?
"Definitely. We know that if we were healthy, we would definitely be a problem. Now we are healthy. We have our lineups, our rotations and we have been playing good basketball, especially in these last two games. Coach prepared us for playing here. We practiced with loud speakers back at our arena, and we were ready. We have our goal and are taking our steps towards it."
You guys have seen tough arenas around the EuroLeague but in playoffs time, this is one of the toughest. Did he say anything else about what to do in an environment like this?
"Just stay together and play together until the end, and fight. This was a tough game, man. But we fought and stayed together and got two wins here."
Like you said, a lot of people thought that once this time got healthy, it would be dangerous, but you guys stole the show in Athens. Did you expect it would be that way?
"It is that time of the year, honestly. We know how we can play when we are healthy and we have to lay it on the line, especially right now. Coming out here, we knew it was time to lay it on the line. We have one more to get on Tuesday and I know our crowd will be ready for that one."
Talking about Game 1, Panathinaikos was 14-1 at home and you got in a deep hole early in the second half. How did you recover?
"Just defense. We are a really good defensive team, since last year. With me and Jan (Vesely), we are able to switch players and our schemes are working. You've got to give kudos to our coaches. They do a great job getting us prepared so that we came out here and give it our all."
In Game 2, they were on your heels the whole time, a little ahead, a little behind. Was it tougher in any way than coming back from 16 down?
"No... but to me, it shows your growth. I have said in a couple other interviews: this is our story. Last year, we had our story and people talked about that team last year a lot. But they understand that we were building our story, whether we were losing or winning. This was all part of the story and building up to this moment. And I think it has worked out for us."
You now go back to Istanbul with a lot of homework done. How critical is it not to be overconfident in this series?
"It is there, but we are a veteran team. We have been there before and we're going to have our crowd behind us. So I know we are going to lay it on the line for this game. It is the most important game of the season. That is how we approach every game in this series, as the most important game of the season."
Going back to the injury situation - were you guys waiting for this so that you could start playing?
"No, not necessatily waiting. We were still trying to figure it out and even when we were not as healthy, we still had enough bodies to play good basketball and we were not really doing that. We were struggling with that. But we all knew once we get healthy, this is pretty much the same team that was on the court last year. We knew that once we were healthy, we were going to be good, but we just had to try to play as good as we can with the team that we had. I was down, especiallty towards the end of the year, because we lost three of our last four games and we lost the home-court advantage. But we got healthy, we had a good week of practice, and we were ready, man. We. Were. Ready. We have to continue on Tuesday because they are going to give all they have. They don't want to be eliminated."
How much do you enjoy anchoring the defense, blocking shots like you do? You got help from Bogdan Bogdanovic in Game 1...
"I am so grateful and I love playing defense! That has been my career. And they know, if you get by the defender, then they gotta see me. It's great. Coach trusts me a lot, especially with the switches. I am grateful to be in this position."
Did you guys have pressure to get back to the Final Four knowing it is in Istanbul, or is it a good kind of motivational pressure?
"I don't think there was pressure. I just think injuries hurt us so much we weren't able to play good basketball. It is the Final Four, regardless of where it is, it's the Final Four. You want to be playing in the Final Four at the end of the year. And we're close. We're one game away."
You were one rebound away from winning the title last year. How much have you thought about that as a motivation factor along the way?
"I try not to think about it. I try not to... I haven't watched the game since. I know what happened. People think it was that rebound, but we were down 21 points in the third quarter against a lethal offensive team. We fought our way back, we got tired, there was the rebound, whatever. But we are ready. We are trying to go for that goal."
Would winning in Istanbul make up for last year, also becoming the first Turkish champion?
"It is big. Our fans already bought like 59% of the tickets, which is going to grow as that time comes. People will buy from re-sellers. But to have that many fans, just Turkish fans, it would be special for any Turkish team to make it, especially being in Istanbul. But for us to make it, with the fan base we have, we know they are going to bring the house down. At the same time, we have to win it on the court. It really would be a blessing. Like I said, I am grateful just for this opportunity, to go from the LA Clippers where I wasn't playing, being basically an unknown coming into last season, to being able to play for one of the greatest coaches who ever coached the sport, Coach Obradovic... I am just so grateful, man. It is a blessing at the end of the day and we are trying to do something special – winning that EuroLeague! Last year, I tried to walk off the court, I didn't want to watch them (CSKA) celebrate, but you just see the joy. It is so joyful, and to win it in Istanbul...we would do something that has never been done. And in Turkey as well!"