Anadolu Efes Istanbul captain Dogus Balbay is the team’s longest-tenured player and the only member of the squad that played the last time Efes reached a fifth-and-deciding game of the playoffs in 2013, which was also against Olympiacos Piraeus. Perhaps even more important is that he has become Coach Velimir Perasovic’s weapon of choice on defense against Olympiacos’s top scorer, Vassilis Spanoulis. For those reasons, Balbay was the perfect person from whom to learn more about Efes’s preparation for Tuesday’s do-or-die Game 5 against the Reds at Peace and Friendship Stadium for a ticket to the Final Four in Istanbul. "We have 40 minutes to leave everything on the court, to go 100% on offense and 100% on defense. It's one game: you never know what's going to happen," Balbay told EuroLeague.net. "Whether we are up by 10 points or down by 10 points, we want to stay together, stay positive and enjoy the game."
Dogus, at the end of a really intense and long season, Efes is playing Game 5 to make it to the Final Four. How do you feel about that opportunity?
"We always went step by step. Our first goal was to make the playoffs. Even though down the stretch we played some really tough teams, we did a great job and two weeks before the regular season ended we were guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. We were matched up with Olympiacos then, and our second goal is to make the Final Four. So far the series is tied 2-2. Both teams have 40 minutes in front of them. Obviously they have home-court advantage with their fans, but both teams have to play 40 minutes to win the game and we will fight to reach the Final Four."
People might forget you guys were 9-11 and ninth place with lots of teams right behind you back in Round 20 at the end of January. What turned things around for Efes?
"There were some crucial times, in specific games, when we came together as a team and stepped up big-time. It started with a Maccabi game away. We played a great game there. Then it was Crvena Zvezda, also away, an amazing game for us. And after that, beating Zalgiris at their place. Winning those games made us a better team I think, especially playing away. We became stronger and mentally tougher. Things changed after we played those games. We really believed in ourselves. Before that, we had some bad moments: leading Panathinaikos by 3 and losing in the last 7 seconds; against Barcelona away, we didn't play hard enough. But those three or four games I mentioned made us better and mentally tougher. We realized that if we get together and play like a team, we can make something special. This is what we've done, too, also in the playoffs. We never give up, never step back, and that feels good. Up 10 or down 10, we try to stay positive. The games will not always end the way we want, but we stay positive and try to go after the next game, all season long."
Let's look at the playoffs series. In Game 1, Olympiacos's intensity level was really high. Is it fair to say that was the difference in the opener?
"Yeah, the start of that game made a difference. We came out a little bit rushing, especially on offense, trying to get quick baskets that didn't go in. On defensive transition and rebounds, we didn't do a good job, either. Olympiacos came out really hard from the beginning in front of their fans and they had control of the game the whole time, really."
In Game 2, however, you looked better than them on their own floor. What changed in just 48 hours?
"This is our character. We never back down, never take a step back. We did some analysis of the first game, focusing on the mistakes we made. We tried to change a couple things on offense, and defensively we came out playing hard. We didn't want to make the same mistakes as in the first game. We didn't rush, we shared the ball. On defense we played better and helped each other. We believed. Our goal was to get at least one victory in Piraeus, so we needed to get that second gamed. And we did it."
Game 3 you continued dominating, but had to escape at the end because of Vassilis Spanoulis. You have the special assignment to stop him when you're on the floor. How difficult is that?
"It was very tough. Okay, we had home-court advantage and were playing good for 30, 35 minutes. Maybe we could have won more easily. But then came the Spanoulis factor. He made a couple really tough shots, while falling down, and that made them feel they were back in the game. They had the last ball to tie it. Olympiacos is a great team. They're not going to give up, either. They've been playing with each other a long time. We knew they wouldn't give up. I guess we relaxed some when we were up 7 or 10 points, but we ended up winning. And then we had to forget about that one right after it ended and focus on the next game."
Your team certainly came out focused in Game 4, but couldn't sustain it. What happened?
"It was a big chance to win in front of the home fans and, after 15 or 16 years, make the Final Four in Istanbul. Everyone was really focused. We had a lead of 12 or 13 points in the second quarter. But Olympiacos is really stubborn and never gives up. Slowly but surely they came back and closed the deficit. We still started the third quarter with a 3-point advantage. But on offense, especially, they made better decisions. They were shooting a very high percentage on three-pointers, too, and during the whole series, we haven't had that. We were struggling behind the arc and they made almost 50% there. That makes a difference. The third quarter we were head-to-head, but in the fourth they made those crucial shots and we missed ours. Unfortunately, the series went to a fifth game. We couldn't use that chance at home, but we still have another."
You're the only Efes player back from Game 5 in 2013, also against Olympiacos. What do you remember about that game?
"It was a great atmosphere, I remember. The crowd was great for them. We were really playing well, and we went ahead early in the game. But the character of Olympiacos is the fact that they never give up, and they pulled out the win. Now history repeats, I guess, but we have to change it this time and get a little revenge. Obviously, we are two different teams with different coaches now. That time they won, but you never know. We lost two games at their place in 2013, then won two at home to force Game 5. It's a different situation now. Both teams are 1-1 in both arenas. So anything can happen."
Part of your job as captain is to instill confidence in difficult moments. What will you be telling your teammates from now until tipoff?
"We already had a meeting and talked. We know that we had a big advantage to play the fourth game at home, but nothing has changed for us. We still have 40 minutes to play for the win to get to the Final Four. The only difference is that we are playing in Greece. I told them we have 40 minutes to leave everything on the court, to go 100% on offense and 100% on defense. It's one game: you never know what's going to happen. Whether we are up by 10 points or down by 10 points, we want to stay together, stay positive and enjoy the game."
Two other teams in these playoffs, Fenerbahce and Madrid, won twice away from home to advance to the Final Four. Is that a good sign that that Efes can do the same?
"There's no reason for us not to do same thing. We already won one away game. Fener did it in OAKA, in front of 20,000 fans. Madrid did it this week in Istanbul. That makes it clear that it's possible for us to win twice away, too, and that's what we are going to do our best to accomplish."
As the captain and longest-serving player on Efes, what would it mean to make the Final Four in your own city?
"It would mean a lot to this club. It's been 15 or 16 years since Efes last made a Final Four. We want to bring back that old spirit that Efes had for the fans and basketball lovers here. The club is hungry to get to the Final Four and we want to be part of making that happen and going strong into the future."