The 2017 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four features teams loaded with experience. Fenerbahce Istanbul is the only among the four that has not won the EuroLeague before, though it does boast two former champions in Pero Antic and Kostas Sloukas, who lifted the trophy with Olympiacos Piraeus in 2012 and 2013. Antic plays a key veteran role for Fenerbahce in the frontcourt alongside Ekpe Udoh and Jan Vesely and has averaged 4.2 points and 2.5 rebounds in 30 games this season. In his three previous Final Four appearances, Antic reached the championship game as many times. Last season, Antic had 16 points for Fenerbahce in the title game against CSKA Moscow as his team rallied from a 21-point deficit in the second half to take the lead, but ended up losing to the Russian powerhouse after overtime. One thing that is different for Antic than his previous trips to the Final Four is that he has already faced his semifinal opponent, Real Madrid, during the season. And as he explained in this EuroLeague.net interview, that makes a difference for him. "Before this season, some of the teams would not meet for eight months, even more! You can watch a team and scout them, but it is never the same feeling than playing against them," Antic said. "Personally, it is important for me to feel their rhythm, how they play, how they act on the court and all that little stuff that means a lot to me."
Hello Pero, this season we had the first true European league and your team survived this longest, most-challenging season ever in Europe. Does that make being at this Final Four even more special?
"First of all, it is good to be back in the Final Four after a strong regular season. With the new format, it was really hard to come back to the Final Four. Personally, making it to back-to-back Final Fours is a big thing, too. It was a long season - the strongest EuroLeague season ever, the Turkish League, the Turkish Cup and the Turkish Supercup - and it took out a lot of energy from the players. That is why we are happy to be back in the Final Four. We had a lot of injuries this season and we had some ups and downs."
This year's Final Four venue, the Sinan Erdem Dome, has great memories for you. What place does that 2012 championship game hold in your career and your life?
"Of course, it brings back great memories! It was very important. Nobody expected us to win the EuroLeague that season and just a year before, I was playing the FIBA Cup. In just one year, I was in the EuroLeague Final Four with a team that nobody even expected to see in there. Winning it against a team like CSKA was a big thing for me, for my family, my career and my country. Overall, it was a big step in my basketball career. We rallied in the final against CSKA, but if you remember that season, it was like that many times. We were down many times and fought all the way back, like soldiers. Duda's soldiers!"
After some ups and downs during the season, Fenerbahce did what no team has done before in sweeping a playoff series without having home-court advantage. What did that do for your team's confidence?
"I would say that it was not so much for our confidence, because we have Zeljko Obradovic as head coach. He will always have the right words to make sure you are not comfortable in any situation and keep working hard. With Zeljko, it is always getting back to work the following day. This is not a finished job. As for the series against Panathinaikos, Bogdan Bogdanovic was incredible in both games in Athens, even when it was a team [job]. We are happy to have him."
In the semifinals, you face Real Madrid, which means a clash between two of the biggest frontcourts in the EuroLeague. On one side, it is you, Ekpe Udoh and Jan Vesely, and on the other is Gustavo Ayon, Anthony Randolph, Felipe Reyes and Othello Hunter. What do you expect from the battles in the paint?
"You are talking about a big battle and we are going to be prepared, but from my experience in these games, it is not about the scouting. It is about who has the biggest wish on the court to fight more. I tell you this from my own experience and this is going to be my fourth Final Four. It is not about who matches up against who; we played against them in the last two years. This season, we beat them and they beat us. Last season, we played a lot against each other. We know each other and both teams had the same teams for the last two years. Still, in the Final Four, it is all about giving all of your energy until the end. If you remember the 2013 final against Madrid, we [Olympiacos] were down by 17 – and ended up winning by 12."
It’s no secret that Fenerbahce’s strength under Coach Zeljko Obradovic is its defense. What do you need to do to slow down Madrid and its fast-paced, high-scoring offense?
"Hey, Zeljko always has something in his list, man. We are always prepared before the games and with some new stuff, for sure. He is ready for this and when it comes time to prepare for Madrid, we will. We know Real Madrid likes the high-paced game and have a lot of three-point shooters, even some of its big guys. I don't even want to talk about Sergio Llull; we talk too much about him! This guy is having an incredible season! I know him personally, he is a very good guy, but on the court, we will be enemies and will try to stop each other to get closer to win the trophy."
What is your take on the other semifinal between your former team, Olympiacos Piraeus, and CSKA Moscow?
"CSKA has a deep roster and high-class players, but Olympiacos has team chemistry. Both teams kept their roster together for many years, which is very important for every team in the EuroLeague. You know which team I love and that doesn't let me talk, but as a professional, I have deep respect for CSKA, their team and their coaching staff. Still, I would love to make it to the final and play Olympiacos."
Only once in your other Final Fours did your team face an opponent that you had played earlier in the season. This time, Fener has played every Final Four team twice. What difference does the first-hand experience against them make this year in your preparations for the Final Four?
"Most definitely, because before this season, like you said, some of the teams would not meet for eight months, even more! You can watch a team and scout them, but it is never the same feeling as playing against them. Personally, it is important for me to feel their rhythm, how they play, how they act on the court and all that little stuff that means a lot to me. When I play against a team I have faced during the season, I know what to expect. I can do the same watching the video, but for me, facing a team before helps a lot."
On all four rosters, there are players with the experience of winning the EuroLeague title. Does that take experience away this season as an advantage for any team?
"You never know - take Milos [Teodosic]. He went to the Final Four many times and finally won it last year. Experience can or cannot be a factor, but it is the wish and the team spirit that will help the winner; whoever has the most of that will win. In the end, you can see. We were down by more than 20 points against CSKA last year [in the EuroLeague championship game], but talked to each other at halftime and said 'hey, guys, this is not us, we have to do our thing and work hard.' We came back with the same team and that can give you an advantage in this kind of game."
This will be your fourth Final Four, but the first one you will play in your team’s home city. What effect can playing in front of Fenerbahce's passionate fans have on this Final Four?
"I think they will be a factor, for sure. They will give us a lot of energy. If you remember last year in Berlin, it was almost a full gym of Fenerbahce fans. I heard that our team's tickets were sold out in 15 minutes. Istanbul is a huge city and lives for sports. Fenerbahce has the most fans and they will be our sixth player in the Final Four. It all depends on us, of course, we have to use their energy to start strong and keep going all the way. If the Final Four was played in Fenerbahce's football stadium, it would be full, definitely! Our fans will be there to support us, like they always do, even when we are losing."
Fenerbahce has most of the team back that nearly took the crown last season. How much stronger is the motivation to lift the EuroLeague trophy this time because you almost had it in your hands last year?
"Don't remind me of it. Come on, man! Just kidding. Coach Obradovic reminded us about it a lot of times during the season, when we play a game and are in the same situation. He reminds us that being on the top is what matters. Being second or last is the same for us. Nobody remembers who finished in second place and everybody remembers the No. 1 team. One rebound cost us the EuroLeague. One rebound and 1.3 seconds! You don't want that to happen again and we are here, getting ready. I cannot say we will go there and win it, but we are definitely going there to FIGHT like hell."