David vs. Goliath

Apr 26, 2017 by Frank Lawlor, Euroleague.net Print
David vs. Goliath

When their Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs series started last week, there may not have been much history between Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul and Real Madrid – just two games earlier this season – but they are certainly making up for lost time.

At 1-1 headed into Game 3 tonight, there are many story lines now, most notably that of a complete playoffs newcomer challenging the winningest club in European history by stealing Game 2 in the Spanish capital. Darussafaka now has the home-court advantage with Game 3 coming tonight at Volkswagen Arena this week, where it downed Madrid by 13 points in their only other game there, back in Round 12.

But if Darussafaka's history vs. Madrid dates back less than five months, its head coach, David Blatt, certainly has a longer one, full of twists and turns, with Los Blancos.

Remarkably enough, Blatt coached three different EuroLeague clubs in a total of 100 games over five full seasons last decade without running into Madrid, not even once. (Now, thanks to the new EuroLeague format, such long droughts in which the competition's protagonists do not meet can no longer happen. Consider it extra evidence, if any more were needed, of why all teams playing all teams each season is great for fans.)

However, since Blatt returned at the start of this decade to his original EuroLeague club, Maccabi, he has not stopped running into Madrid. The very first time they faced each other, in Blatt's 122nd game as a EuroLeague head coach, he aced the test on the biggest stage of all, the 2011 Final Four in Barcelona.

Madrid was at the big dance for the first time in 15 years and was the only team of the four there that had used home-court advantage in the playoffs to reach the semifinals. That mattered little when Maccabi rocked the house with an 82-63 victory. That 19-point margin was the biggest in the semifinals this century until then, and still stands as the second-biggest.

The next season, the teams split home wins, but in the 2013 playoffs, Madrid got a real measure of revenge. Its three-game sweep of Maccabi in Pablo Laso's first playoffs on the Madrid bench stands as one of the most dominant series victories ever in the EuroLeague. It remains the only best-of-five sweep over nine years and 36 series in which all three games were won by double digits. It was also the first time this century that Maccabi had been swept. One reason was its lack of offense – or Madrid's great defense, depending on your viewpoint – but in any case Maccabi posted what is still the second-lowest number of points ever in a five-game series, which was not what fans in Tel Aviv were used to witnessing.

However, it did not take long for Blatt and Maccabi to get some revenge, too. In the 2014 Final Four, they met Madrid in the championship game, after Blatt and Maccabi had again overcome the home-court disadvantage in the playoffs to reach the Final Four. While Madrid tormented its archrival FC Barcelona to open the weekend, winning by a semifinals-record 38 points, 62-100, Maccabi had to rally from 15 points down to beat CSKA Moscow with seconds left. By then, Maccabi was starting to think that Mediolanum Forum, the Final Four venue where it had also won the key first game of the playoffs, was a good place for a miracle. Its fans filled the arena with yellow on Sunday, and when the title game went to the first overtime since 1969 with the continental trophy on the line, it was all Maccabi, which won 86-98 for its first EuroLeague crown since 2005. Blatt's first, memorable title as a head coach had come at the expense of Madrid.

They wouldn't meet again until this season, in mid-December, when Madrid went to Volkswagen Arena in Istanbul without two of its top performers, Sergio Llull and Anthony Randolph, and lost by 13 to Darussafaka. In the rematch, Madrid coasted to a 101-83 win on the strength of Llull's 5 three-pointers in the first quarter alone. In this series, Darussafaka served notice early, leading by 12 points in the first half of Game 1 in Madrid before Llull came to the home team's rescue in an eventual 83-75 victory. In Game 2, Darussafaka led early and came back later with all the answers down the stretch for an 80-84 triumph that ended Madrid's 15-game home winning streak.

And so, drama is served in Game 3 tonight, plus another on Friday. Madrid brings all its talent and experience, including that of Laso and several players having beaten a team coached by Blatt on the road in the playoffs before. Darussafaka brings almost no playoffs experience among its players to the table, but has a coach who has been there and done this upset thing more than any other. While two teams have previously turned around home-court advantage twice each in best-of-five series – Olympiacos and Maccabi – only one coach has accomplished that feat: Blatt, in 2011 and 2014.

This is the first time that playoff teams have crystal clear seedings, because it's also the first time that all teams have played each other twice in one big group of 16 teams over five months. We go into the second week of the playoffs with the No. 8 seed having turned the tables on the No. 1 seed.

The most-crowned club in European basketball history needing to show its character on the road against an upstart somehow does not seem like a surprise. In a historic EuroLeague season, the longest and most competitive ever, it seems perfectly appropriate.