History was made on Tuesday as Fenerbahce Istanbul and shortly afterward CSKA Moscow claimed their spots at the 2017 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four with victories to sweep their respective best-of-five playoff series. The EuroLeague Gurus recap this memorable night by looking at what was special in each victory.
Fenerbahce overcomes turnover woes for memorable win
Generally speaking, it’s not good when your team commits 19 turnovers – including 12 from your starting backcourt – and only collects 3 steals. That is what happened for Fenerbahce Istanbul on Tuesday. That situation is compounded when you the opponent makes only 11 turnovers, which is what Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens had. Those numbers amount to eight extra possessions for the Greens in the game, which can be difficult to overcome.
So how did Fenerbahce manage to win so handily despite allowing the visitors more scoring opportunities? The simple answer is that Fenerbahce played better. Fener was more efficient on offense by making use of more weapons. And its defense forced Panathinaikos into tougher shots. Aside from turnovers and steals, Fenerbahce outpointed Panathinaikos in virtually every other major statistical category. The hosts made 13 three-pointers – from six different players, but attempted just 27 for a 48.1% conversion rate. The visitors shot nearly as many triples (24) but made only 5 for a 20.8% success rate. The hosts also shot better than the Greens inside the arc (50% to 47.4%) and from the foul line (74.1% to 66.7%), outrebounded the visitors 38-28 and blocked 5 shots – led by Jan Vesely’s 4 – to 1 block for Panathinaikos. Fenerbahce also featured a more-balanced attack with six scorers in double figures compared to two for the opponents. Overall, that type of performance, minus the turnovers, is what makes Fenerbahce a team to fear in the Final Four.
The victory resulted in several firsts, including Fenerbahce becoming the first team without home-court advantage to sweep a best-of-five EuroLeague Playoff series and the first team to sweep three series in as many seasons. Most important of all for the loyal Fenerbahce fans, it also marked the first time Fenerbahce won a playoff series at home in front of its fans. And both head coach Zeljko Obradovic and center Ekpe Udoh noted how meaningful that support is in their post-game interviews. "Thanks to the fans for creating an amazing atmosphere. Their support for us is very special… They help us and are always supporting us." the coach said. "It always feels great to win in front of your fans," Udoh added. "It was worth it. Here we are. We’re right there. We’re ready."
CSKA returns to familiar territory
What is an achievement by itself for every team out there, reaching the EuroLeague Final Four, is for CSKA Moscow now a habit. CSKA advanced to its 14th Final Four in the last 15 years on Tuesday, which is to say that it has missed the event only once (2011) since 2003. CSKA has amazingly been able to stay competitive with different generations of players. The goal is clear as CSKA looks for its eighth continental title and tries to win back-to-back EuroLeague crowns for the first time in its legendary history. Game 3 in Vitoria-Gasteiz was as close as everyone expected. CSKA was able to stay close in the first half even though its main two players, Nando De Colo and Milos Teodosic, found it hard to get to the basket. De Colo had 7 points in the first half and Teodosic was limited to just 2, but CSKA looked for new go-to guys and found one in Cory Higgins, who had 13 points before the break. Even though CSKA did not get even 1 offensive rebound in the first half and was outrebounded 20-12, it remained strong in other aspects of the game with 4 blocks, 5 steals, and 11-of-19 two-point shooting to stay within 44-43 after 20 minutes.
The third quarter was simply outstanding, with both teams playing with high intensity. Baskonia and CSKA combined for 55 points (26-29), the second-highest scoring mark for a third quarter in playoff history: Scavolini Pesaro and Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv combined for 56 (28-28) on April 7, 2005. Everything seemed to go in for both teams late in the third quarter with Toko Shengelia leading the way; he scored 17 points in the final seven minutes of the quarter to keep Baskonia within 70-72. De Colo and Teodosic combined for 17 points in the second half and fueled CSKA to take its only double-digit lead of the game, 74-84, with 2:22 left. A miracle was needed, so Baskonia went back to its go-to guy and Shane Larkin did not disappoint, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the final two minutes to bring Baskonia within 88-90. The game went down to the wire and back-to-back blocks by Nikita Kurbanov and Kyle Hines on Baskonia’s final possession gave CSKA its ticket to the Final Four. In addition to its steals (8) and blocks (7), CSKA powered the offensive glass in the second half (8) and held Baskonia to just 21-of-48 two-point shooting (43.8%), which proved to be a key stat in the game.
"It feels great. It was one of our goals, one of our stepping stones for the season, so it is great to reach it. Our work is not done, but we accomplished one of our big goals. It has been incredibly tough," Higgins said after the game. "They didn't stop fighting until the end and every game came down to the wire. We knew it was going to be a fight with them, but we stuck together and came out with the W," he added. Higgins finished the game with 21 points, just two shy of his career-high.
When the dust settled, CSKA head coach Dimitris Itoudis had some great words about Baskonia. "Baskonia had a great season and as I said to their coach, he did a great job over here. They have a great atmosphere, great fans and played really good, modern basketball. Let's not forget that Baskonia made it to the Final Four last year, played overtime to go to the final and the legacy they had all these years is big. A big congratulations to Baskonia," he said. Itoudis, of course, was happy for his own players. "The congratulations go to my players. Like we said before the game, they had the character, the wish and the desire to go over there and defend the title, to be a part of history. Big congratulations to CSKA. It is the 14th Final Four for CSKA in 15 years and my third consecutive with the club."