The two ultimate winners from last year – Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champ Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul and 7DAYS EuroCup winner Unicaja Malaga – play a de facto supercup on the Costa del Sol tonight in the first Game of the Week of the new season.
It would be wise for their friends and foes alike to remember how each of them succeeded last spring.
Before it dominated the April and May like no team in more than a decade, sweeping through the playoffs and Final Four with five consecutive and relatively dominant victories, Fenerbahce didn't have it so good last season.
The combination of injuries and the longer-format, 30-game regular season meant that Fenerbahce experienced much more losing than any EuroLeague champion ever. It lost a 12 of those 30 games and had to defy the history in the five-game playoffs in order to reach the Final Four. The history-making was consummated as Fenerbahce became the first playoff team ever to win Games 1 and Game 2 away and then to sweep its series without having started it with the home-court advantage.
Those 12 defeats were three more than any EuroLeague champion had suffered through this century. In terms of its winning percentage, only the miracle Olympiacos Piraeus team of 2012 had a lower rate than Fenerbahce's season-long 66%, based on its 23-12 record final record. No other champion since 2000 was below 70%.
It is worth noting, too, that Fenerbahce might have had a touch of good fortune when Zalgiris Kaunas upset Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz on the road late in the regular season. Without that, Fenerbahce would almost surely have faced then-defending champion CSKA in the playoffs. Of course, the way Zeljko Obradovic's team came together at that moment was so close to perfection that it would have taken super-human effort and a good bit of luck for any team to slow them down.
Indeed, after taking plenty of lumps in the regular season, Fenerbahce needed no miracles whatsoever. Its five-game streak to the title featured an average winning margin of 12 points per game. Only one team this century – the great 2005 champions from Maccabi – did better while sweeping through the playoffs and Final Four.
But while Fenerbahce was in the middle of doing all that, Unicaja was doing something almost as remarkable in its own right.
Not only did Unicaja have to make history to win the first EuroCup ever to feature three consecutive three-game series, a first for that competition, to reach the title. Unicaja started all three of those series on the road and lost the opening games in two of them! That means that Unicaja had series-clinching victories in three different cities – Munich, Malaga and Valencia – in order to claim the title. The confidence and belief in each other that it takes to clinch two series on the road is immense. Unicaja earned that title as much as anyone ever did.
What both Unicaja and Fenerbahce taught everyone in the last and longest European club competition season to date is the importance of peaking together and at the right time. In both of their cases, that proved more important than the home-court advantage that all teams fight much of the season to secure, and for good reason. History shows that home-court advantage in the playoffs gets you to the next step better than three out of four times. But these two teams showed last year that home-court is just an advantage – not a guarantee – and with the right effort, can be overcome.
Peaking in the spring doesn't mean, however, that their Round 1 clash tonight has less significance: quite the opposite, in fact. No team in the EuroLeague, not even Unicaja and Fenerbahce themselves, would choose the position they were in before last season's playoffs, going on the road for Game 1 and facing final games, if they were to happen, in a hostile arena far from home.
That's why winning early and often is a primary goal, too. But for two veteran coaches who know how to see far - Zeljko Obradovic of Fenerbahce and Joan Plaza of Unicaja - the fact of losing a game early won't change much, if anything. They have their well-known systems and the results to prove that those systems work. With a longer season, there is more cushion if the losses happen early, as both know very well from last season.
The takeaway is simple: settle back and enjoy, no matter who wins tonight. The real pros don't panic. One team has to lose in every game, after all. They are in it for the long haul, and if it's a roller-coaster ride, as it must have seemed to both last season – well, enjoy it. Faster pace, bigger hills and valleys, twists and turns, is what makes it so much fun. All summer, the coaster has been clicking and climbing slowly up that first hill.
Now it's time to let loose and savor the ride.