Although it may look like a lop-sided matchup experience-wise when Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul returns to the playoffs for the first time in seven years to challenge defending champ Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, there is much more going into this series than meets the eye.
Although the six-time and reigning Euroleague champs from Maccabi face a team that has never won the title and returns to the playoffs after seven years, Fenerbahce holds the home-court advantage and a few other factors that balance out this matchup. Maccabi has debutante head coach in Guy Goodes, who was an assistant during the championship run last season, and he has just five players back from that Euroleague-winning team. On the other hand, Fenerbahce is more playoff-tested than your average newcomer. Having eight-time Euroleague winner Zeljko Obradovic on the bench and former champ Nikos Zisis running the offense helps ease the adjustment. In addition, no team can say it earned its way this far more than Fenerbahce, which has faced five of the playoff teams this season. All the other playoff teams faced just four others. Fenerbahce was paired with FC Barcelona and Panathinaikos Athens in the regular season and faced Olympiacos Piraeus, CSKA Moscow and Anadolu Efes Istanbul in the Top 16. What's more, Fenerbahce has defeated each of those five opponents at least once this season. So entering the playoffs, it's clear that Fenerbahce is prepared.
Obradovic vs. Maccabi
The legendary Obradovic and Maccabi have crossed paths often at the greatest heights. Obradovic played Maccabi on way to five of his record eight titles. In a total of 20 games he coached against Maccabi for Real Madrid and Panathinaikos Athens, Obradovic holds an 11-9 edge. Obradovic faced Maccabi in each of his three seasons with Madrid, from 1994 to 1997, winning three of four games. During his 13 seasons with Panathinaikos, Obradovic and Maccabi went 8-8 against each other. Many of those games happened on one or the other's road to a continental trophy. Obradovic and Panathinaikos beat Maccabi 73-67 for the 2000 Euroleague title. After Maccabi won their Suproleague title game 81-67in 2001, Obradovic's men went on to win the Euroleague in 2002 after downing Maccabi 83-75 in the semifinals. Maccabi had its revenge in 2005, beating Panathinaikos in the semis 91-82 and two days later lifter the Euroleague trophy. After several regular season and Top 16 clashes, Obradovic and Panathinaikos then bested Maccabi 78-70 in the 2011 championship game. The last time Obradovic and Maccabi squared off was in one of the all-time best playoff series, a classic that went to the maximum of five games in 2012, with Panathinaikos qualifying for the Final Four in a thriller at home, 86-85.
With its 10-2 record, Fenerbahce was stellar away from home this entire Turkish Airlines Euroleague campaign. It lost only one regular season road game, and one road game in the Top 16. In between those losses, exactly five months and two days passed without Obradovic's men knowing the feeling of a bad flight home as they put together a nine-game winning streak away from the Asian side of Istanbul. It started with a win at FC Bayern Munich, continued at EA7 Emporio Armany Milan, whom Fenerbahce also beat later in the Top 16. The team also defeated FC Barcelona, Nizhny Novgorod, Unicaja Malaga, Anadolu Efes, CSKA Moscow and Olympiacos Piraeus. That marked the second-longest road winning-streak in Euroleague history: only CSKA Moscow's 11 away wins in a row during the 2004-05 season was more than Fenerbahce's run this year. Fenerbahce registered six of those nine wins during the Top 16, a span during which its defense held opponents to only 66.8 points per game.
When Maccabi waits…
This is not the first time that Maccabi has waited till the final game of the Top 16 to advance. And sometimes in the past, the final outcomes have been pretty impressive. Back in 2002, Maccabi entered the final game of its four-team Top 16 group in third place with a 3-2 record. Tau Ceramica (4-1) was first and CSKA Moscow (3-2) was ahead of Maccabi by tiebreaker. To advance, Maccabi, then in David Blatt’s first season as a head coach, needed to win on the road in Vitoria… And if CSKA won, the margin would have to be at least 5 points. Maccabi took care of that early, leading 11-20 after 10 minutes and marching to a 65-94 victory behind 21 points from Anthony Parker, 20 on near-perfect shooting from Derrick Sharp and a double-double from Huseyin Besok to reach the Final Four in Bologna. Two years later, with the Final Four slated to be in Tel Aviv, Maccabi again waited to the last moment - literally - to qualify. Maccabi's last Top 16 date was a winner-takes-all home game against Zalgiris Kaunas and Arvydas Sabonis, that season's MVP. What happened at the end of that game is best known as the Derrick Sharp miracle. Sharp tied the game on the fourth-quarter buzzer with a three-pointer after a full-court pass from Gur Shelef, then proceeded to win in overtime and take its Final Four semifinal against CSKA before seizing the title with a record-setting championship game. Of course, there is a negative example in 2013, when Maccabi backed into the playoffs with a Top 16 Round 14 loss at FC Barcelona and was unceremoniously swept by Real Madrid in a one-sided playoff series.
Return of the sixth man
In an era when lineups are often in a state of flux, whether due to injuries or matchup concerns, first-year Maccabi coach Guy Goodes has made his preference clear by sticking with the same starting five all season. Four players - Yogev Ohayon, Jeremy Pargo, Brian Randle and Devin Smith - have started at least 20 of the 24 games so far. A fifth player, Sofoklis Schortsanitis, has stated 17 of them. Smith and Pargo rank first and second among all Euroleague players in minutes played, too. One player, however has marked himself as Maccabi’s No. 1 offensive weapon off the bench: Sylven Landesberg. The team is 6-2 when Landesberg has scored at least 10 points this season, and both of those losses came against mighty CSKA Moscow. In the Top 16, Maccabi is 4-0 when Landesberg scores in double figures. Landesberg missed half of the Top 16 with a stress fracture to his right foot, but returned to action with a brief appearance in the Top 16 finale. Now in his third season with Maccabi, Landesberg has worked his way into a larger role by improving at both ends of the floor. Maccabi had won five games in a row before Landesberg went down, then went 3-4 with him sidelined. It's worth watching whether Landesberg’s return and the offensive spark he provides might make the difference for Maccabi in the playoffs.
Playoffs always have their favorites and underdogs, but more than in any other situation, a standout performance by a single player in one game can easily swing an entire series. Both these teams have several players capable of such achievements. One sure candidate is Fenerbahce shot-making virtuoso Andrew Goudelock, who set a new Euroleague record for three-pointers made when he hit 10 of 13 attempts in a victory over FC Bayern Munich this season. His 34 points in that game matched the second-most by any player this season. A performance like that in the playoffs could prove decisive since only 12 players have topped 30 or more points in playoff history - none of them in the last six years. Although a standout performance need not hinge on points. The 13 defensive rebounds that Nemanja Bjelica pulled for Fenerbahce in a Top 16 game against Laboral Kutxa Vitoria tied for second-most this season and third in the past eight years. In the playoffs, however, no one has rebounded as much since 2001. Meanwhile, Maccabi has three players who set statistical marks this season. In a road win against Limoges in the regular season, Yogev Ohayon had 8 steals, more than any player in the last eight years and sixth-most in Euroleague history. Alex Tyus during the Top 16 against Zalgiris and Brian Randle in the regular season against Unicaja each had 6 blocks, which is the most in a game in seven years, tying them for seventh-best all time.
Such performances as mentioned above from Tyus and Randle have not only made Maccabi the best shot-blocking team this season, but the best in the last 13 years, with an average of 4.5 rejections per game. Considering how much Maccabi likes to run, those blocks often trigger fastbreaks and easy points, too. But another trigger that comes more often, but is less sexy, is also a Maccabi strong point: defensive rebound. In fact, with its 26.83 defensive boards per game, Maccabi would have broken the record that stood coming into this season if CSKA Moscow had not been just a little better at 27.17. Devin Smith was Maccabi's top rebounder with 6.1 per game, ranking sixth among all Euroleague players despite standing 1.96 meters, shorter than any other player in the top 20. Jeremy Pargo, who ranked 25th with 3.29 defensive boards per game and stands 1.88 meters, was by far the shortest rebounder in the top 50. However, Fenerbahce's Nemanja Bjelica was the single best defensive rebounder in the Euroleague, with 8.5 per game, while his teammate Jan Vesely was sixth on the offensive glass (2.17), so Maccabi will have plenty of resistance before it can rebound and run in this series.