After splitting a pair of regular season games, Real Madrid and Anadolu Efes Istanbul clash again with a trip to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four on the line. Madrid, which reached the Euroleague Championship Game in each of the past two seasons, may be the favorite, but Efes cannot be taken lightly with three rising stars in the rotation ready to take flight.
Earlier in the season Madrid and Efes split regular season victories, and only their head-to-head match in the final week of the regular season, a 90-70 Madrid victory, decided the Group A winner. However, in the 14 rounds of the Top 16 that followed, their paths went separate ways. Madrid finished first in Group E with 11-3, dominating on both ends of the floor, and finishing the longest stage of the competition with +192 point difference despite not even having the best overall Top 16 record. Efes, on the other hand, toughed it out and used a bit of luck to qualify for the playoffs. It became the first team ever with a losing Top 16 record to reach the playoffs, and had to wait for a Laboral Kutxa Vitoria loss in its Top 16 finale in Malaga to learn it had clinched a playoff berth. Of 24 games this season, Efes played 14 games that were decided by 6 points or less, and Efes has a 7-7 record in those contests, while Madrid has won 14 games this season by double-digit margins.
Third time’s the charm?
When Real Madrid lost the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Championship Game last season, it marked the ninth time in competition history a team lost back-to-back finals. So is the third time the charm? The truth is that it’s been pretty difficult for the other teams to get as far as the semifinals the following season… but not necessarily so for Real Madrid. The first team to fall in back-to-back finals was Akademik of Bulgaria, which lost the first two seasons the European Cup was held in 1958 and 1959. Since then, the list includes Real Madrid (1962 and 1963, 1975 and 1976), Varese ( 1977, 1978 and 1979), Maccabi Tel Aviv (1987, 1988 and 1989), FC Barcelona (1990 and 1991, 1996 and 1997) and Olympiacos Piraeus (1994 and 1995). Of the previous eight times this has happened, one time the team did not play in the Euroleague the following seasons (Varese, though it did win the 1980 Saporta Cup instead) and five other times the team failed to reach the semifinals or the Final Four. The two times a team managed to get as far were Madrid, which won the 1964 title and reached the 1977 semifinals round. So maybe not for others, but for Madrid, the third time may be the charm!
Keeping the core together
Few teams anywhere in Europe can match the continuity that Real Madrid has achieved in recent seasons. The team’s togetherness is second to none and allows players like point guards Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull to know where to direct their passes at any given moment due to the built up understanding between the players and their targets. Pablo Laso became Madrid’s head coach in the summer of 2011 and the club still has five players on its current roster from that season (Jaycee Carroll, Rudy Fernandez, Llull, Felipe Reyes and Rodriguez). Six players that suited up for Madrid in the 2013 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Championship Game in London remain with Los Blancos (the aforementioned five and Marcus Slaughter). The number of players from last season’s squad on the current roster jumps to eight with additions of Ioannis Bourousis and Salah Mejri. The bottom line is when you keep a group of talented players together in their prime like Madrid has, the results will come.
Real Madrid enters the playoffs on pace to set the Euroleague record for assists in a single season. Its current average of 22.0 assists per game is 2.6 assists more per game than any team had ever averaged before this season. Madrid set the Euroleague’s single-game record for assists with 33 in Regular Season Round 3 and tied it a week later. So what goes into such a record? Part of it is being a high-scoring team; Madrid is second in the league this season with 87.4 points per game. But more important is the sharing of the ball and that comes from the team-first attitude. Madrid features two main playmakers in starter Sergio Llull (5.5 apg.) and sixth-man and Euroleague MVP Sergio Rodriguez (5.5 apg.), who rank among the league’s top 10 in assists. And third-string point guard Facundo Campazzo would be fifth in the league in per-minute assists (averaging 9.3 per 40 minutes) if he had enough appearances. But the passing spirit comes from everywhere; three of the team’s big men – Felipe Reyes, Gustavo Ayon and Ioannis Bourousis – averaging at least 1 assist per game and All-Euroleague swingman and Madrid’s leading scorer Rudy Fernandez having already recorded as many as 8 assists in a game this season. Could great ball movement and five players that can score be Madrid’s ticket to glory?
Rudy, playoff killer
When the playoffs roll around, Real Madrid knows exactly whom to turn to. Rudy Fernandez has simply been one of the most dominant players in the Euroleague playoffs. He ranks third all-time in average performance index rating (18.4) in the playoffs behind only Qyntel Woods and Gregor Fucka. What’s more, Rudy’s per-minute index in his previous eight playoff games is better than the aforementioned players. And barring injury, Rudy will have played more playoffs games than either of them by the end of this season too. Rudy was solid two years ago when Madrid swept Maccabi in the playoffs, but in that one-sided series, Rudy was able to share the responsibility with other. But last season when Madrid was tested by then-defending champion Olympiacos, Rudy was at his best. He averaged 17.2 points on excellent shooting, 5.6 rebounds and 2 steals to help Lost Blancos outlast the Reds in five games...
Coaching dean Ivkovic
By taking Efes to the playoffs, Dusan Ivkovic rewrote the history books, adding to his own record and legacy. For the 71-year old head coach, Efes is the fifth different team he’s led to the playoffs this century. He had previously led AEK Athens into the playoff semifinals in the 2000-01 season and took CSKA to the playoffs and to the Final Four three times between 2002 and 2005. He also reached the playoffs with Dynamo Moscow in 2006-07 and twice more with Olympiacos Piraeus, which he guided to its second Euroleague title in 2012. Ivkovic has a pair of Euroleague titles with Olympiacos - the first came in 1997 - and also won the Eurocup with Dynamo Moscow in 2006, the Korac Cup with Partizan in 1979 and the Saporta Cup with AEK in 2000.
Leaving it to youngsters
No Euroleague team this season has had such a combination of veterans with world-class young talents like Anadolu Efes. In addition to three-time champion Stratos Perperoglou, and All-Euroleague centers Nenad Krstic and Stephane Lasme, Efes is the only team that has relied on three players aged 20 or younger in its rotation this season. Dario Saric, who actually turned 21 last week; Cedi Osman who shares birthday with Saric, but is a year younger; and 17-year old Furkan Korkmaz have been irreplaceable pieces for Efes. That is especially true for Saric and Osman. Saric was voted November MVP, has led the team in rebounds (5.7 rpg.), and was third in points (9.8 ppg.) and assists (2.3 apg.) in his 20 starts. Osman has emerged as another energy booster, while contributing 6.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists.