A first-ever playoffs matchup between Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens and Fenerbahce Istanbul nonetheless features a lot of history between the protagonists as legendary coach Zeljko Obradovic tries to beat the team with whom he won five EuroLeague titles.
Whole lot of history
Panathinaikos has not won a playoff series since Zeljko Obradovic ended his 13-year reign at the club in 2012. Obradovic has not won at the arena he ruled during all that time, Olympic Sports Center Athens, in four return trips there since he started coaching Fenerbahce in 2013. One of those two situations is likely to end in this series. If Obradovic can't win once at OAKA, Panathinaikos will return to the Final Four. And if he does win once at OAKA, Fenerbahce will be hard to beat at home, where it has four victories in a row under Obradovic against Panathinaikos. Those trends are reenforced by the fact that Panathinaikos is 14-1 at home this season, but has lost its last eight playoff road games over four seasons. If the history factor in this series is not to be taken lightly, especially in Athens, where Obradovic is adored by the very fans his team will try to beat, there is another piece of history in this series to consider. FC Barcelona was the defending EuroLeague champion under current Panathinaikos coach Xavi Pascual in 2011, when the Final Four was coming to its own city. All that stood between Pascual, his club and a good chance at a historic back-to-back was Obradovic and Panathinaikos. Barcelona was the only team to come out of the Top 16 that season undefeated and had home-court advantage in their best-of-five series. Some people thought Barcelona was unbeatable at that moment, but after it won Game 1 at home, 83-82, Obradovic went into the Greens' locker room and said, essentially: "See. Now you know Barcelona is beatable. And you can do it." Panathinaikos won the next three games in that series then returned to Barcelona and swept the Final Four, Obradovic's last with the club. Now the fans who worship him in Athens are hoping he cannot do the same.
Strength in experience
The playoffs often mean close games. Considering how these two teams use similar defensive styles and played a lot of close games already this season, don't expect anything different in this series. In such games, experience often counts and back-to-back series sweeps the last two seasons means that Fenerbahce has a lot of that secret sauce. Six of its players are undefeated in the playoffs: Ekpe Udoh, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Niola Kalinic, Bobby Dixon, Luigi Datome and Melih Mahmutoglu. One other, Pero Antic, has lost games, but never a series. Meanwhile, two-time champion Kostas Sloukas is 4-1 lifetime in playoffs series - his only loss coming in Game 5 on the road - and Jan Vesely is 1-1 (having been injured last season). That's not to mention that their boss, Obradovic, knows a thing or two about getting to the Final Four, considering he has participated in that event more than any person ever. On the Panathinaikos side, holdovers from the Obradovic era like former champs Nick Calathes and Antonisi Fotsis know exactly what to expect and how to overcome it. Three more former EuroLeague winners - Ioannis Bourousis, K.C. Rivers and Demetris Nichols - know what it takes, too, as do Chris Singelton and Mike James, who both reached the Final Four last year on their first tries. In the category of players who will be motivated to experience the same put James Gist, Nikos Pappas, James Feldeine and Kenny Gabriel for Panathinaikos. The difference between that group and Fenerbahce's newcomer duo of James Nunnally and Anthony Bennett is that the Panathinaikos foursome have some years in the EuroLeague. Their motivation to reach a goal they have set every season - the Final Four - could prove as strong as some of the teammates and opponents wanting to get back there.
Some of the players mentioned above not only have experience, but starred in the playoffs over the years. Most recently, Udoh earned MVP awards for both Game 2 and Game 3 of last year's playoffs and was named MVP of April for his dominance as Fenerbahce swept defending champion Real Madrid. Udoh also set a EuroLeague record for highest accumulated PIR in a three-game playoff series, 71. In Game 5 last year, Singleton was the MVP as Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar knocked of Pascual's Barcelona team. Udoh ranked first and James third last season in average performance index rating in the playoffs, the latter as he and Bourousis led Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz to a sweep of Panathinaikos. Bourousis is also the all-time playoffs leader in blocked shots, with 25, and second in defensive rebounds, with 107. Rivers is the most accurate three-point shooter in playoffs history, having made 8 of his 14 attempts (57.1%) in seven games with Madrid. Nick Calathes was the top scorer in the Game 4 decider when Panathinaikos beat Barcelona in 2011 and went on to win the title. Also on the Fenerbahce side, Bogdanovic ranked third in scoring during last season's playoffs with 16.5 points per game. Nikola Kalinic set his career-high PIR, 21, in Game 2 of last season's playoffs and Jan Vesely matched his career high with 23 in Game 1 of the 2015 plyaoffs against Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv. In other words, there are lots of players who can step up game to game and tilt this series in their team's direction.
Very similar numbers
Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos are the only two playoff teams that did not rank first during the 30-game regular season in any major statistical category, offense or defense. There are two ways of looking at that fact: one, these teams do not specialize in anything; and two, they must do a lot of things well. As it turns out, they do some of the same, important things really well. Panathinaikos ranks third in points allowed to opponents (74.5) and Fenerbahce fifth (74.8). Likewise, they are second (79.0) and third (79.2), respectively, in limiting the performance index rating (PIR) of their rivals , as well as fifth and sixth in blocking shots. The nearest either comes to specializing is Panathinaikos's very low turnover rate of 11.2 per game, second in the competition, and its very high number of three-pointers made, 9.5 on average, also second-best. One thing that differentiates Panathinaikos from other teams is that centers Chris Singleton and Ioannis Bourousis will both step out and hit threes, 62 of them combined, in fact, this season. However, the Greens' accuracy rate from downtown, 36.0%, is only 11th-best and they ranked dead last in free throw shooting at 71.4%. If all things stay equal performance-wise and Panathinaikos continues protecting the ball well, this series could come down to how well the Greens shoot from long-range - and what they do at the foul line late in close games.
Face to face
In the first season that all teams played one another twice, there is more background on playoffs opponents than ever before. In the case of Panathinaikos and Fenerbahce, conclusions from their two games are hard to draw. On December 16, back in Round 12, Panathinaikos beat Fenerbahce at home 81-70 as Calathes - with 16 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds - flirted with a triple-double. He also had 5 steals for a career-best 34 PIR. Fenerbahce played without Bogdan Bogdanovic, however. Despite losing the rebounds battle by 40-31, Panathinaikos won the war thanks to 21-for-38 two-point dominance. In the rematch, everything was the opposite. Even playing without Udoh, Fenerbahce won 84-63 and Calathes matched his worst EuroLeague performance ever with a -5 PIR. Luigi Datome paced five Fenerbahce double-digit scorers with 16 points, while Jan Vesely and Ahmet Duverioglu had 13 each. Mike James of Panathinaikos was the big gun that night, with 25 points and a PIR of 33, his career high, but after a 27-16 first quarter, Panathinaikos was out of the game. Fenerbahce misses a big star in each game but was able to split home wins. That shows how unpredictable this series looks at the start.