The most-crowned team in the history of European club competitions takes on a playoffs newcomer as first-seeded Real Madrid and eighth-seeded Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul face off starting Wednesday, April 19.
The experience factor
How much does experience matter in the playoffs? We will soon find out. Darussafaka hopes the answer is: not too much. The club's very first appearance in the EuroLeague playoffs comes against the winningest team in EuroLeague history, Real Madrid. And while both coaches are former EuroLeague champs, the difference in experience is felt most when comparing the rosters. None of Darussafaka's regular starters (Brad Wanamaker, Scottie Wilbekin or James Anderson, Will Clyburn, Adrien Moerman, Ante Zizic) has ever appeared in a EuroLeague playoff game. For Madrid, Trey Thompkins is the only player who has NOT played in at least two playoff games. The entirety of the Darussafaka roster has played in 30 playoff games, including injured big man Marcus Slaughter, whose 12 games of playoff experience all came in a Madrid uniform. That means that the 33 playoff games played by Madrid veteran Felipe Reyes outpaces the entire Darussafaka team! In total, Madrid's players have 151 playoff games under their belts and 10 of them won a series and reached the Final Four at least once. Seven of them – Reyes, Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernandez, Jaycee Carroll, Gustavo Ayon, Andres Nocioni and Jonas Maciulis – were on Madrid team that won 2015 EuroLeague title. Moreover, Llull, Fernandez, Reyes and Carroll helped carry Madrid to all three of their championships games appearances between 2013 and 2015. Additionally, new addition Anthony Randolph arrived after helping Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar reach the 2016 Final Four along with Dontaye Draper, who returned to Madrid last summer after having been part of Madrid's 2013 and 2014 runner-up teams. Big man Othello Hunter has playoff experience of his own, reaching that 2015 title game with Olympiacos Piraeus, while teenage sensation Luka Doncic and forward Jeffery Taylor made their playoffs debuts last season. By comparison, only two Darussafaka players (Ogus Savas and Slaughter) have ever tasted victory in a playoff series and only Slaughter – in 2015 with Madrid – has taken the crown. Veteran point guard Ender Arslan has played a total of eight playoff games in three series, while Birkan Batuk (with Efes) and big man Furkan Aldemir (with Galatasaray) have reached the playoffs once each. Of course, we do not know how much – if at all – this will matter, because talent and hunger may be more important than experience.
Only three players rank among the top five in two of the major statistical categories this season. They are CSKA Moscow's Milos Teodosic (points, assists), Fenerbahce Istanbul's Ekpe Udoh (rebounds, blocks), and Darussafaka's Brad Wanamaker (points, steals). Every playoff team is led by an elite point guard and Wanamaker has firmly established himself in that group. Now, he will be tested by former All-EuroLeague selection Sergio Llull, whose numbers are very close to those of Wanamaker. They may be the headliners of the backcourt matchup between these teams, but there are two more incendiary playmakers who share the floor with those starters. Scottie Wilbekin teams up with Wanamaker, while teenage sensation Luka Doncic fights alongside Llull. These talented backcourt duos ensure that there will be no rest for weary defenders in this series. At all times, the point guard positions will be manned by first-class players, even if Wanamaker or Llull are resting for a play or two as spot-up shooters in the corners. It is noteworthy that both Wanamaker and Llull played excellent games when these teams faced each other in the regular season, but both Wilbekin and Doncic struggled. Wanamaker had 27 points in a Round 12 victory (with Llull injured) and shot 5 of 9 from downtown in the two games. Llull collected 26 points and 8 assists in Madrid's Round 23 victory. Neither Wilbekin nor Doncic reached double figures as scorers in either game. Don't expect that to happen again.
Home and away coaches
This will not be the first time head coaches Pablo Laso and David Blatt go head to head in the playoffs. In 2013, Madrid swept Blatt's Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv team by double-digit margins in all three games as Madrid went on to reach first of its three consecutive championship games. The two coaches were on opposite sides a year later, but this time in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Championship Game, where Blatt and Maccabi came up with a big 86-98 overtime upset to win the continental crown. Now they go against each other again, and each is very familiar with the playoffs. In four previous playoffs appearances since he took over at Madrid in 2011, Laso had home-court advantage three times and has compiled an 7-1 record at home. Madrid ousted Olympiacos Piraeus in a deciding Game 5 in 2014 and beat Anadolu Efes Istanbul 3-1 in 2015. Its lone home playoff loss coming last season when Madrid got swept by Fenerbahce Istanbul. This time, Laso will try to make it four wins out of four series with home-court advantage. David Blatt, however, is the only head coach in EuroLeague history to win two best-of-five playoff series without home-court advantage. In guiding Maccabi to four playoff appearances from 2011 to 2014, Blatt's teams never had home-court advantage. Nonetheless, Maccabi won three road games in those series and Blatt led his team to the Final Four twice. The first time was in 2011, when Maccabi stole Game 2 in Vitoria 81-83 on Jeremy Pargo's game-winning jumper with 1.3 seconds left. With the series tied at 1-1, Maccabi won two games by more than 20 points each in Tel Aviv to advance to the Final Four. It later lost title game to Panathinaikos Athens. A year later, in the 2012 playoffs, Blatt and Maccabi managed to win Game 2 on the road, but eventually fell in five games to Panathinaikos. However, in 2014, Maccabi was at it again, stealing a Game 1 road win in epic fashion against EA7 Emporio Armani Milan, but rallying from 13-points behind in the fourth quarter before pulling out 99-101 overtime win. After losing Game 2 in Milan, Maccabi again dominated two contests on its home floor and later proceeded to win the EuroLeague title. Laso and his team have done well securing and using home-court advantage in recent years, but if there is one coach who can feel comfortable taking an underdog team into a series, history tells us that is David Blatt.
The numbers game
In this meeting of the highest and the lowest playoff seeds, it is no surprise find that Madrid has excelled in several statistical categories, while Darussafaka had its struggles before sneaking into the eighth spot. For starters, Madrid has led the competition in performance index rating (102.1 PIR) and assists (20.6 apg.). It also has leads all teams in three-pointers made, coming just one triple shy of 300 for the season, giving its well-oiled offense the second-highest scoring average, 86.2 points. On the other hand, no team through 30 rounds has taken better care of ball than Darussafaka, which commits league-low 11.2 turnovers and allows its opponents the second-fewest steals, 5.2, per contest. Led by the league's top offensive rebounder, Ante Zizic (3.2 off rpg.), Darussafaka ranks second on the offensive glass pulling down 12 per night. Letting opponents get offensive boards was a problem for Madrid, which gave up 10.4 on average, the fifth-most of any team. However, despite Darussafaka ranking first in turnovers, it is dead last in assists per game (14.3 apg.), and some of its offensive rebounds come as a result of a fact that no team had worse two-point shooting accuracy (48.3%) and no team has had more shots blocked (3.9). Madrid will certainly aim try to exploit some those indicators, since Coach Laso's team has the league's highest two-point percentage (57%), and the best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.67) in the competition.
Face to face
Darussafaka and Madrid faced each other for the first time in history this Turkish Airlines EuroLeague campaign and split home victories. Back in Round 12, Darussafaka rallied from an early double-digit deficit to top Madrid 81-68 on its home floor behind Brad Wanamaker, who scored 27 points, his career-high until then. He connected on 4-of-6 three-point shots to lead Darussafaka to one of its most significant victories of the season. Will Clyburn added 14 points in a game that also turned out to be the largest loss Madrid suffered all season. But it is important to note that Los Blancos were without their top two scorers, Sergio Llull and Anthony Randolph, in that one, as Felipe Reyes led the team with 16 points. When the two teams met at the Wizink Center in Round 23, Madrid made 16 three-pointers – matching the season's best by any team – en route to 101-83 win that capped Madrid's nine-game winning streak, longest of the season for any EuroLeague club. Llull scored 19 of his 26 points in the first quarter, including 5 three-pointers. He was also responsible for 8 of Madrid's 28 assists that night as he and his teammates opened an 18-point lead early and never let Darussafaka to get closer than 9 points again. Othello Hunter and Trey Thompkins added 14 point apiece in victory, meanwhile James Anderson was Darussafaka's leading scorer with 18 points. Young big man Ante Zizic collected 11 points and 10 rebounds, including 7 boards on the offensive glass.