In a rematch of last year's semifinal, first-place Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and red-hot Zalgiris Kaunas meet in the best-of-five playoff series to determine which one of these two clubs will return to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four.
Home sweet home
To have the most successful regular season ever with 25 wins and just 5 losses, a team cannot just be home-oriented, rather it needs to have balance and, obviously, to tally many road victories as well. That said, no team has been better at home this season – or in the previous two for that matter – than Fenerbahce as it became the competition's first undefeated team at home through a 30-game regular season.
Its 15-0 home record this season stretches to a 17-game home winning streak dating back to last year's playoffs and Fenerbahce has held opponents to the EuroLeague's second-fewest points at home (74.8) while winning by an average margin of 11.1 points in front of its fans this season.
Although undefeated, Fenerbahce has not been downright dominant at Ulker Sports and Event Hall. Of those 15 wins in the current campaign, just six came by double figures – including a 78-61 decision over Zalgiris in Round 18 – and a couple of those victories required some late-game heroics, like Luigi Datome's game-winning three-point play against Real Madrid or a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Kostas Sloukas in the regular season finale against Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv.
It is worth noting that Zalgiris did win seven road games this season and is on a six-game winning streak entering the playoffs. However, no matter how easy or tough it was for Fenerbahce to get there, Coach Zeljko Obradovic's men do not know what it is like to lose at home this season. And since Obradovic took over Fenerbahce, his team is yet to lose a playoff home game, going 7-0 in this stage in the past four seasons. If the streak continues, Fenerbahce is guaranteed a place in its fifth consecutive Final Four.
Zeljko vs. Saras
It might be unusual for two coaches separated by 16 years in age to have as many similarities as Zeljko Obradovic and Sarunas Jasikevicius, but that sense probably comes from the fact Jasikevicius is one of Obradovic's pupils, having played four seasons under the current Fenerbahce head coach. The two won the 2009 EuroLeague title together and reached another Final Four in 2012.
Another thing they have in common is that both men are true winners. Of course, no head coach can match the success Obradovic has had in the EuroLeague, having won nine titles with five different teams and made a total of 18 Final Four appearances, including one as a player. Since taking over on the Asian side of Istanbul, Fenerbahce is 12-1 in the playoffs. And Obradovic is 26-8 in playoff games just this century – a 76.5% winning percentage.
On the other side is a four-time champion as a player, who has achieved great success in his young head coaching career. Jasikevicius might not have coached a team to a EuroLeague title, but he did achieve coaching triumphs by guiding underdog Zalgiris to the Final Four and a third-place finish last season, his second full season as a head coach. This season, Jasikevicius has done another little miracle, getting Zalgiris into the postseason for the second year in a row despite losing 15 of their first 24 games this campaign.
Jasikevicius had an 11-7 record in playoff games as a player and is 3-1 as a coach. He is 1-6 in his coaching career against Obradovic, even though that one win came last season in Istanbul. He might know Coach Obradovic better than Obradovic knows coach Jasikevicius. It might help, but will it be enough?
Points of attack
Not only does Fenerbahce have home-court advantage, is unbeaten at home and has the winningest coach in EuroLeague history, but Fenerbahce sports one of the most efficient offenses in the competition this century. Fenerbahce leads the league in both two-point (59.0%) and three-point (43.2%) shooting going into the playoffs. Only twice before has a team led the league in those two categories at the end of the season – Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2004-05 and CSKA Moscow in 2015-16. Both Maccabi and CSKA won the title that year.
The difference between those two and Fenerbahce this season is that Fenerbahce is shooting the ball much better than those championship teams did. Fenerbahce's two-point percentage is the second highest and its three-point percentage is the third best this century. Both are the highest in the competition in 17 years.
Fenerbahce's backcourt trio of Ali Muhammed (49.6% 3FG), Marko Guduric (48.8% 3FG), and Kostas Sloukas (46% 3FG) is lighting it up from long range, while only one player (Nicolo Melli at 45.5% 2FG) is shooting two-pointers worse than 55%. Pair all that shooting with the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.56) and it is pretty clear that Zalgiris is facing a monster of a task against Fenerbahce.
Support for Brandon Davies?
Zalgiris center Brandon Davies had a great regular season, ranking fourth in scoring (14.4 ppg.) and leading the team with 5.7 rebounds. Zalgiris attempts by far the fewest three-pointers in the competition (16.5 per game), yet no player attempts more than Davies's 9.4 two-point shots per game, indicating just how much Zalgiris relies on its big man.
Davies has the best potential to be the most dominant player in this series. He scored in double figures 25 times this season, including a career-high 27 twice. For instance, no Fenerbahce player scored more than 24 points in a game this season. However, in this series, Davies will be facing a mix of Fenerbahce big men, including Jan Vesely, Joffrey Lauvergne, Nicolo Melli and Ahmet Duverioglu. All big and athletic, while solid and disciplined on defense.
For Zalgiris to beat Fenerbahce, not just once but three times in this series, Davies will need help. Fellow centers Deon Thompson and Antanas Kavaliauskas will have to provide quality minutes behind Davies, but it is power forward Aaron White, along with the backcourt of Nate Wolters, Leo Westermann and Thomas Walkup who will need to step it up and deliver.