It was one of the longest losing streaks in the competition. After winning its first two games of the century against Real Madrid in the Spanish capital, Anadolu Efes Istanbul had lost as many as 12 consecutive road games against Los Blancos over the last 15 years. Indeed, its previous road victory in Madrid came on January 26, 2005. That night, Efes beat Madrid 57-72 behind 23 points from Niksa Prkacin and 16 from Ermal Kuqo.
But Efes arrived in Madrid on Friday in arguably its best moment in many years, leading the EuroLeague with a 17-3 record and with a chance to open up a three-win gap over everybody else in the Regular Season standings. Coach Ergin Ataman had never beat Madrid on the road, and made sure his team knew about that before the game.
"It was a big win for us,” star man Shane Larkin said after the game. “It is the first time we won here in 15 years and it is Coach Ataman's first win here, so we had a lot of motivation going into this game. We are just playing really well as a team. I am not going to be able to do any of these things without my teammates, so I will credit to my teammates, my coaching staff and hopefully, we can just keep doing what we are doing."
Larkin was certainly unstoppable again on Friday, hitting most of his shots in yet another very strong performance - 32 points, 4 assists, 36 PIR, 5-of-6 three-pointers - but it was Efes's team effort that made the difference down the stretch, and Coach Ataman pointed out in the press conference after the game that Real led 15-4 early on before Efes found answers off its bench.
"We started very slow and made four turnovers in the first three minutes,” said Ataman. “But then by putting Dogus Balbay on the court, we improved our aggressiveness and were successful to keep Campazzo under control, who was very aggressive in the beginning of the game, getting two steals on Larkin," Ataman said. "After this, we balanced the game and started to play our game, our transition game and pick-and-roll game."
Balbay did not finish the game with outstanding numbers, getting 5 points and 2 assists in 17 minutes, but his defense on Campazzo and the way he set the stage for Larkin was critical for Efes's win.
Near the end, Real managed to get within 72-73, gaining plenty of momentum from consecutive blocks by Walter Tavares. But then Tibor Pleiss pulled down a defensive rebound in Real's last go-ahead opportunity and buried a three-pointer from the top of the key right in front of Tavares, who arrived half a second late after two minutes of intimidating the entire Efes team around the rim. And in crunch time, Larkin made the difference with consecutive driving layups to round off an outstanding performance, both individually and as a team.
When the dust settled, Efes had won the game, 75-80, completing an achievement rarely seen in the EuroLeague: Efes has now beaten all four Spanish teams - Real, FC Barcelona, Valencia Basket and KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz - on the road. In fact, Efes is 9-1 on the road this season, only losing against Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in Round 6, 86-70.
That means no road losses since late October, which shows how good Efes has been so far this season. Efes now faces two more road tests, against Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade and CSKA Moscow, in Rounds 22 and 23. But can anyone stop the league leader?