With one of the biggest comeback seasons in European basketball history, Anadolu Efes Istanbul has accessed its first EuroLeague Final Four in almost two decades. Efes was 16th and last in the 2017-18 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season, with a 7-23 record. This season, Efes marched relentlessly to the Final Four with 23 wins in 35 games. Head coach Ergin Ataman, who rejoined the club midway through last season, has made it happen. Ataman had already taken Efes to the EuroLeague Final Four in 2000 and returned with Montepaschi Siena in 2003. A Turkish League champion with three different teams, Ataman has also lifted three different European trophies: the 2016 7DAYS EuroCup with Galatasaray Odeabank Istanbul, the 2002 Saporta Cup with Siena, and the 2012 FIBA EuroChallenge with Besiktas Istanbul. He is the most decorated head coach in Turkish basketball history and has the numbers to prove it. The EuroLeague title is missing in his personal roll of honors and, after such a great season, he hopes to take Efes all the way. "It is exciting. In my career I have won nearly everything," Ataman told EuroLeague.net. "The only cup that I haven't had in my home is the EuroLeague trophy! So this year I am only two games away, and I will try to do everything tactically, technically and psychologically to reach this goal."
Congratulations on reaching the Final Four. How much does it mean to your club to finally be going the greatest stage of European basketball?
"It's exciting after many years of fighting for the Final Four, but not reaching it at the last steps. And especially after last season, which was terrible for Efes, finishing the EuroLeague regular season in last position. So this year has been very important, and it's also great that for the last seven or eight games we had 15,000 or 16,000 people, sold-out arenas. It's exciting for Efes."
After finishing bottom of the standings last season, as you mentioned, have you been surprised by how much your team has improved this year?
"No, because last season I took over the team halfway through the season and didn't have a chance to change the roster. But at the beginning of this season, we took 10 new players and made very good chemistry. Of course, at the beginning of the season, our goal was not to play at the Final Four: we wanted to change the atmosphere from the last year and reach the playoffs. But after the season started and the team started playing very well, for me, it's not a surprise to reach the Final Four – because we deserve it."
"When the action comes, a game of basketball is a game of basketball."
Compared to the other teams, few of your players have appeared at the Final Four. Will that lack of experience be a positive or a negative?
"We always see the positives. Maybe we don't have a team with Final Four experience, but the team has played many games that were like finals this season, especially in the playoffs against Barcelona, tight games with a big atmosphere. So I believe we have enough experience to play those big games."
What about that five-game series prepared your players for the win-or-go-home games they face now?
"This year, with every game we improved our basketball, and in the playoffs, all five games helped us to improve again. It was a very tough series against a team with a different strategy and very high adrenalin in every game. Every game was very aggressive, and we played a perfect third game to win by 34 points on the road. With games like that, my team has learned to play good basketball in a tough atmosphere under a lot of pressure."
Your semifinal is against a local rival you know well from the other side of Istanbul. Would you have preferred to avoid Fenerbahce?
"Of course, on one side it's not good to play against Fenerbahce because they finished the regular season in first position and have great quality both on the playing side and the coaching staff. But on the other side, they have lost more games against us than they have against any other team in Europe. We played six games against them this season and we've won three each. It has been a tight series between us."
"I believe Efes will stay at this level next year."
After all those games against each other, are you expecting any surprises from Fenerbahce in the semifinal?
"We know their strategy, and we know we will not face any big surprise because Fenerbahce is a strategical team and they always play the same disciplined basketball. So for us, it will be easy to prepare the game. So far this year we played against them in the final of the President's Cup, the final of the Turkish Cup, the Turkish League and the EuroLeague regular season, so we are not expecting any big surprises."
What can you tell us about the other semifinal between CSKA and Madrid?
"It's another tight game. They always have close games, and both teams have a lot of experience. It's very difficult to say who is the favorite, but Real Madrid is closer to home, only a three- or four-hour drive from their hometown, so they will have a little bit of a home-court advantage with their supporters, who will drive to Vitoria."
"The only cup that I haven't had in my home is the EuroLeague trophy!"
The Final Four is an event like no other. How will you help your players prepare from a mental perspective?
"At this high professional level, I don't think it's too important. We are not college teams. Yes, there is more media and other events, and all four teams staying in the same hotel, but when the action comes, a game of basketball is a game of basketball."
From a longer-term view, is this the beginning of Efes becoming a major force in the EuroLeague?
"Yes. I believe the Final Four is not the last step for this team. We have two more games to play for the EuroLeague championship, but I believe Efes will stay at this level next year."
How much would it mean to you personally to lift the EuroLeague trophy for the first time?
"It's exciting. In my career, I have won nearly everything: Turkish titles with different teams, Turkish Cups. I won the EuroCup with Galatasaray and the Saporta Cup with Siena, the FIBA EuroChallenge. The only cup that I haven't had in my home is the EuroLeague trophy! So this year I am only two games away, and I will try to do everything tactically, technically and psychologically to reach this goal. It's exciting."