It’s the culmination of the European basketball season and it’s all happening in Vitoria-Gasteiz. CSKA Moscow, Efes, Fenerbahce, and Real Madrid, will all enter the Fernando Buesa Arena but only one will leave as the 2019 Euroleague champions. Emmet Ryan breaks down all you need to know before the action tips off on Friday
The role of the interloper
There are three familiar names, arguably all too familiar, and one interloper that’s undoubtedly the hipster’s choice for the title. CSKA Moscow are in their eighth straight Final Four, Fenerbahce in their fifth straight, Real in their third straight and their sixth of the last seven, while Anadolu Efes are in their third ever Final Four and first of the current era (more on that to come).
In recent years, the team taking up the happy to be here spot haven’t exactly done great. Zalgiris were third last year, all the teams in 2017 were conventional giants, there were two in 2016 (Baskonia and Lokomotiv Kuban) but both lost in the semi-finals, and unless you argue Maccabi being the the Final Four was atypical to history (it was not) when they won in 2014, you’ve really got to go all the way back to Baskonia’s appearance in the 2005 final (with a phenomenal roster) for a team in the non-royalty slot to make a dent. Efes are looking to buck the trend and they have one huge thing going for them.
The top seeds are riddled with injuries
Fenerbahce had a tremendous regular season, going 25-5 and looking like a side with depth and options. They’re really going to have to prove that’s true in Vitoria because they have suffered massive injury blows in the run-up to the Final Four. Jan Vesely, a serious contender for season MVP, Joffrey Lauvergne, Luigi Datome, and Nikola Kalinic, the latter famed for showing up big when it matters, are all out for the weekend. That has knocked enormous holes into their front-court and moves Efes being at a disadvantage there to clearly holding the upper hand inside when they clash in Friday’s semi-final.
Fenerbahce will still be a brutally tough out, for Efes or anyone. Aside from being guaranteed to have the biggest support in the stands, they have scorers and game winners in Nik Melli, Bobby Dixon, and Kostas Sloukas. Like Vesely, Sloukas is a serious contender for season MVP when it’s announced on Saturday evening. There are ballers there, they’re just going to have to dig deep and use Melli as more of a bruiser than normal.
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Real still playing Laso-ball
The loss of Luka Doncic naturally meant Real had to make some adjustments, I mean you’ve all seen what the kid can do by now and he was a beast for Los Blancos in the fantastic finish to 2018 that saw them claim a record 10th Euroleague title along with another Spanish championship just days before Doncic’s name was heard in Brooklyn.
Pablo Laso is used to having to make changes after losing key pieces, be they stars or glue guys…and with him adjusting for a glue guy is almost as big a deal, and Real remain a great side to watch. Rudy Fernandez is playing at his liveliest in years, Facundo Campazzo is far more comfortable as lead ball-handler than a year ago, and Sergio Llull has had a full healthy season albeit not being at the same level he was pre-injury. Couple that with the fantastic tandem, for Laso’s style, of Edy Tavares and Gustavo Ayon at the 5 and you’ve got a competent top-tier side that can occasionally strike into blow-out mode and effectively end a game out of nowhere.
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CSKA before the shift
Real’s opponents on Friday are the same side that they faced in the semi-finals last year. CSKA Moscow have a bunch of key guys with contracts ending this summer and the who stays, who goes, game is still very much up in the air. The nature of Euroleague ending with single-elimination ball has tended to, fortunately for CSKA, lead to such off-court matters not proving much of a factor in the closing weekend of the competition. Dudes go to work and tend to stay in the moment for the two game-days, unless they’re stuck in the third place game in which case the guys going will check the heck out.
The 5 hole has been a whopper of an issue for CSKA all year, it goes back to the peak of this side when it won the lot in 2016, but it’s become harder to mask this season. As second overall seeds, you’d think they would come in brimming with confidence but a CSKA side arriving looking wounded is probably the best thing for them. This is a side that tends to do its best when the expectations drop. Through the 2012-2018 trips to the big weekend, they only won it once and only made one other final. It’s not an accident that ‘to CSKA’ is basically a verb in European basketball. This weekend, everybody expects them to CSKA and that’s probably a help.
This really is a big deal for Efes
The two previous times Efes made it to a Final Four were a wildly different time. Their 2001 appearance carries a massive asterisk, it was the year there were two top tiers because of the split between FIBA and Euroleague. Efes sided with FIBA and made the Final Four of the gloriously titled FIBA SuproLeague. They lost to Panathinaikos in the semi-finals. The other time was just a year earlier, where they also lost to Panathinaikos. Since the formation of the Euroleague as we know it, they’ve had to sit on the sidelines.
This despite being the first Turkish side, and only one before Galatasaray winning Eurocup in 2016, to win a major European title when they took the FIBA Korac Cup in 1996. There was a win for Besiktas in Eurochallenge in 2012 but that didn’t exactly make a dent internationally. Efes however have been the reliable side in Turkey for a long time. Before Fenerbahce’s rise, this was usually the best shot Turkey had of a team going deep in Europe. Since that Korac Cup triumph they have been quarter-finalists 8 times in addition to their two Final Four trips. That came while winning 6 Turkish championships and 9 Turkish Cups in the same spell.
Yet for all that, they flat out stank last season with a dead last finish of 16th. To go from worst to Final Four is something, to go from worst to champions would be quite the tale indeed.
The dudes to watch
Anyone who follows Sixers Twitter will know that the dudes their fans wanted to know about through the bulk of the season were Mathias Lessort and Anzejs Pasecniks. Those two stashes are coming along nicely but their third, Vasilije Micic, has been a revelation this season. He was good for Zalgiris last year but just plain took over Efes and made them his own. Always reliable for his defensive prowess, Micic has been a star offensively this year and looks a legit MVP contender with his all-round game. He’s 3rd in assists, 16th in points, and 18th in steals through the season. He was a guy who could get the job done and get things going.
Alongside him in the Efes back-court is Shane Larkin who is quite consistent and tends to go off out of nowhere. Across from them on Friday, we’ve already mention Sloukas and Dixon but expect a lot more to be asked of Marko Guduric as well given the injury struggles.
For Real, the list of names gone through above all merit your attention especially Campazzo but Jeffrey Taylor, who was originally seen as primarily a defensive specialist, has proven an increasingly useful part of Real Madrid’s offence.
As for CSKA the dudes that merit most attention are Will Clyburn, Cory Higgins, and Kyle Hines. The first two are regularly in discussions of going over to the NBA while Hines is going to need to find a way to stop that Real big-man tandem.
The semi final line-up on Friday is:
Fenerbahce vs Efes – 18.00 CET/17.00 Irish & British/12.00 EST/09.00 PST
CSKA Moscow vs Real Madrid – 21.00 CET/20.00 Irish & British/15.00 EST/12.00 PST
The final on Sunday between the two winners is at 20.30 CET/19.30 Irish & British/14.30 EST/11.30 PST
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