After more than two decades of being reminded time and again that they just didn’t belong competing for the big titles, Anadolu Efes bullied their way past Fenerbahce in the Fernando Buesa Arena with a dominant display to make a maiden Euroleague final. Emmet Ryan was on the scene
When you control the tempo, when you make the shots, and when you just plain ignore history, you can make anything happen. Anadolu Efes have seen so many disappointments over the last 23 seasons, the blue side of Istanbul gets its shot. This was a game where Shane Larkin did Shane Larkin things, where the interior belonged to them when it mattered, where space was plentiful, and where they owned the pace of play for all but a brief spell in the first quarter. This was an Efes game and it was one that Ergin Ataman won his way.
The long wait was over. 30 rounds of the regular season, the quarter final playoffs, and here we were for the first semi-final in Vitoria-Gasteiz. The Istanbul derby featuring Fenerbahce and Efes. The anthem played but it was far from the usual West Istanbul vibe at a Final Four. There were plenty of empty seats despite the crowd being heavily pro Fenerbahce.
Shane Larkin was just pro baller. The first three was his work, the second came off a beautiful screen from Bryant Dunston. With Ahmet Duvieroglu the only real 5 for Fener that was fully healthy, the big man had to be smart. He couldn’t go chasing down Dunston hard too early and the Efes side knew it, the let Dunston move out to set screens, job up and down the floor, work out his spot and go from there. From there came space and the blue side of Istanbul was getting far more done in the earlier going.
The journey for Efes had been coming for over 20 years. Their Korac Cup win in 1996 was the kick-off to the rise of hoops here. A first European title for a Turkish club. Then came the 12 Dev Adam (12 Giant Men) who took silver at EuroBasket on home soil in 2001. They’d have to wait until the 2010 World Cup for their next big one, silver to a US team that featured Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.
All the while, Efes kept plugging away. Back to back final fours at the turn of the century and then many, too many, disappointments in the playoffs. They saw Besiktas win Eurochallenge, Galatasaray win Eurocup, and Fener take Euroleague, all the while waiting for their continental breakthrough. That 5 game series win over Barcelona brought them to the top table for the first time in the modern era. Here they were with a loaded roster, but they always had a loaded roster, looking to finally make a breakthrough.
Jan Vesely came in mid-quarter. He’d said pre-game, despite his injury, that he wanted to play but working out how effective he would be after sitting a few weeks would take a while. He’d dealt with a similar situation in 2016 and looked rough as hell in Berlin. The back-court for Fener was taking on the load as he worked his way in with Kistas Sloukas and Erick Green whipping around the floor. This was much better and Marko Guduric made himself look a far bigger man than he is driving in for a score.
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Vesely made his first effort at drawing contact after a couple of minutes. Foul drawn on Dunston. Job done. Hail Mary pass from Guduric caught in front of Dunston and recycled well. He was starting to click. Defensively, Fener were showing up too and the Efes lin-up looked like it could really do with Vasilije Micic to chill things out. He was out there, he just wasn’t really doing anything useful.
We’d had two runs of control, now things were balancing out a touch coming into the closing stages of the first but Fener had got the one win they needed. The scoring had slowed from the hot start, with a weakened interior, they needed to keep this one a little on the ugly side. At the end of the quart, it was Fener with the slight edge 20-19.
Fenerbahce’s journey is a touch more complex. The effective merger with the old Ulker Sport was a boot up the backside but the job was, for years, one that nobody could make work. There’d be serious talent there but even a trip to the playoffs was beyond them until Zeljko Obradovic, the most successful coach in European history, arrived in Istanbul. Even then, there were struggles. He couldn’t come close to the post-season his first year. His first Turkish championship was won by walkover. Not ideal.
Then they made the breakthrough, getting to Madrid in 2015 and promptly getting destroyed by Los Blancos. That was followed by a Turkish league playoff exit to Karsiyaka. They’d bounce back the next year, sweeping Real in the playoffs, and making an insane comeback in the final in Berlin before losing to CSKA Moscow in overtime. On home turf, they’d finally take the Euroleague crown in 2017. They got back to the title game a year ago only to lose to Real and without Bogdan Bogdanovic, Ekpe Udoh, or Brad Wanamaker they lacked the superstar talent of the title side despite being deeper than ever. To win here, they’d need all that depth. Bodies broken and the top seeds were wounded animals in Vitoria.
Nikola Kalinic, the other injury doubt for Fener, checked in to start the start the second. He got to the line right away and his hurt shoulder looked fine dropping both. The fouls however were coming quickly from Fener’s back-ups and with Micic having woken up, that wasn’t good for the 2017 champions. He went off for 7 points in the first 3 minutes of the quarter as Ergin Ataman’s side got their pace going again.
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Sloukas with a do-I-have-to-do-everything three got the Fener offence going again. On the next possession he fed Melih Mahmutoglu for another but this game was still going too quickly for Fener. Efes had taken charge of the tempo again and, save for when Bobby Dixon was going off on one of his dizzy runs, this really wasn’t what Obradovic’s side needed.
Zoc, the greatest of all time, looking for his 10th ever European crown aka La Zocima. He’s still plenty young to add a few more but showing he could do it all with this Fener team would be something else. He’s seen the road to the top with Badalona, Partizan, Real, and, most famously, Panathinaikos, but the Greens were to now the only side he’d won multiple titles with. There was a bit of history here for the famous Serbian coach.
Getting it done in unfriendly territory, albeit with a heavily Fener friendly crowd, and a battered roster would rank right up there in his career achievements. The 10th one though, more crowns than Martina Navratilova took singles titles at Wimbledon, that would be something else. He’s already cemented in history but taking out city rivals on the way to a second title for Fenerbahce would get him a statue.
That was not good. Kalinic was going up for an easy finish but you could see the strain in his shoulders as he could only get it to the nearside of the rim. Those doubts weren’t all smoke and mirrors.”
Then a third foul on Sloukas and despite the tight score, this was trouble. Eugh Kalinic again. He was fortunate that a poorly put up three saw him fouled by Brock Motum but his next shot in the open court showed the strength just wasn’t there. His basic release was off. Vesely was on at least, a lovely flush on the dunk followed by some good D on Dunston at the other end. Still, Efes had so much more going for them. Larkin watched the shot clock, drove inside, didn’t like what he saw, fed Anderson on the elbow who was open for the three. He nailed it, drew the foul and made it a four point play.
The score at the end of the half was starting to tell the story, close as it was there were far more worries for Fenerbahce going into the locker room as they trailed 45-40.
Larkin, who else, piled on the pain early in the third as Efes looked to create some real air between them and Fener. The fear of the charge was real, everyone on that floor had seen Dixon go hero before and Sloukas remained a threat even with his foul issues. The less expected concern was Kalinic who finally appeared to have his mechanics down on a three.
Things were getting a little disjointed from Efes defensively, not what they needed here. The Fener fans could smell it as the noise ramped up. This was a chance to get right back in it despite their woes so far. Even the VIP seats courtside were on their feet singing during a timeout.
The step up in class was just so obvious from the off here. Having gone on a two week tour beginning with the Basketball Champions League Final Four in Antwerp then on to three ACB games, noting that the Spanish national championship is the deepest national league outside the NBA, and you couldn’t help but notice just how much better the basketball was. From the defensive sets, offensive decision making, down to knowing when to call a timeout, everything felt up a tier.
That’s the gulf that the rest of Europe has to this league. The money for an Efes or Fenerbahce is just so much greater but that doesn’t just translate into better salaries. It is seen in the front offices, the decisions being made on the type of guys to get in as role players, man management through the year, the works. That creates an on court level that plucky triers who may not have more than $1.5 million to cover a full season just can’t match. It was an Istanbul derby but it didn’t feel raw, this was smart and polished hoops. It was just the noise around that hinted at the tribal nature of the rivalry.
Tear-drop lay-up from Larkin for a much needed reminder to his team mates that this was a fight and Anderson heard him well, going deep. Then the big board from him too. Throw in a sh of Micic with some nice feeds and it was starting to get going again.
From the line, Dunston gave Efes the first double digit lead of the day. Now the questions were coming for Fener. Now the Efes fans, all the way up in the top far corner, were in full voice. The club, without being attached to a football team, suffers for support compared to its Istanbul rivals. It’s essentially a brewery team, but they’ve been getting more through the gates this season. Now, with Larkin adding to the lead, the MVP chants started and they could start to hope. With 10 minutes to play they were well on top, 68-57.
Fener’s legs looked like stone to start the fourth. Their offence formulaic and too easy to predict. With 8 minutes left, this looked done. The last time Fener was in a spot like that, it was the final of 2016 and they had so many weapons to call on. Bobby Big Nuts was supplemented by so much in that rally against CSKA. Here, there was no ride of the Rohirrim to hope for, this was what Obradovic had to work with and it simply wasn’t sufficient.
In a slot where it was normally thank u next, the interlopers were going for it. Not since Baskonia in 2005, save naturally for a loaded Fener’s debut in Berlin, has a side that just doesn’t get to Euroleague title games broken through the glass ceiling. Ergin Ataman has been through so much as a coach, claiming secondary European titles, all there is to win in Turkey, and being the head coach of the national side through a period of tremendous change. Every time he faced down the challenge and found a way to win but here, he may well have delivered his masterpiece. The local rivals slain in a surgical display and a chance for the biggest title of his career.
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