There are other games this week that matter but one stands head and shoulders above the rest. Emmet Ryan on the other road to Istanbul
For the bulk of the latter half of the current series of Sweet 16, the discussions around Darussafaka Dogus were essentially on what they would need to do to catch Anadolu Efes. There was an acceptance that Crvena Zvezda would do enough to make the post-season and that it would come down to the two Istanbul sides to decide the final slot in the playoffs.
Things naturally didn’t pan out that way. Efes discovered consistency when least expected, possibly the most Efes way to do so, and locked up a playoff spot during the double-round week while looking good for a top six finish. Zvezda meanwhile stuttered at about as bad a time as they could. The loss against Olympiacos was somewhat expected but dropping a game to Barcelona, and a Barca team with nothing to play for at that, was just so unlike them. That defeat against the Blaugrana was pretty clear cut too. In a rare moment this season, Barca were good for their win and the usually stifling Zvezda game never phased them. In what was essentially a nothing game against Unics Kazan last week, Zvezda finally got their heads back together in their last home outing of the regular season. Having started in iffy fashion against the cellar dwelling Russians, the Belgrade club we have become used to watching was back to its usual self.
As for Dacka? Well they certainly have inherited one trademark David Blatt trait from the head coach. If you want a team prone to giving you heart attacks, jump on board this train. The Istanbul club benefitted from a lot of friendly officiating breaks last week in Bamberg, with the home crowd naturally irked by some generous calls for the visitors. Even allowing for that, it was still pretty freaky up there with Brose Bamberg going toe-to-toe for the full 40 minutes plus the 5 of overtime before Darussafaka finally escaped with the win. A loss there and Zvezda could have punched their ticket against Kazan. Instead, Dacka got the situation they need for Friday night.
The importance of this game owes a lot to the season opener. Having been beaten up pretty badly over the opening 20 minutes in Belgrade, Dacka roared back in the second half to take the win and give them the head-to-head advantage needed going into this one. Dacka can only draw level with Zvezda in terms of win-loss record and would need to win by 18 points or more on Friday to overtake the Serbian club in points differential. Head-to-head is enough for Dacka to punch a ticket and it’s all going to come down to simply who gets the W in Istanbul.
Much has been made all season of the Dacka crowd and its simple lack of influence in games. This isn’t like going to play at Fenerbahce, Zvezda, Panathinaikos, or Olympiacos in a win-or-die game. It’s eerily different and that might even make the task tougher for the visitors. Players are used to prepping themselves for a hostile environment against them but going into reasonably sized arena with about as much noise as a convent can be unsettling. The Darussafaka players are used to the lack of noise, for Zvezda it’s a bizarre enough situation.
Styles make fights and Zvezda should have a big edge here. The Dacka offence is effective but simple, the goal is to be the reverse but with Zvezda’s defence the fear for the home side is that their game will be too easy to break down. Dejan Radonjic built his style defiantly over the course of the past two seasons. Eschewing the chance to grab a bigger job at a richer club last season, he stood firm and proved his side could hang with anyone as they ran roughshod over all comers in a seven game winning streak that included victories over five playoff sides.
Blatt is used to fighting out of corners however and the lessons of his last season with Maccabi Tel Aviv coupled with his NBA experience have hardened the veteran coach. Convention dictates his side should be in trouble here thus Blatt will revel in the pressure. It’s his happy place. Friday should be fun.