Emmet Ryan went to Milano to try and work out how a side fighting its own history is keeping a playoff push together as they went into battle with cellar dwellers Darussafaka at the Mediolanum Forum
Milano is a big city and it wants you to know it. As soon as you get off the train at Centrale, you are immediately hit with the sheer size and work put into it. You are disembarking into a city that isn’t just another spot on the map, it’s big time. It’s local basketball team has a history to match it but in recent years Olimpia Milano have only been the top dogs locally and even that hasn’t gone smoothly.
Dacka came into this with only pride to play for. Milano have a real shot at the post-season, their first in five years, but they couldn’t afford to slip here. A W tonight, and it’s three straight with pressure on Baskonia and Bayern above them. A loss, and a surging Maccabi is ready to eat their lunch. Lux Aeterna from Requiem for a Dream rang out for the Milano intros…followed by You See the Trouble with Me by Barry White for one of the oddest combos ever. At least this team is embracing that it’s an odd but fun bunch.
Vladimir Micov got the first big cheer of the night as he gave the home side their first lead from deep. The hardcore fans here are anything but on top of the action. In a corner well behind press row, the 60 or so singing section was loud but felt like background noise that was quickly drowned out by the cheer for a dunk by Mike James.
James has been a straight out baller in Europe and easily one of the more creative minds of ballers away from the court. He does his own Instagram show with other plays and is looking at life beyond basketball but he’s already left a big imprint on the continent. He was a major part in Baskonia being the most fun team in Euroleague as they reached the Final Four in 2016. After a NBA stint with the Suns, he came back to play with Panathinaikos for the tail end of last season before his move to Milano as the main man on their roster.
Ogus Savas, a bruising baller still only 31 but with a lot of miles on the clock took a moment to look up at the ultras after stepping out of bounds. A cult player, he’s not known for his speed but the big Turk has smart feet and had a good stint with Fenerbahce before essentially going into the wilderness with Darussafaka. It’s only as the Istanbul club saw its stars go that he’s got to play real minutes again and he was creating enough space in the first frame for those around him to get some good shots off.
James Nunnally, back from his brief stint back in the NBA, restored Milano’s lead before giving up a soft foul that saw Kartal Ozmizrak tie things up once more. Another player who had a far from long-lived NBA career pushed Milano back in front from the line, Mindaugas Kuzminskas doing the honours this time. The arena, save for the devoted dozens at the back, had grown awfully quiet. This was rather like a Dacka home game, which aren’t exactly known for lively hyped fans, and the vistors only trailed 19-17 after 10 minutes.
Siena’s fall coincided with Milano’s rise. Even that finals series, which Milano did everything it could to lose, required the full 7 games after Olimpia had managed to blow a shot at playing on their home court in the Euroleague Final Four. A waste of home court advantage in those 2014 playoffs saw them go down 3-1 to eventual winners Maccabi. The following year, they missed the playoffs in Euroleague and failed to defend their Serie A title despite being the only club in this country with real money. 2016 saw the Serie title regained alongside another dire European campaign only to fail to defend the Italian crown again in 2017, falling in the semi finals, and coming dead last in Euroleague. Despite reclaiming top spot in 2017 domestically, they could only finish 15th of 16 teams in 2018 in Euroleague.
All of which is a detailed way of saying that this side has been up and down despite seemingly not having much to concern them locally. If an Italian player is worth their while, Milano will get them. That has led to their youth system being far from ideal but they’ve got the finances to not worry about it. Giorgio Armani is the superfan, superdonor, and all round bank of this side. With imports, they will always get first pick here which means other front offices have to be a lot smarter and take bigger risks. At European level their financial muscle is more than equalised but they still spend enough that they should be in the playoff conversation annually.
A long two from Curtis Jerrells got things up and running after a quiet start to the second. Then Dacka had a quiet little run to force Simone Piangiani to call in the troops. The Milano gaffer has quite the history, having been there for all of Siena’s success, having a brief and failed run with Fenerbahce, sticking on as Italian national team coach for a few decent if unsurprising campaigns, before coming back to the club scene after over three years to win the Israeli crown with Hapoel Jerusalem. Last year’s championship with Milano is meant to be part one of reasserting the greatness of the club. This year, that next step is really meant to be a postseason appearance in Euroleague.
Dacka were scoring awfully easily even if Milano were getting the answers they wanted via Jerrells. The hole up the gut left by Arturas Gudaitis is being filled by Alen Omic who is a very tall person but often fits the literal description of statuesque. He’s also a rather unlucky chap, Bosnian by birth he naturalised as Slovenian only to see Anthony Randolph take his naturalised slot ahead of the Eurobasket triumph in 2017. At 26 he should be hitting his prime but was spending a lot of time on defence as a glorified spectator.
Relying heavily on a young line-up of home grown players, not exactly the norm for Turkish sides at this level, Dacka were the far more experienced looking outfit through the first 20 minutes. All the talent with a history of getting it done at this level on the Milano roster appeared to have a real lack of urgency to matters. A James floater, can it be a floater when put up two-handed?, finally put the home side back in front. He was playing for the foul call, didn’t get it, but it at least showed the spark required. Next possession, James for Kuzminskas for a three.
Now he was hungry. Out of a timeout, James was frustrated when the ref didn’t let him run an inbounds quickly but still orchestrated a move for Amedeo Della Valle to score. After 20, it was a 40-36 lead for Milano.
So, here they are at home to the absolute worst side in the competition in dire need of a W. They’ve won each of their last two but still sit outside the playoff spots and have lost star big man Gudaitis for the season. A club with 3 Euroleague titles, 5 other European trophies, an Intercontinental Cup, and a history as a power just isn’t culturally suited to have to fight its way up.
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Still, the very best days aren’t exactly recent. Their last time as champions of Europe’s top competition was in 1988 and the 2014 Serie A title ended an 18 year wait. The reality Milano have spent decades adjusting to however isn’t as harsh as it has been for Italian football. Even Juventus needed a lot of work to get back to relevance in Europe whereas AC Milan, also supported by Armani, and Inter are both the guts of a decade removed from being real threats on the continent. Plenty of Italian basketball titans have fallen and started rebuilds but Milano’s was as much a mental one as anything else. Their fall came before fears of financial challenges at a macro level became a matter and they essentially needed the last team with any kind of affluence in this country to fall before it could truly restore its confidence.
There was a lot more hustle to Milano’s play to open the third. The ball was being moved fast and hard offensively, defensively they were cutting out the interior, the one thing they couldn’t contain was Savas. While far from the most mobile big man, he was able to move around and bully at his leisure on the interior. The broader improvements from the hosts meant it wasn’t exactly brutal damage but still a painfully obvious hole.
James was sick of it and just took the ball all the way up the floor before making a lay-up to put Milano up by 9. He wasn’t getting enough help from anywhere and it was shockingly easy for Dacka to reel them in out of the subsequent timeout. Here, a side with nothing to play for and far more reason to try and stay healthy for Turkish league action, had the alacrity of purpose that Milano so desperately needed.
Now the crowd was getting frustrated. Every slip by their players or perceived missed call by the refs was getting groans. This was meant to be the one straightforward W, for all the common lines about there being no easy games, and they were making a dog’s dinner of it. The stripe was the only part of Milano’s offence that seemed to be working well because the fresh rhythm they opened the quarter with had been replaced with your uncle trying to do the Soulja Boy dance at a wedding after six pints.
The groans grew louder and they were clearly pointed at the home side as much as the refs, save for the ultras of course who were just singing the whole time. A Kuzminskas three gave some cause for joy near the end of the frame but Dacka weren’t feeling any pressure. With 10 minutes to play, the visitors were on top 60-61.
All this despite having a big barn, a serious fanbase, and one of the most famous rich dudes alive to back them. Granted, some of the jersey choices over the years have been awful (the St George’s cross number was just dire). Simply not being the kings is still so alien to a club that has known home dominance only surpassed by Maccabi Tel Aviv on this side of the Atlantic and that spent the first half of its history as a permanent resident of Europe’s top table.
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Yet here they are tonight, with Fiero the mascot and his shield badly needing to beat a club with essentially no history in the sport and little future. Darussafaka got to the big show on the back of big money from Dogus Group, having essentially been irrelevant in Turkey since back to back titles at the start of the 1960s, has nowhere near the investment it used to have, and looks about as far from a threat as it gets at this level compared to its three season spurt that saw it pick up the Eurocup title and reach the Euroleague playoffs.
The scale of what Milano are going for really hits you once you walk into an arena like this. The full capacity of Virtus and Reyer’s arenas would fit in here combined and you’d still have about 4,000 seats left over. The arena may be an out of town job like Reyer’s, I really felt that with the Metro fine I got hit with, but the bodies still come here. This is where they expect the city to stand tall with the biggest and best in Europe.
Starting the fourth with a turnover wasn’t exactly the ideal scenario for Milano. Omic at least was able to draw a rebound that fell into the perfect spot for his 7’1″ frame and, who else, James restored their lead. Nunnally scored from deep and the crowd felt a reason to care again.
Nunnally’s was playing his third game in a Milano jersey but was already having all kinds of impact. He saved them in double OT at Gran Canaria in the previous round. Then Milano beat Pistoia in Serie A only to have it overturned for a 20-0 defeat as he played while still due to serve a 1 game suspension from almost three years prior when he was an Avellino player. He’d have an adjustment phase with Fenerbahce, picking up a Euroleague title, then look exactly like the man they hired as they got back to the title game, before his stint with the Timberwolves. Another Nunnally score, the place went wild, he waved them on, the lead was only 6 but enough to have relief in the cheers as the visitors decided to think things over.
The crowd tempered a little after a couple of flubs but Dacka were losing their handle just as easily. Jerrells pushed the gap back to 9 with a three and then followed right up with another. The D was holding fiercely now, not even giving up the interior. Now, if only Milano could do this for more than 2 minutes at a time.
Nunnally from deep and the noise is immediately tempered by Toney Douglas responding in kind. There was breathing room at least for Milano, not the type to get excited about but enough that they should have at least been confident against a team with a 3-18 record and exactly zero road wins all season. This place did not stink of reassurance.
James at least had the wits to take a more controlled approach to ensure Milano wouldn’t get in real trouble again. With a couple more threes from Kuzminskas and Jerrells, this one was safe. A far from impressive night but an ugly win that gets you to three in row will do. The final of 90-78 hardly reflected the home side’s concerning display and Maccabi are coming here hungry in two weeks.
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