The first semi-final of the 2018 Euroleague Final Four sees the defending champions go up against the Cinderella story of the season. Emmet Ryan breaks down the clash between Fenerbahce and Zalgiris
We’ve learned one thing above all else with Zalgiris this season: Don’t set a ceiling for the Kaunas club. When they started the year, anything above a bottom three finish was considered a good result. As the season wore on, they looked capable of replicating the prior year’s 10th spot in the standings. Then it got real, they were definitely going to the playoffs. But it was Olympiacos so surely…nope, job done with dominance.
On Friday they face the betting favourites for the title. Fenerbahce haven’t exactly had it easy this season. They had two huge departures last summer in the forms of Ekpe Udoh and Bogdan Bogdanovic. They replaced their production with a string of signings but still, there were questions around them. What we got was a consistent force, one that showed its depth in numbers and breadth of options. Here was a side that was built to find ways to win and keep winning. It wasn’t enough to top the standings but they come to Belgrade more loaded than Zalgiris and far healthier than CSKA Moscow or Real Madrid.
The breakdown here is going to come down to what Zeljko Obradovic does with his rotations. He has options and will be tempted to lean heavy on key contributors at times but the big factor for him will be in finding ways to wear our Zalgiris. Sarunas Jasikevicus has drilled his side to be efficient, not to get gassed, so they can stay in the fight with deeper rosters. Countering that will be huge for Zoc, he needs to put that pressure on the Kaunas club.
The partnership between Kevin Pangos and Brandon Davies is going to be really tough for Fenerbahce to disrupt. The one area where there’s a clear ability for Zalgiris to lean is in that tandem. Fener need to think not so much about stopping it but more in limiting its damage.
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The range Fener has is what can make it the superior force out there. Brad Wanamaker can take charge in phases. Kostas Sloukas knows how to calm things down when it gets too hectic. Jan Vesely will just go out and do things really well. Throw all the other pieces around them and it’s going to be difficult for Zalgiris to disrupt Fenerbahce with sufficient frequency.
They did find a way before earlier this season in Istanbul but the fear with a side that gambles, even one as measured as Zalgiris, is falling victim to tilt. They can’t overplay what they’ve got. They can’t run Fenerbahce off the floor, there’s too much gas in the Istanbul club’s tank to do that. Zalgiris must stick and move, keep this game active throughout, and force Fener into making the tighter calls.
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For all the nous and organisation in this Zalgiris side, it’s hard to see them having enough to get the job done. They certainly have a far better shot in single-elimination play against Fenerbahce than in a series but the order within Fener simply can’t be ignored.
Obradovic knew he needed a different type of Fener to last year in order to retain the crown. The side he has built has been less explosive but also far less vulnerable. This is a side that’s built to win a cagey battle like the one he can expect from Saras.
This should be a cracker, despite the fears of it turning into a blowout. I don’t see Fenerbahce or anybody running this Zalgiris team off the floor. All the same, there’s only one clear choice for the final.
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