It’s the side with the fewest holes despite losing one of its brightest stars a year ago. Emmet Ryan on how Real Madrid look even better than the side that won it all in 2015 as they head to the Euroleague Final Four
Tired. That’s the only way to truly describe how Real Madrid looked through most of the 2015/16 campaign. The side that had won the triple crown to end 2015, followed up with an Intercontinental cup in the autumn, looked exhausted from the get-go. It had been a long time on the road for many of its key players, with the bulk of its side involved in EuroBasket right up until the end. They were able to still reign in Spain last season but they never looked capable of defending the title they had waited 20 years to win.
Now, La Decima, is on and it’s with largely the same group that had been sluggish a season prior. Much like Olympiacos on the other side, a couple of roster adjustments and a lot of changes by existing bodies have made Real Madrid into arguably the best team in Europe. The hints were there in pre-season with displays that at times looked more explosive than anything they had delivered a year earlier. While a 6-2 start to the regular season was promising it wasn’t until Round 9 and a trip to the Palau Blaugrana that the continent really started to realise how good this team might be.
En route to an utter shellacking of Barcelona, Anthony Randolph went and did this
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It was the kind of moment where you could believe this side was able to do anything. Randolph came to Madrid on the back of an impressive stint at Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar. The American, like all of his team mates, had to somewhat play second fiddle to the do-everything Malcolm Delaney but he had displayed more than enough to show he was ready for brighter lights. A 28 point outing in an elimination game away to Barcelona in the playoffs showed he could be the guy to lean on. He was the extra big option Real Madrid needed but he was far from the end of the story as a whole raft of other players would step up in the season to come.
Depth has been the big switch here. Othello Hunter’s arrival meant the front court was stacked. It enabled Gustavo Ayon and Felipe Reyes to become more comfortable in their roles. Jeffrey Taylor, brought in for his defensive presence, became more of a factor on that end and Dontaye Draper, a prodigal son returning from Krasnodar, offered more support there. Then came the in-house switches. Rudy Fernandez, not close to the player he was two seasons ago, has become a role playing defensive specialist.
All of this is nice but the two parts that are being left out have been discussed more than most. Probably MVP and floor general Sergio Llull has emerged as a bona fide leader for this team. When Sergio Rodriguez went to the NBA, there was a heap of pressure on Llull who has always been talented but often frustrating. This season, that extra touch of responsibility has brought out the best in him. In games Real had no right to win, he took it upon himself to get the job done.
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Then there’s the emergence on Luka Doncic. The unanimous winner of the Rising Star award, he’s proven he can not only hang with the many talented veterans on his own team but take command when needs be. For an 18 year old he’s doing some incredible things.
Yet staring down this extraordinary side is the ultimate challenge in Fenerbahce. The home side and one that has been able to ruin Real Madrid’s deep game repeatedly. That simply won’t stand in front of a hostile crowd in the Sinan Erdem Dome.
For all their talent, there is still doubt over this team and not through the individual fault of the current players. You have to go back to 1980 in the now demolished Deutschlandhalle for the last time Los Blancos claimed the ultimate prize away from Spanish soil.
For this crop of players, that doubles the challenge this weekend but also the potential glory. La Decima used to be the obsession of Real’s footballers. Now, the basketball department gets to make its own kind of history.