On the eve of the BSL Finals in Turkey, Emmet Ryan examines two clubs at different points in the road with Fenerbahce and Anadolu Efes having radically different motivations to end the season on a high
Efes having home advantage in this series will have easily caught those who aren’t regular followers of the BSL by surprise. While a clash of the big two in Turkey is a surprise to no-one, it just seems odd that Fener go into the finals having to win as anything other than top seeds.
Back at the start of the season there seemed no side in Europe that could match Efes for depth save, maybe, for CSKA Moscow. Fenerbahce had big names but many of their moves, particularly in the back court, warranted scrutiny while no-one knew exactly how they would adapt following the exits of Nemanja Bjelica and Andrew Goudelock. Efes meanwhile were stacked. A team that had made it to the playoffs in Euroleague a year prior looked to have gotten deeper everywhere and their younger stars looked ready to carry them to the top in Turkey and across the continent.
The Euroleague story never really panned out. A so-so regular season that ended in a decent finish for Efes seemed to be the type of run that a side coached by Dusan Ivkovic could put behind them before mounting a big charge in the Top 16. The manner of their opening round win at that stage, overcoming a fright at home to Crvena Zvezda reinforced that view. Yes, this wasn’t a team putting together 40 minute games but it was one that would find ways to win due to the sheer talent on board.
The truth was a lot uglier. The Top 16 was a disaster and Duda left the Istanbul club, with Ahmet Çakı now at the helm as they look to salvage something from a season which once promised so much. After losing to Fenerbahce in April, a run of three straight wins meant Efes held on to top spot barely heading into the playoffs but this is a club where change is surely in the air once more. Last season Efes got caught in the train that was Pinar Karsiyaka in the finals, yet again they have home court and seem to be staring down the inevitable.
Every question there was about the maybes on Fenerbahce’s side got answered really quickly this season. A romp through the regular season was followed by a super Top 16 and a rout of Real Madrid in the Euroleague playoffs. While they stuttered against Baskonia in the Euroleague Final Four, Fener found a way to win in overtime. Then, when it appeared they were doomed against CSKA Moscow at half time in the final, Fener were carried to a near incredible upset by Bobby Dixon’s hero ball before eventually falling in OT. Add in a Turkish Cup title and this is a side that is showing it is far more prepared for pressure games than the one that fell flat at the end of last season.
The steps for Fener couldn’t be clearer. They are writing their own narrative. The only side from the 2015 Final Four in Madrid not to claim its domestic crown and with another financial force emerging in its own league, with Darussafaka showing it can compete with anyone in terms of contracts, the pressure was on to make sure they went forward. Out went names synonymous with the Istanbul club like Ogus Savas and Emir Preldzic, both moving to Dacka. In came Pero Antic, Luigi Datome, and Kostas Sloukas who you may recall was the subject of the wildest free agent hype in Europe for quite some time. In too came Dixon, a man the wrong side of 30 but with the right passport and fresh off being the miracle man through last year’s playoffs. Fener may have been getting talented ballers but it was also a gamble as such signings bring with them expectation. It wasn’t an off-season where they ramped up on role players, although Sloukas turned into an excellent one. Progress was mandatory.
Anyone who witnessed the demolition of Real Madrid or the performances in Berlin, where Fener’s depth nearly won them a title as no one man had an entirely great weekend, can see that steps have been taken. There are still questions of who is the guy. There are big time talents there, talents who looked riskier than those brought in by Efes but who have delivered so much more, but it remain unclear who Zeljko Obradovic really wants to have the ball when the game is on the line. Players have stepped up to take that role but it still remains a question as to who the optimal option is.
Efes have hung with Fener every time they have stared down their rivals this season. Across four meetings, Zoc’s side leads the season series 3-1 but all of the games have been close. Fener’s extraordinary home record, unbeaten on their own floor since October in all competitions, and brilliant late season form point to a clear win for Obradovic’s side. For Efes to win this series they have to post 4 wins on a team that has lost just 3 games in all competitions since March.
Timing has been Obradovic’s biggest advantage this season, both micro and macro. In-game, he’s been able to get his side to come good when they have to, and over the season their progress has seen them peak at the right times. A sweep is hard to see but Fener doing anything other than lift the trophy is tougher. Fenerbahce in five.