It’s time for the 7DAYS EuroCup Finals and here’s a look at some of the storylines to watch this week as the last two teams standings, Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar and Darussafaka Istanbul, begin their battle for EuroCup glory.
The best against the best
This is only the second season that the 7DAYS EuroCup Finals are played in a best-of-three format and the fifth season in which a series will decide the EuroCup champion. It’s the first time in that span that the two teams with the best record in the competition face each other at the end of the season. In the previous four years, there was always at least one team in the finals that did not dominate the entire season. In 2014, Valencia Basket went all the way despite accumulating fewer wins than three other teams and in 2015 Lokomotiv opened the season with a 19-0 record, but failed to reach the finals. In 2016, finalists Galatasaray Odeabank Istanbul and Strasburg combined for 14 losses. Last season, Unicaja Malaga lost nine games, but still lifted the crown. Of course, everyone knows it is only important how you play when it matters most, and that’s the playoffs. However, this season, Lokomotiv and Darussafaka have been the best for the entire season. Lokomotiv is undefeated in 20 games, which speaks for itself. Darussafaka won its first six games to open the season and enters the finals having won 10 of its last 11 games. Both teams swept through the playoffs, and the finals should be a spectacle to behold. Interestingly, this is not the first time these the two teams have met. Lokomotiv and Darussafaka faced each other in the 2015-16 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and split home wins. That could carry importance for Scottie Wilbekin and Furkan Aldemir who played in those games and are still with Darussafaka, and a certain familiarity with the surroundings in the road gym could help. Ryan Brokehoff is the only player from those games still with Lokomotiv, however, he is injured. The two head coaches, David Blatt and Sasa Obradovic, were not with these two teams at the time, but Blatt has beaten Obradovic twice before. Blatt coached Maccabi Tel Aviv to a pair of wins over Obradovic’s ALBA Berlin during the 2012-13 EuroLeague season.
Road team chances
Lokomotiv sports a 20-0 record, which is the best-ever start to a EuroCup season and tied for the longest winning run in competition history. With a Game 1 victory, Lokomotiv would set a new record winning streak at 21 games. Apart from having the best-ever record, Lokomotiv also has home-court advantage in this series. However, history tells us that home-court in the championship series is not much of a guarantee. Over the past four years, the team without home-court advantage in the EuroCup finals has won the title twice, including Unicaja last season when it took Game 3 in Valencia. And every year other than in 2016, at least one game in the final series has been won by a road team. Valencia won at Khimki Moscow Region in the return leg of the 2014 finals series, Khimki beat Herbalife Gran Canaria in the first leg of the finals in 2015, and Unicaja stunned Valencia in the deciding third game last season. If any EuroCup teams know what it’s like to win on the road, they would be Lokomotiv and Darussafaka. Of course, Lokomotiv is undefeated, while Darussafaka has an 8-2 record away from home, with one loss coming in overtime, and the other when the team had already secured first place in its Top 16 group.
Beware of defenses
Points scored could be a premium in this EuroCup finals series as it features without a question the best two defensive sides in the competition. Lokomotiv’s defense ranks first in fewest points allowed (68.5), performance index rating (65.9), two-point (46.3%) and three-point (29.0%) shooting. Darussafaka ranks second, just a bit behind Lokomotiv in points allowed (71.1), PIR allowed (70.2) and three-point percentages (30.5%) it allows, and is fourth by holding opponents to 48.5% two-point shooting. Darussafaka actually allows fewer triples (6.5) than Lokomotiv (6.6), which ranks them second and fourth this season, respectively. Despite forcing teams into missing all these shots, Lokomotiv remarkably still allows the fewest rebounds (29.7) per game. Lokomotiv held opponents below 70 points in 14 out of 20 games this season and has not allowed more than 74 points since December 5 when it beat ALBA 84-89 on the road. On the other hand, Lokomotiv’s offense is just above average, ranking eighth with 82.6 points per game, sixth with 18.8 assists and 10th with 10.4 offensive rebounds per game. Darussafaka, which held opponents to 70 or fewer points in 11 games, has been below-average on offense, scoring 79.5 points and dishing just 15.8 assists, which ranks 20th among 24 teams. But Darussafaka does attack the glass well with 11.3 offensive rebounds per game (fifth-most) and has the competition's top scorer Scottie Wilbekin (18.9 ppg.), who can make all the difference.
EuroCup inexperience that does not matter
At first glance, it does not look as the two finalists are very inexperienced. They certainly did not play that way this season. Moreover, Lokomotiv is only five years removed from winning the EuroCup crown and hopes to become the fourth club with multiple competition titles, following what two-time champs Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius and Khimki and four-time champion Valencia have already accomplished. Darussafaka is a club with a long tradition and lifted its first titles back in the early 1960s. Their coaches, David Blatt and Sasa Obradovic, are certainly not inexperienced. However, both Blatt and Obradovic are indeed in the EuroCup finals for the first time in their respective careers, and those titles Darussafaka won in 1961 and 1962 are also the last titles of any kind for that team. In addition, no player that won the EuroCup title with Lokomotiv in 2013 is still with the team, and the only two previous EuroCup winners Lokomotiv does have on the roster are Dmitry Khvostov who won the title with Khimki in 2012, and Stanislav Ilnitskiy who also won it with Khimki in 2015. Of the two, however, only Ilnitskiy appeared in a finals game. Two more Lokomotiv players have made an appearance in EuroCup championship series, but on the losing side, with Mardy Collins having it done with Strasbourg in 2016, and Pavel Antipov with UNICS Kazan in 2014. As far as Darussafaka, none of its players have reached the EuroCup finals before, however, they were equally inexperienced in the quarterfinal and semifinal series, and it did not seem to matter as they swept both.
EuroCup leading scorer Scottie Wilbekin hit 10 triples in Game 2 of the semifinals and now needs 11 more three-pointers to tie the all-time single-season record (63) of three-point shots made by Chris Lofton of Beskitas in the 2013-14 season. Wilbekin averages 3.25 triples this season and now he is also facing the competition's best defense. Impossible? Consider this: Wilbekin has made at least 1 three-pointer in all 16 EuroCup games he has appeared in this season. He has made at least 2 threes in a game 15 times, at least 3 triples on 10 occasions and 4 or more in five different games. And he hit 10 triples in his last game. He is surely no stranger to breaking records this season. Those 10 threes, as well as 41 points he dropped on FC Bayern Munich, set all-time EuroCup records for points scored and three-point shots made in a non-overtime game. Also, Wilbekin was named MVP for both the 2017-18 7DAYS EuroCup Regular Season and the 2017-18 7DAYS EuroCup Semifinals. This was the inaugural season where players receive MVP honors at the end of each stage, and the Darussafaka guard is the only player to be named MVP for two stages in one season. So, keep an eye on his three-point tally. Lokomotiv guard Dmitry Khvostov has 344 career assists and needs only 6 more to get to 350 and move into top five in career assists, which would tie him with Mike Smith. With 7 assists, Khvostov would catch E.J. Rowland for fourth place on the all-time charts.