For the two teams that won on Thursday of Game 4, their next games in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague will be at the Final Four in Belgrade. The two teams' paths to the Final Four could not have been more different; Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul is the reigning champ and headed to its fourth consecutive Final Four, while Zalgiris Kaunas will compete in its first Final Four since the turn of the century. In their Game 4 wins, both displayed tools and talent that they will need in Belgrade. The EuroLeague Gurus explain.
Coach Saras has inexperienced Zalgiris ready for prime time
Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius drives his players hard. Over the course of the season, even after the biggest of wins, he never let his players get overconfident, but instead refocused them on the next task at hand. Compliments were accompanied with harsh assessments of what needed to get better. Clearly, his messages were well received because when the dust cleared on the court at Zalgirio Arena on Thursday night, his players and their loyal fans were celebrating a historic berth at the Final Four. And then Saras let loose with some compliments.
"These guys are a very special group," Coach Saras said. "It's true they don't have experience, but not too many teams in EuroLeague fight like Zalgiris fights. So I think they compensate for their inexperience with amazing spirit. They are all great people who love to improve. So my hat's off to them."
So much of what Zalgiris does is in the likeness of their coach. The team plays smart, the team plays hard and the team is never afraid. So in what may have been the biggest game many of them have played in their lives, Zalgiris never trailed and recorded a season-high in scoring and the second-most points in a playoff game (non-overtime) in competition history. The team made 13 of 24 three-pointers (54.2%), which was one off the club record. No player missed more than 1 free throw and the team shot 83.9% from the foul line (26 of 31).
Those numbers are not typical of inexperienced teams in such situations. Surely it helps to have experienced players like Paulius Jankunas, Antanas Kavaliauskas, Arturas Milaknis and Beno Udrih, but this will be the first Final Four for those players, too. No stage is too big for this team especially with one of the great winners of his generation, Jasikevicius, on the sidelines.
It was a masterful performance in Game 4 and Saras even conceded afterward that it was time to smile. "Let's go celebrate," the coach said. But the next words out of his mouth were: "...and we'll get ready for Belgrade."
The countdown to the semifinals at Stark Arena have begun. And thanks to Coach Saras, Zalgiris will be ready when it gets there.
Fenerbahce shows depth right before the big event
Before Game 4, it was undeniable that KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz was growing as a team throughout its playoffs series against Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul. Baskonia played well in Game 2 and lost and downed Fenerbahce in an excellent Game 3 to gain some momentum. And Baskonia managed to slow Fenerbahce's top scorers in Game 4. Jan Vesely (13.1 ppg.), Brad Wanamaker (11.5 ppg.), Kostas Sloukas (11.5 ppg.) and Luigi Datome (9.7 ppg.) combined for over 44 points on average this season and for just 21 on Thursday. Any other team would struggle if its four top scorers produced half their normal amounts, but far from it, the defending champion played one of its best games of the season to take a road win at Fernando Buesa Arena that sent the team back to the Final Four.
Fenerbahce needed go-to guys and found them in two players without Final Four experience, Nicolo Melli and Marko Guduric, who are eager to be part of European basketball's signature event. Melli and Guduric combined for 20 of Fenerbahce's first 33 points and hit a couple of three-pointers apiece to make it a double-digit game, 22-33. Far from being done, Guduric and Melli combined for 17 points in the third quarter to stop Baskonia's comeback after the break. Guduric finished the game with 22 points, Melli added 21 and the duo combined for a performance index rating of 52.
A great first half in which Fenerbahce shot with excellent percentages (13 of 19 2FG, 68.4%; 6 of 12 3FG, 50%) put Fenerbahce on the right track to seal its ticket to Belgrade. Fenerbahce has made it to its fourth consecutive Final Four; only CSKA Moscow has had a longer streak in this event. Fenerbahce now has the chance to successfully defend its title at Stark Arena in Belgrade. It is an opportunity for coach Zeljko Obradovic to go full circle - he can become the first person or club to win 10 EuroLeague titles and do it in his home country, Serbia.