It is do-or-die time for the teams at the 2018 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four with the semifinals on Friday at Stark Arena in the Serbian capital. First comes Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul vs. Zalgiris Kaunas and then it's CSKA Moscow against Real Madrid. Here are just five of the storylines to follow for the big night we are all waiting for!
Welcome to Belgrade!
Belgrade has been one of the great capital cities of European basketball for a long time, and this weekend the Serbian capital has the chance to really revel in that role by hosting the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four for the very first time. There will be plenty of activities all over the city – especially at the iconic Kalemegdan Fortress, where thousands of visitors will enjoy the FanZone with fun and games for all the family including several events in support of One Team, Euroleague Basketball’s social responsibility program. The weekend will also include the unveiling of this season’s league MVP in a glitzy award ceremony on Saturday night and the elite of Europe’s youth players going for glory in the finals of the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament.
But the action that really matters will get underway on Friday evening at the recently renamed Stark Arena – a wonderful venue for the semifinals between Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul and Zalgiris Kaunas, followed by CSKA Moscow against Real Madrid, for the right to play in Sunday’s championship game, which is what this weekend is reall all about.
Long-range threat from balanced Zalgiris
One of the key factors behind Zalgiris Kaunas's march to the Final Four has been the Lithuanian champion's incredibly accurate shooting from beyond the arc. Zalgiris has made 42.41% of its shots from downtown, the highest percentage recorded by any team since French club Pau-Orthez mustered 42.90% way back in 2003-04. The two main long-range bombers for Coach Sarunas Jasikevicius’s team have been Kevin Pangos and Arturas Milaknis, who have both averaged more than two triples per game: Pangos has made 2.15 per game at 47.1%, while Milaknis has averaged 2.18 at 45.4%, and containing their threat will be a major challenge for Fenerbahce.
However, a notable aspect of Zalgiris's success is that Jasikevicius has instilled a very balanced approach. And perhaps paradoxically, Zalgiris has attempted fewer three-pointers than any other team (16.85 per game) despite enjoying the greatest amount of success with those attempts. That shows excellent shot selection and will force Fenerbahce to respect all areas of Zalgiris's game rather than focusing solely on the long-range shooting threat.
Master aiming to outthink apprentice
Balanced offense has always been a hallmark of decorated Coach Zeljko Obradovic’s game plan as well, and the tactical battle on the sidelines between the Fenerbahce coach and his Zalgiris counterpart Jasikevicius will be fascinating to behold. Considering the impressive successes he has enjoyed in his brief coaching career to date, it's tempting to regard Jasikevicius as the natural heir to Obradovic’s status as the continent's most pre-eminent play caller. There are many parallels between the two men, with Jasikevicius enjoying a dazzling playing career as a point guard and winning one of his four EuroLeague titles as a player under Obradovic's tutelage at Panathinaikos in 2009. However, there’s no way that Obradovic will be prepared to hand over his mantle just yet, and he will see the emergence of his former player into the upper echelons of coaching as just another challenge to overcome. Will the master prevail? Or is the apprentice ready to continue his upwards ascent? We’ll find out on Friday.
CSKA’s returning stars?
One of the big questions ahead of the second semifinal between CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid is injuries. In the red corner, All-Euroleague stars Nando De Colo and Kyle Hines were out of action for several weeks – missing nearly the whole of the playoffs series against Khimki Moscow Region (De Colo played nine minutes of the first game), but both played in VTB United League action last week and are expected to be on the floor at the Final Four. That would be a huge boost to Dimitris Itoudis’s team, because they are two of the most-decorated players in recent EuroLeague history. Hines was named the Best Defender Trophy winner for the second time in three seasons, while De Colo won the league MVP award two years ago and is a strong candidate to take that honor again this season after ranking second in scoring and third in index rating. Their return could work two ways: on the plus side, they could be fresh and well-rested following their recent breaks, but on the other hand it may take some time for them to regain their rhythm. Their availability, and how Coach Itoudis decides to use them, could be major factors.
Madrid’s full backcourt?
There are similar questions on the opposing bench, with Madrid continuing the reintegration of last season’s MVP Sergio Llull, who missed the entire regular season through an ACL injury but gave a couple of strong performances in the final two games of the playoffs series against Panathinaikos. Llull played for 18 and 19 minutes in those two games and now, three weeks later, should be ready to be unleashed at full speed for the Final Four, while there could also be a return for fellow point guard Facundo Campazzo after he missed the playoffs through injury.
Into that mix, of course, also comes the player who leads the league in index rating this season, Luka Doncic. The 18 year-old averaged 10.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists during the playoffs and will now be looking to make his mark at the biggest event in European basketball. If Doncic and Llull can both fire on all cylinders with the support of Campazzo, Madrid will take some stopping.