We are just a few hours away from one of the biggest sports showdowns in the world: the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four! I believe that many of you can already feel the enormity of the situation: 16 teams, 30 rounds of battles, four amazing playoffs series. La crème de la crème of European basketball fought to the very end and only now we can have the four finalists: CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos Piraeus, Real Madrid and Fenerbahce Istanbul. They all fully deserve to play this final stage and I will substantiate my claim right away. I mean after I explain why, even though I was asked to make predictions, I will not fall into the trap of doing so. But allow me to do something different.
First of all, you need to take into consideration: A) The atmosphere. B) The tension. C) The immense pressure. And the list goes on… It is mandatory to go a little more into the details, and I will prove to you that the phrase "They can all take a trophy" is not a cliché, but a fact. Let's go team by team.
CSKA Moscow – The reigning champion
You can really measure the grandeur of an organization not the year they win a trophy, but the year after. I know we are talking about one of the best sports organizations in the world, but if you check the list of winners, you will see that back-to-back titles are not so common. Everybody is chasing you and you are the target. Repeating is always hard, but the Russian powerhouse has all the ingredients to cook another masterpiece dish. The players have done an amazing job; they played with a quality rarely seen.
Nando and Teo were poetry in motion; they were creative and efficient. They put together a highlight show almost every night. Higgins: if you need to score, feel free to call his number. He is going to deliver. He was already crucial in the playoff series against Baskonia. Jackson is a floor general who always brings defense and energy. He was always a great slasher, but I don't know if everybody realizes that he is shooting threes at 44%! Vorontsevich is a big that really stretches the floor (48.5% on threes). Khryapa came back with a very solid season. His experience and his great basketball IQ are crucial. And we all remember that final tip in on that offensive rebound, right? You know what NBA guys always say? Shooters always travel with the team. So I won't forget Vitaly Fridzon as an important weapon. I see Augustine as a facilitator. He is so good in reading and being at the right place every time and this helps the team! Last but not least, I'm extremely happy for Kyle Hines and Nikita Kurbanov, who are both players I have had the privilege to coach, for their constant sacrifice for the good of the team; they became very important for one of the best teams in the world. Bravo guys, great players and even better persons. And Coach Itoudis was great at combining modern basketball with consistency and the best off-the-ball movement around their two shining suns.
Olympiacos Piraeus – Back to Istanbul
I get a little romantic when I talk about Olympiacos. Maybe they are not the most talented team at the Final Four, but they have other stuff. Confidence, great defense, unbelievable team spirit and… Kill Bill. His Majesty, Vassilis Spanoulis. Keeping the core of the team without any revolution, Olympiacos has reached the Final Four a year after not even making the playoffs, and has done so despite losing one of their key players, Hackett. That is AMAZING. They are grinders and they grinded their way up to the top again. Coach Sfairopoulos built a team that never quits, with clear roles and consistency. Olympiacos is the worst opponent to play when they are the underdog. They have already won two EuroLeague titles by coming from behind.
There are two more things to consider: 1) Spanoulis is Mr. Basketball. He carries the team on his shoulders every night like Atlas carries the globe. Plus, don't forget that his wife Olympia is expecting another baby, and for those who don't know, he tends to win titles in the same year that his children are born... Yes, Olympiacos can win and the reason is that to succeed at the Final Four you need to have personality and you need to have a leader who will stand in front of his teammates and show them the way. London, Istanbul. He has already done it.
2) Printezis. The headache. When you hear about Olympiacos, you always think about their defense, but on offense – aside from Spanoulis – they have Printezis, who is a lethal weapon, can score with his back to the basket, facing the basket, hitting big threes. It is a headache to stop him. This duo is really dangerous and among their key players are also Papanikolaou and Papapetrou, who stepped up this season, and Mantzaris. Add to this cocktail some of the best pick-and-roll bigs and the microwave Green and you have a contender.
Fenerbahce Istanbul – Strength in numbers
For starters, I have some numbers for you. Eight EuroLeague titles. 10 EuroLeague championship games coached. 2015 marked Fenerbahce's first ever Final Four. In 2016, the team reached its first EuroLeague championship game and lost in overtime. And 2017?
To me they were like a submarine. You saw them when they were leaving the harbor. You heard of some big ships that they sank through their journey and you found them at destination Final Four! When I look at Fenerbahce, I think of a group of Navy SEALs taken on a mission lead by the winningest general ever. They had to reach Istanbul and they did it, despite adversities and injuries. It seems to me they had a plan from the beginning. I know everybody has a plan, but they stuck to their philosophy of basketball like no one else: unbelievable physical impact at both ends of court, consistency and toughness, great size and tough defense with bigs who can hold opposing guards far from the basket without asking for any help. Fenerbahce has great versatility, super-sized alignments, small ball, an inside game, an effective pick-and-roll game, shooters, hustle players PLUS they are in the best shape at the clutch moment.
And then there's the nightmare of guarding Vesely and Udoh on the pick-and-roll. With Udoh and Vesely in the middle, it's not easy to finish around the basket for you, and it's a nightmare to guard them on pick-and-roll situations. Bogdanovic makes the big plays and hits the big shots of a true leader. Datome, il grande Gigi, is a great player and great guy; the perfect fit for any big team. Kalinic is the toughest glue guy out there. Little big man Bobby Dixon plays big with no fear, huge personality and big confidence. Kostas Sloukas is a very effective pick-and-roll player with great basketball instincts. Tell me, if you are going to war, are you not going to take Pero Antic with you? When the going gets tough out there, you want him on your squad. And last but not least, THE COACH, Zeljko Obradovic, is a living legend. They have millions of fans ready to push them over the limit. They are ready to make history.
Real Madrid – the team with the talent
Depth, size, athleticism, experience. These are some of Real Madrid's qualities. The key factor for me is that when they use their bench, they never drop in quality, size or talent. Let's just start from the guards. Let's begin from Mr. Clutch, Sergio Llull. How many huge shots has he hit? How many games has he won with a big play? It's insane! His combination of energy, intensity, physical impact, talent and personality is something rarely seen. He is a leader who leads with actions more than words. Scrolling down the roster in the backcourt, what are your needs? Size and creativity? Doncic is "the next big thing," or to be more accurate, a big thing right now! And he's a shooter! Add the near-perfect shooting of Carroll, the experience and shooting of Rudy, mostly when the game is on the line and you need somebody to create an advantage out of the plays, the toughness, the inside game, the guts. And then there's another great shooter in Maciulis, a 2.01-meter stopper who can guard any position from 1 to 4 in Taylor, and if you need a closer, always ready with the right poise, you have Draper.
Now... about the frontcourt: Ayon, Randolph, Reyes, Hunter and Thompkins. Is this a PlayStation roster or reality? The combinations are infinite and the talent is, too. The toughness and experience are there. They even have bigs who can handle and pass the ball. Three-point shooting? Of course, yes. Rebounding and intimidation? You don't have to ask. Madrid has the most complete roster at the Final Four thanks to the great job done by Coach Laso. He unleashed the talent of his players and that's a big accomplishment.
I believe you will agree with me when I say it's going to be a great show of basketball. I can already imagine the electrifying atmosphere. Buckle up and enjoy.