The whiz kid meets the master

Dec 28, 2017 by Frank Lawlor, Print

Fans couldn't ask for a better Game of the Week than Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul vs. Real Madrid to open Round 15, which marks not only the halfway point of the long Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season, but also the transition from 2017 to 2018.

Fenerbahce owned the first half of 2017, that's for sure. Its first continental title was also the first by a Turkish team in any major European team sport – and there was no doubt about it, either. Fenerbahce so dominated the playoffs and Final Four last spring that you suspect its first EuroLeague trophy may not stand alone on its shelf for very long.

In the second half of 2017, however, another name has stood out above all others: Luka Doncic. First, he won a EuroBasket gold medal as a teenage starter and all-tournament selection for Slovenia. And now, at 18 years old, he leads the EuroLeague in average performance index rating and in spectacular, one-of-a-kind plays.

The recent history of these two teams is rich as any rivalry over the last three or four years. The first time Madrid met Fenerbahce with legendary head coach Zeljko Obradovic at the controls was in the 2015 semifinal in the Spanish capital. Obradovic was not only coaching that night against his old team on its own floor, but on the other bench was his former point guard, Pablo Laso, who is still on Madrid bench, thanks in part to winning their semifinal and going on that weekend to claim the club's first EuroLeague trophy in 20 years.

A year later, the tables turned and Fenerbahce dethroned Madrid with a 3-0 playoffs sweep in which perhaps the only bright spot for the losers was Doncic, recently turned 17, coming off the bench for 10 points in Istanbul in Game 2. Despite three games played between the teams last season, that cameo appearance in the 2016 playoffs remains Doncic's best effort against Fenerbahce. He will not need reminding that he was scoreless in two games last year against Fenerbahce and that those games represent the two worst PIRs – minus-3 and minus-5 – in his now 61-game EuroLeague career.

Of course, the game that mattered most last season was their do-or-die semifinal rematch. If someone had told you beforehand that Sergio Llull would drop 28 and Jaycee Carroll 21 on Fenerbahce, you would have said Madrid would win. But Fenerbahce dominated with a defense that took many of Madrid's key players out of the game, slapping a collective negative PIR of minus-13 on seven of them: Doncic, Gustavo Ayon, Rudy Fernandez, Jeffery Taylor, Jonas Maciulis, Dontaye Draper and Anthony Randolph. So it was not at all about what Fenerbahce did to the whiz kid that night. It was no contest across the board.

Which brings us to this rematch. Madrid, waylaid by injuries all season – including Ayon, Randolph and last season's MVP, Sergio Llull – won its first four games before dropping seven of the next eight, but now comes to Istanbul with a three-game victory streak and an 8-6 record.

Fenerbahce, with four new players and two of last season's heroes, Ali Muhammad and Nikola Kalinic, having hardly appeared yet due to injury, is just a victory ahead of Madrid, at 9-5. The champs have not lost more than a game in a row, but have dropped two of their last four at home. They have held nine of 14 opponents so far to 70 or fewer points with what is the EuroLeague’s second-best defense.

All eyes will be on Doncic, as usual, who has been absolutely pyrotechnic this season. Even faced by the toughest defense he has encountered yet, designed by the coach who has outwitted many superstars all along the way, Doncic can blow it up anywhere, anytime.

Much the same can be said, however, of Fenerbahce center Jan Vesely. As his team works around its own newcomers and absences, Vesely is playing the best basketball of his seven-year EuroLeague career. And he is uniquely skilled to take advantage of Madrid's frontcourt injuries.

It may be Round 15 of 30, but the standings show that these two are already fighting over the kind of distinction the biggest teams care most about -- not just getting to the playoffs, but finishing in the top four to get homecourt advantage, with which more than 75% of the teams over the years reach the Final Four.

That makes tonight's game the first head-to-head in a battle that could last well into 2018, beyond the end of the regular season. With these two teams, showdowns in the playoffs or Final Four are more likely than not.

All of which gives an added edge to the first tipoff of Round 15 and the last Game of the Week of 2017. The whiz kid faces the master of all coaches: a perfect way to end a year that both can call their own.