The stage could not have been any bigger. Indeed, some regard the semifinals at the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four as the toughest test because reaching the championship game is the minimum goal for any team at the event. Two players in particular passed that test with flying colors on Friday, and here is how.
Muhammed rises to the occasion for Fenerbahce
Ali Muhammed just loves playing in Belgrade. Less than two months ago, the veteran point guard hit 7-of-10 triples in a total of 25 points as Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul recorded a comfortable 63-80 victory over Crvena Zvezda at Aleksandar Nikolic Hall in Round 28 of the regular season. On Friday night, Muhammed returned to the Serbian capital and played the single-most important role in his team's semifinal victory over Zalgiris Kaunas, coming off the bench to score a game-high 19 points in less than 12 minutes on the floor.
It wasn't just the number of points he scored that mattered – it was when he scored them. Zalgiris was threatening a spectacular comeback towards the end of the third quarter, pulling the score back to 50-48 with a hard-charging 0-11 run, but then Muhammed decided it was his time to take over. First he finished the third quarter with a couple of two-pointers, and then started the final period with a pair of triples, taking his tally to 10 points in just over three minutes to spark a 12-4 run that reestablished his team's double-digit lead – a margin Zalgiris would never come close to recovering from.
"Incredible that he scored 12 points in 11 minutes, but that is [Ali]," his head coach, Zeljko Obradovc, said. "Not many people have a character like [Ali]."
"I am ready to help my team any way I can. Whenever my team needs me, I'm always trying to help," Muhammed said. "I was happy to help the team get the win. I was just looking for my shot. I have done that before in a lot of games, I was just trying to spark my team. Experience is everything. It is not easy to play on the big stage like this. We were here before and we knew what to expect."
There were other reasons for Fenerbahce's victory as well, of course – especially the smothering defense which grabbed a season-high 13 steals, 5 of which came from Nicolo Melli, a new personal best – while forcing Zalgiris into 20 turnovers. All but three of those steals came in the first half to allow Fenerbahce to establish a solid lead, with the champs' success in limiting Zalgiris to 0 three-pointers before halftime also playing a big part.
But that all threatened to count for nothing when Zalgiris fought hard to come back after the break and Fenerbahce needed a hero to prevent their dreams of retaining the title from disappearing. They found one, and his name was Ali Muhammed.
Boy wonder to man wonder
Whatever it is that lets Luka Doncic mature so fast should be bottled and sold to teenagers everywhere.
It was a year ago in the semifinals that Doncic made his first Final Four appearance and was stopped in his tracks by eventual champion Fenerbahce Istanbul and their masterful coach, Zeljko Obradovic. One year later, Doncic will have a chance to get back at Fenerbahce after he made a 180-degree turnaround on Friday in what was his second do-or-die game in a Final Four.
Back then, on May 19, 2017, Doncic went scoreless and had a performance index rating of minus-5 – his career-low in 79 EuroLeague games – against Fenerbahce in his Final Four debut. This time, 364 days later, he was every bit the leader of Madrid's 83-92 comeback victory over CSKA Moscow to reach the championship game on Sunday.
Of course, in between those dates, Doncic became a EuroBasket national champion with Slovenia, led the EuroLeague in performance index rating, earned four EuroLeague MVP of the Round awards and another monthly one, claimed his second straight Rising Star Trophy, and was voted to the all-EuroLeague First Team.
Oh yeah, and he turned 19, too.
People will notice first that he co-led Madrid in scoring with 16 points and performance index rating with 18 on Friday. But perhaps more important were Doncic's 7 rebounds and, most especially, his defense. He was on the floor during all of the 6 minutes 36 seconds of the third quarter when Real Madrid held CSKA – one of the highest-scoring teams in EuroLeague history – to exactly 1 point. Madrid went from being down 51-47 in that span to leading 51-60 with a 0-14 run that Doncic capped with a three-pointer. That changed the game on more than the scoreboard. CSKA looked stunned to be held without a basket in all that time, and never really recovered.
Doncic's 16 points were the most by a teenager in any Final Four game this century, but what else is new? The answer is that Doncic is newer and better, it seems, with every new challenge he faces.
"Last year's semifinal was good and bad," Doncic said after Friday's win. "Bad because we lost, but good because we learned many things."
On Sunday, for the title, Doncic faces the only team that has ever erased him as a factor in a big game. But that was a year ago, although it seems now like a century, for all that Doncic has learned and matured since. His and Madrid's battle against the force that is Fenerbahce will be epic.
But the boy wonder is turning into the man wonder before our eyes.