After finishing the regular season in last place a year ago, few expected Anadolu Efes Istanbul to make a run at the Final Four this season. A long-time basketball powerhouse with the richest trophy room in all of Turkey, Efes had last reached the EuroLeague Final Four in 2000. After it missed the 2004 Final Four on a single shot and lost Game 5s in both the 2013 and 2017 playoffs, Efes at times seemed snake-bitten. Not anymore. This time, Efes had everything it takes. Now, a proud club's long wait is over.
The turnaround started last summer, when Efes revamped its backcourt with Vasilije Micic, Shane Larkin and Rodrigue Beaubois, and brought in power forward Adrien Moerman among more than half a dozen reinforcements. All were greeted by last year's holdovers – Krunoslav Simon, Bryant Dunston and Dogus Balbay – as head coach Ergin Ataman guided Efes on a memorable journey that reminded fans of the club's glory days at the turn of the millennium.
It did not take long for the rest of European basketball to take notice of Coach Ataman's troops, too. The new-look Efes won three of its first four games, including a double-digit comeback at home against city rival Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul. Efes then used a five-game winning streak to reach eight wins by the end of November, already surpassing its total of seven victories from the previous season.
A victory in their Round 25 showdown for fourth place with FC Barcelona Lassa, behind a 37-point performance from Larkin, aimed Efes toward home-court advantage in the playoffs for the first time this century. A strong finish to a stellar regular season got the team to 20 wins, a new club single-season record, and set up a best-of-five series against Barcelona.
Efes won the series opener but dropped a dramatic Game 2 in front of its fans. When the series picked up in Spain, however, Larkin's star rose again. Efes won Game 3 by 68-102, the second-highest margin of victory ever in the playoffs, while Larkin posted 30 points, the most scored in the playoff game since 2005. After Barcelona struck back to tie the series, Efes set a EuroLeague Playoffs record with 17 three-pointers en route to an 80-71 series-deciding victory in Game 5 at the jam-packed Sinan Erdem Dome.
By going from the EuroLeague's very bottom last year all the way to the Final Four this year, Efes has staked out new and uncharted territory. A team that rebounded from some of the longest negative streaks in the competition will have nothing to lose and plenty to gain in Vitoria-Gasteiz, as Efes finally returns to the biggest of all stages to compete for EuroLeague glory.
Road to Vitoria-Gasteiz
1. Anadolu Efes Istanbul punctuated its start to the season with an 89-83 home win in Round 4 over the cross-town rival that would become its semifinals opponent, Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, as Rodrigue Beaubois led the winners with 17 points.
2. In Round 6, Efes embarked on a five-game winning streak that included victories against playoff participants Panathinaikos OPAP Athens (78-62) and KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz (96-85).
3. In Round 28 Efes beat host Buducnost VOLI Podgorica 84-91 behind 18 points by Vasilije Micic to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs. The team would also win the last two regular season games against Baskonia, again, and AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan.
4. After FC Barcelona Lassa flipped home-court advantage in their playoff series with a Game 2 win in Istanbul, Efes stole it right back in Game 3 with a record 68-102 road victory led by Shane Larkin's 30 points.
5. Efes won do-or-die Game 5 by 80-71 and punched a Final Four ticket for the first time in 19 years as Larkin and Adrien Moerman each scored 18 points, and the team broke the playoffs record with 17 three-pointers made.