Coming off its first Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four appearance in 29 years, Coach Ettore Messina and his AX Armani Exchange Milan troops headed into the new season needing to make sure there would be no early-season hangover. Four games in, and the team is in a better shape than it has ever been this century.
Milan has started the season with four wins out of four for the first time this century. After double-digit victories over CSKA Moscow, Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv, on Friday night Milan held off defending champion Anadolu Efes Istanbul and now shares the best record in the EuroLeague with FC Barcelona, the team that ousted it in the Final Four semis last May.
Milan has seven new players compared to last season's roster, but that's hardly felt. And it is probably because of the strong defense the team has been playing in the early going of this season. As stated by point guard Malcolm Delaney after beating Efes on Friday: "Defense is what we are trying to take pride in this year."
Milan's defense has not allowed more than 74 points in a single game this season and is holding opponents to 70.3 points per game. Apart from the fact that this is tied for the fourth-best mark after Round 4, even more importantly it this is a massive improvement from last season, which saw Milan allow 78.4 points per game.
"We are trying to establish our identity, we want to be better defensively this year. If we don't score sometimes, we still have something to fall back on," Delaney explained.
Against Efes, that defensive identity was on full display late in the first half, when Milan allowed just one basket in a span of more than 5 minutes and used a 17-2 run to turn a 9-point deficit into a 6-point halftime lead.
"That was a key for the win", Messina said post-game. "Even after going down 8 or 10 points, we managed to finish the first half with the lead."
Another key is the depth of the roster, making this team capable of beating the defending champs even when Sergio Rodriguez played fewer than 11 minutes due to foul trouble and Nicolo Melli finished the game scoreless.
That's where the likes of Devon Hall (13 points, 3-for-5 three-point shooting) and Dinos Mitoglou (9 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals), come in. They helped the team finish the game with 14 made triples and 22 assists.
With Delaney, Shavon Shields, Luigi Datome and Kyle Hines also onboard, Milan has the look of a team equipped and ready to dominate – through defense and offense – and for which a 4-0 record is just the start of things to come.