By David Hein
MADRID – It was perfectly fitting that Spanish King Felipe VI attended the Turkish Airlines Euroleague championship game as His Majesty the King witnessed Real Madrid’s re-ascension to the throne of European basketball.
King Felipe VI got television air-time shaking his head in amazement at some of the plays that led Madrid to a 78-59 victory over Olympiacos Piraeus for the club’s record ninth title in Europe’s top international club competition – and most importantly its first crown since 1995.
King Felipe VI handing over the Euroleague trophy to Madrid captain Felipe Reyes not only ended Real’s 20-year drought – their longest between championships. It also eased the minds of Madrid faithful who had watched their beloved Blancos lose in the previous two Euroleague championship games.
Some could say Madrid needed the home court advantage to finally add another piece of hardware to their trophycase. But Real coach Pablo Laso and his team deserve to call themselves Euroleague champions in a weekend full of intriguing storylines ending with the home team finally getting business done.
Many embarked on Madrid talking about the 2015 Euroleague Final Four having the goods to become possibly the best ever.
Madrid were going on 20 years yearning for the elusive ninth title. Their semi-final opponents Fenerbahce Ulker featured the Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica as well as perhaps the greatest coaching mastermind in the game, the eight-time Euroleague champion Zeljko Obradovic – the man who led Madrid to their last title and coached the player Laso for two years at Madrid.
The other semi-final offered up just as much intrigue – if not more – with CSKA Moscow taking on Olympiacos Piraeus. The recap of the last two Final Four encounters between these teams reads like a feel-good, underdog Hollywood script. And Euroleague fans came to Madrid drooling over Act III to play out in the Barclaycard Center in the heart of Spain’s capital.
The former Palacio de Deportes was a sea of CSKA and Olympiacos red for the first semi-final, which pitted Euroleague’s top offense – CSKA – against its best defense – Olympiacos.
CSKA Moscow came into the season with a new coach – the up-and-coming Dimitrios Itoudis, the long-time assistant to Zeljko Obradovic at Panathinaikos, where they won five Euroleague crowns together. The Russian powers also had new faces looking to bring the Euroleague trophy back to Moscow for the first time since 2008.
But in the back of the minds of neutral observers, fans of both teams and probably players from both sides were the 2012 and 2013 Final Fours.
The 2012 final in Istanbul turned out to be one of the most memorable games in basketball history with Olympiacos racing back from a 19-point third quarter deficit to beat CSKA 62-61 on Georgios Printezis’s floater with 0.7 seconds left.
CSKA came into that 2012 game as overwhelming favorites, being coached by former Euroleague winner Jonas Kazlauskas, who also won Olympic bronze as coach of Lithuania. And the team was stacked with the likes of Andrei Kirilenko, Ramunas Siskauskas, Milos Teodosic, Nenad Krstic and Victor Khyrapa.
But Olympiacos pulled off the magic thanks to Vassilis Spanoulis, Printezis, Kostas Papanikolaou and Kyle Hines.
The two teams faced off again at the 2013 Final Four in London, and few believed Moscow would falter again to Olympiacos – this time in the semi-finals. CSKA brought back head coach Ettore Messina – the man who guided the Red Army to their 2006 and 2008 Euroleague crowns. Also new were Sonny Weems and Aaron Jackson.
Olympiacos were again unfazed, sweeping past CSKA 69-52 before taking the 2013 title in an offensive spectacle, 100-88 over Real Madrid.
It was Itoudis’ turn at the helm this season for CSKA, who also brought in French star Nando De Colo and were re-united with Kirilenko after he left the NBA. But Olympiacos was still the bogey-man waiting in the bathroom – with the faces of Spanoulis and Printezis alternating to torture CSKA supporters.
But Olympiacos surely couldn’t do it again, could they?
Since the 2013 crown, Papanikolaou and Pero Antic have made the NBA with Houston and Atlanta respectively; Hines has moved to CSKA; Acie Law and Stratos Perperoglou have left town as well; and head coach Georgios Bartzokas was replaced by Giannis Sfairopoulos, who was actually Kazlauskas’ assistant on the 2012 CSKA team.
What remained the same was that core of Olympiacos players – Spanoulis, Printezis, Vangelis Mantzaris and Kostas Sloukas – and the undeniable faith and trust in the ultimate leader Spanoulis, who had come up with so many huge shots and plays in the past for Olympiacos.
That faith was needed in the semi-finals as Spanoulis missed his first 11 shots against CSKA, who were leading by nine points with less than four minutes left. The man Olympiacos call “Billy” finally stepped up – finally hitting a three-pointer. He nailed another trey to give Olympiacos the lead 64-63 – a step-back long ball, which left those in the Barclaycard Center aghast, wondering if CSKA would crumble once again.
Spanoulis came back down the next possession and hit a tough jumper for a three-point lead and the Olympiacos fans were going mad. CSKA would tie the game but Spanoulis had the ball in his hands and delivered yet again – launching a three-pointer over De Colo to make it 69-66 with 9.9 seconds left. There was no holding back the Olympiacos fans while the media members were left looking at one another asking themselves if this was for real. That proved to be the game winner as Olympicacos were back in the final with a 70-68 victory over CSKA, who missed a chance to exorcise their demons and now have a whole new set of nightmares with which to deal.
Where had we left off with Madrid? Ah yes, The 2013 final loss to Olympiacos.
The Spanish club in 2013 was actually back in the Euroleague title game for the first time since winning the 1995 crown – finishing fourth in 1996 and 2011 in their two Final Four appearances between those games.
But that was hardly compensation for a club with such storied history. And expectations were high going into last season.
Madrid were able to overcome Olympiacos – dethroning the two-time champions in the quarter-final playoffs in a fantastic 3-2 series battle. Laso’s Madrileños also returned to the final – beating Spanish arch rivals Barcelona in the semis. But they once again lost the title game to Maccabi Tel Aviv, coached by David Blatt, who would leave for the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers in the off-season.
Laso re-tooled his team quite a bit since last season, bringing in Andres Nocioni, Gustavo Ayon, Jonas Maciulis and KC Rivers. And they all would play a major role at the Final Four – where they first had to take down Fenerbahce.
Turkish basketball is on the rise with the clubs investing big money in their teams, and Fenerbahce are no different. After a failed attempt at building a winner with coach Simone Pianigiani, Fenerbahce hired the legendary Obradovic, who won his eight Euroleague titles with four different teams – Partizan (1992), Joventut Badalona (1994), Real Madrid (1995) and Panathinaikos (2000, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2011).
And in his second year at the helm, the maestro put together a team with a tantalising mix of athleticism and playmaking abilities. In addition to the ultra-versatile point-power forward and Euroleague MVP Bjelica, Obradovic also had Bogdan Bogdanovic, Emir Preldzic and Kenan Sipahi in addition to the great scorers Andrew Goudelock and Ricky Hickman as well as the veteran leader Nikos Zisis and a motivated Jan Vesely looking to re-establish himself after a subpar three years in the NBA.
With that kind of talent available, Obradovic guided Fenerbahce to the Final Four for the first time in club history – and the first Final Four for a Turkish club since Efes Pilsen in 2001.
But not even a great mind like Obradovic could stop Madrid when they are truly clicking on offense. And Madrid were certainly humming in the second quarter of the semi-final, nailing nine straight shots and 11 of 12, including six three-pointers to blow the game open with a 21-point lead. Previously mentioned off-season acquisition Rivers nailed four of those long balls in that stretch.
Fenerbahce fought back to within 10 points with two minutes left but Madrid had just built too big of a lead for Fenerbahce to overcome. Ayon was huge with a season-high 18 points and Nocioni was all over the place on offense and defense.
CSKA Moscow bounced back to save face by taking third place thanks to a huge first half – or a disastrous first 20 minutes from Fenerbahce’s point of view. Fenerbahce once again made it interesting late but could not get the victory as CSKA won 86-80.
Just before the Euroleague championship game, the Final Four weekend’s other main highlight got some attention as the All-Tournament Team and Most Valuable player of the Adidas Next Generation Tournament (ANGT) were announced and honored. Just hours earlier, Real Madrid won its first title in the tournament’s history with a 73-70 victory over the reigning champions Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade. The MVP trophy was handed over to Madrid’s Luka Doncic, who wowed fans for four days with his overall brilliance in the Under-18 tournament. His MVP performance – he averaged 11.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists – was all the more impressive considering he only turned 16 years of age on February 28. The 1999-born Slovenian youngster, the son of the former Union Olimpija Ljubljana player Sasa Doncic, has already seen a meteoric rise on draft boards in three years time.
Doncic was joined on the All-Tournament Team by his Madrid teammate, Romanian Emanuel Cate, who had eight blocks in the title game; Bosnian all-around ace Edin Atic from Spars Sarajevo; the 2014 Finals MVP Vojislav Stojanovic of Crvena Zvezda; and France’s Killian Tillie – the brother of Euroleague and French senior national team player Kim Tillie.
With all other loose ends tied it, that left only the title bout, which in the tale of the tape appeared to be a clear knock-out – with the possibility of an ugly beat down by über-talented Madrid over Olympiacos, who were really just Billy and the Kids – okay, maybe Billy, Printz and the Kids.
Olympiacos and Madrid played out a tough, lacklustre game as Olympiacos tried to control the tempo defensively and Madrid worked hard to keep Spanoulis under wraps. The Spaniards opened a seven-point lead at the half Olympiacos came back with their one big flurry of jabs – a 12-0 run for a 41-40 advantage. Laso answered by bringing Jaycee Carroll off the bench and the move proved magical – and in the end title-winning. Carroll somehow hit two outrageous three-pointers under heavy pressure en route to a 38-18 close to the game – and King Felipe VI laughing it up with Euroleague CEO and President Jordi Bertomeu.
As the Madrid lead increased point-by-point, the Olympiacos fans kept looking at Spanoulis to finally produce another magic trick. More Madrid points – still no magic. It never came. Spanoulis took zero shots in the final three-plus minutes and finished with three points for the game.
Billy looked out of sync and tired and in the end frustrated – throwing the ball at Rudy Fernandez after the Madrid forward had clearly annoyed Spanoulis inside the final 10 seconds.
Even if Spanoulis were to hang up his sneakers today, he would be widely regarded as a clutch player. What happened in the final? We may never find out if he was just worn out from another long run or if there was an injury.
But his poor performance by no means lowers the magnitude of Madrid’s royal showing. Nocioni once again had another outstanding all-around performance and in the end was honored with the Final Four MVP award. Laso’s place in history will forever include a Euroleague championship and not the distinction of having lost three straight Euroleague finals.
Madrid had finally ascended back to the throne of European basketball – and that under the watch of the King. How fitting.