The drinking and thinkpieces are why you come here but it would just be weird if we didn’t have a straight up preview of the Final Four. Here’s how Emmet Ryan sees it going down
Nobody comes to Berlin without flaws but the team with the few holes looks pretty obvious. Fenerbahce don’t have a point in their game where fans really ought to gulp. The interior is stacked and there’s talent in the back court. Last summer the Kostas Sloukas sweepstakes was wildly over-hyped but the end product has actually worked out ok with the Greek a valuable asset but a long way from the guy. In that respect Fener have ample options. Bogdan Bogdanovic looked like a grown ass man in the playoff series with Real Madrid while Gigi Datome and Ekpe Udoh have each seen their performances improve substantially as the season progressed. Udoh is the most blindingly obvious example going from good to very good to one big bruising weapon as the year progressed. Likewise Bobby Dixon has grown into his role making his one-on-one match-ups less of a factor and enabling him to create and score in a style that suits his team.
Staring Fenerbahce down will be a Laboral Kutxa Vitoria team aka Baskonia that has seen all the talk be about Ioannis Bouroussis because, come on, the guy has been unreal this year but comes with ways to hurt you across the court. The obvious weak point is the over-reliance somewhat on the big Greek but when you have a guy playing on that level, of course you are going to lean on him. The rise of Baskonia has been from a team that looked like a dark horse in the early part of the season to a side everyone assumed would make the playoffs by the start of the Top 16. Going into the playoffs folks were still a little shy on backing them to beat Panathinaikos but they showed in that series that they are coming to Berlin with a legitimate shot at winning the trophy.
In a best of five series, I’d probably take any of the other three teams here over Lokomotiv Kuban. In single elimination ball, they are a nightmare of an opponent. They ride with Malcolm Delaney but it’s what he is able to do off the ball that matters almost as much as his pure offensive threat. The possibility that Delaney will hurt you makes teams respect the man with championship experience across three European leagues. That need to commit coverage to him makes Chris Singleton and Anthony Randolph better ballers and far from a fun match-up.
Lastly there is, as ever, CSKA. The pressure is arguably lighter this year. On the glass they aren’t exactly coherent but they have the best starting back court and the deepest guard rotation of any team in Europe. That level of quality at the 1 and 2 can make up for an awful lot of other issues. The Moscow club are narrow favourites, at 6/5, but 7/4 Fener are going to be the de facto front runners before a ball is tipped here. They have the crowd and the form throughout the season to look like the best team here.
As far as the semi final pairings go, the split is the best it really could be for the teams we have in terms of stylistic conflicts. A Fener-Loko clash, which we have already seen twice, doesn’t have the same mystique as the Turkish club battling Baskonia. The opposite oddly makes CSKA and Loko a fascinating clash as neither side has shown true supremacy in head to heads in recent years. All four teams will go into Friday’s games with objectively justifiable reasons to believe they can make it to the big one on Sunday.
History indicates that more likely than not one of these games will be a blowout but for me this has more of an air of the Istanbul Final Four. Both semi finals scream of being absolutely squeakers. I’m going chalk today and backing Fenerbahce and CSKA to progress but given CSKA’s tendency to CSKA and Baskonia’s ability to defy convention I won’t be remotely shocked if it ends up with neither in the big one. As for my overall winner, I have one picked and even if they don’t progress I’ll come clean on who I went with on Sunday in my preview of the final.
Enjoy the games everyone.