It took more than half a season but, finally, Fenerbahce look something like the team that made it all the way to the Euroleague final last May. Emmet Ryan is cautiously optimistic for the Istanbul club after a big win over Panathinaikos
The expectation this season was simple. Fenerbahce only had one step on the ladder left to climb, winning Euroleague. After last season’s thrilling title game defeat to CSKA Moscow in Berlin, the possibility of a multi-season CSKA-Fener hegemony at the top of the Euroleague tree seemed likely. Here were two teams clearly a cut above the rest of the sides on the continent with the bodies and finances in place to stay there for around three years. Pretty much every neutral arbiter had the pair as their pre-season 1 and 2 for the regular season, with a showdown to settle it all in Istanbul in May broadly assumed.
Then Fener went and disappointed big time. There were signature wins but even those showed problems. The Fenerbahce game was too slow and clunky, they didn’t have that extra something to really terrify opponents. For all their talent, Fener looked beatable and by the mid-way stage of the season their credentials as even a top four contender merited real debate.
A week ago however they gave a glimpse, in defeat, that they might be on to the problem and closer to a solution. Despite the heavy use of small-ball failing on the road to Crvena Zvezda, the sheer fact that they were able to take a small-ball approach was a huge leap from the stodgy play that had blighted their season up to now.
The first quarter against Panathinaikos in Istanbul on Thursday showed us some big changes with Fenerbahce. They showed the difference between pace and speed, not wasting time creating chances but not trying to run the ball at 100mph either. Zelijko Obradovic went with two pretty clear tandems in the back court through the quarter, starting with Bobby Dixon and James Nunnally before switching to Kostas Sloukas and Bogdan Bogdanovic. It was a set-up with clarity before Zoc went mixing things up to keep the opponent guessing through the rest of the game.
Clarity is something that’s definitely been missing from Fenerbahce’s game this season but here we saw real coherence behind the rotations Obradovic was putting together before piling on and raiding his depth to hurt Panathinaikos. Size remains Fenerbahce’s biggest strength and, even without the injured Ekpe Udoh they made it count. The arrival of Ahmet Duvieroglu, at least on this night, looked like a potential solution to the ongoing Turkish player question surrounding Fener. Their depth has been hindered by not having Turkish bodies they can get on the floor with regularity, particularly given their requirements in the BSL, and having a second player (after Dixon) with that eligibility who can do that is huge. Duverioglu looked great against Panathinaikos, on top of the lovely stat-line he showed a fundamental understanding of what he was out there to do and how to do it with the players around him.
With Fener it’s about the sum of the parts. The bigs make life easier for the back-court, as was seen with Bobby Dixon hitting a swag three to start the third with acres of space around him, and the diversity of guards enables Fener’s front-court to find lots of ways to hurt people. All Panathinaikos could do to answer was rely on Mike James and Chris Singleton to create for themselves. There was no fluidity out there. In near every other PAO loss, they’ve come out of it looking like a side no-one really wants to meet in the post-season. In this one? They looked like just another victim.
That’s the Fenerbahce we remember. The ability to make a good team not remotely look like themselves for the duration of a game. The rotations suck the life out of opponents early and continue the assault until the gun. Jan Vesely’s alley-oop off a Kostas Sloukas pass late in the game was the exclamation point on this win but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
One game doesn’t make everything right and Fenerbahce, psychologically at least, needed the W a lot more than the visitors. Fenerbahce should be posting results like this during the regular season and with a lot more frequency than we have seen. The return of Udoh to the line-up should allow them to power on and the low-risk acquisition of Anthony Bennett may off another dimension. If Udoh and Vesely can essentially switch in for each other without having to share the floor too often, that’s only going to allow Zoc to find more ways to hurt teams. We know nothing about Obradovic’s plan for the former number one pick yet and he may not get much of a shot to feature in Euroleague but every extra option presents something for the Fenerbahce coach to ponder. It’s another way for him to adjust and find a way to beat teams, to earn Fener’s place at the top of the ladder. The road back there looks a little easier after Thursday night.