The question going into the Round 5 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Game of the Week on Thursday between host Real Madrid and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul is this:
Can these teams return to their pre-pandemic dominance?
Of course, that is why the games are played, to find out how such stories end. But most of the last decade, the story for Real and Fenerbahce was the same: all roads led to the Final Four.
Indeed, between 2013 and 2019, there was no such thing as Final Four without one – or more often, both – of them.
Real played in six Final Fours over that stretch, missing Berlin in 2016 only because it was swept by Fenerbahce in the playoffs. It was one of the other that year. The Spanish powerhouse had knocked Fenerbahce out in the semis the previous season, going on to win that 2015 title at home, its first in 20 years. Later, Real bettered Fenerbahce in the 2018 championship game in Belgrade.
In between, Fenerbahce lost the 2016 final in overtime before claiming the first EuroLeague title by any Turkish club in 2017 after beating Real in the semis. In all, the Turkish club made five consecutive Final Fours between 2015 and 2019 – the third-longest such streak ever – and reached the title game in the middle three of them.
When both lost in the 2019 semifinals, however, it meant the first championship game since 2012 without either team. And then when the Final Four returned last season, it did so without Real or Fenerbache, who both fell in the playoffs.
Much has changed from when Real won their last Final Four matchup, the third-place game in 2019.
Fenerbahce has just five players left from that night’s two-and-a-half years ago – and one, Marko Guduric, left and returned. But the person missed most at Ulker Sports and Even Hall is no doubt former head coach Zeljko Obradovic, who took a sabbatical last season and has returned with his original club, Partizan NIS Belgrade, in the EuroCup.
Real has only Fabien Causeur, Rudy Fernandez, Walter Tavares and Jeffery Taylor from its 2019 roster expected to suit up tonight. Sergio Llull is injured and it remains to be seen when injured forwards Anthony Randolph and Trey Thompkins, who played in 2019 but not yet this season, can return.
Almost in unison, Fenerbahce and Real, Final Four regulars of the last decade, have passed their torches to new runners, a transition that usually requires time.
For Real, Felipe Reyes retired over the summer, Jaycee Carroll seems to be following him, Fernandez is 36 and Llull turns 34 next month. The ball belongs mostly now to Thomas Heurtel, Alberto Abalde, Nigel Williams-Goss and Adam Hanga, while Tavares has front-line help from a new pair of French big men, Vincent Poirier and Guerschon Yabusele. Who among them will emerge as the pillars alongside Tavares of the most-crowned club in European basketball history is the storyline of the moment.
Fenerbahce two years ago matched an established superstar, Nando De Colo, with another former MVP, center Jan Vesely. But Nicolo Melli, Kostas Sloukas and Nikola Kalinic all found their ways home to Italy, Greece and Serbia, respectively, and Ali Muhammad just retired. In their spots now are Danilo Barthel, Achille Polonara, Marial Shayok, Dyshawn Pierre and Pierria Henry, three of them new this season. Fenerbahce’s riddle is the same: who will be there in the crucible of the make-or-break EuroLeague moments that are sure to come, because they always do.
Such games as tonight’s are where those questions start to get answered.
Seen at: Euroleague.net