AX Armani Exchange Milan attracted plenty of attention at the start of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season. Under head coach Ettore Messina, the club had made major moves in the summer market, bringing in ex-champions like Kyle Hines and Luigi Datome, as well as hungry-prime-time players like Malcolm Delaney, Zach LeDay, Kevin Punter and Shavon Shields, to join the household names already in Milan. Together, they had one goal: to put Milan back in the EuroLeague Playoffs after seven years.

Despite Punter’s early-season injury, all started as planned, with three victories in the first four games, with wins over FC Bayern Munich, LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne and Real Madrid. But after a parenthesis due to COVID-19, Milan fell to 3-3 by mid-November and had to rebound while squeezing in extra games.

Its first three-game winning streak started began with Milan handling Zalgiris Kaunas, Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv and ALBA Berlin in a span of 14 days. The victory over Maccabi came on the road, marking the first time since 1987 that Milan won in Tel Aviv.

Dropping home games to eventual non-playoff qualifiers like Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens hurt, but Milan soon gained momentum, most notably in its mid-December double-round trip to Istanbul, dropping Fenerbahce Beko and Anadolu Efes in a span of 48 hours thanks to stellar defense against which neither host could manage more than 71 points.

Unfortunately, once back home, that defense flagged in successive home losses to TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz and CSKA Moscow, leaving Milan on the playoffs bubble in eighth place at midseason, with several teams close behind.

That, however, is when Milan’s turning point arrived. It all started with a 76-80 road win over Real Madrid in which Sergio Rodriguez, a former EuroLeague MVP with the Spanish club, rose to the occasion. That sparked a six-game winning streak that included successes against Valencia, Maccabi — in which Rodriguez broke the 3,000-point mark for his EuroLeague career– as well as Zenit St Petersburg and Bayern. That perfect January six-pack of victories, in which its opponents averaged just 72 points, boosted Milan all the way to third place with a 15-8 record.

Shields missed five of those wins and veteran Vladimir Micov four of them, but in their absences, Milan found that any number of its players could be leading scorers, including Datome, LeDay, Punter and Rodriguez.

A 78-69 loss at ASVEL broke the spell, but four more victories in the next six games were highlighted by another pair of pivotal road wins, a 64-69 decision to sweep Zalgiris in Kaunas and a pivotal 76-84 ambush of CSKA in Moscow. Together, those wins assured Milan of remaining a step ahead in what was fast developing into the EuroLeague’s tightest playoffs race ever.

Nonetheless, just like other teams, Milan would have to wait until Round 32 and a resounding 72-93 road win at Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade to finally claim the coveted playoffs ticket for which it had been waiting so long. By then, Delaney had suffered a knee injury that had kept him out seven consecutive games, but he was back in time for a celebratory regular season-ending 98-75 home win over Efes that guaranteed Milan fourth place and home-court advantage in the playoffs.

Now, Milan tackles its first playoff series since 2014, when it lost 3-1 to eventual champion Maccabi after losing Game 1 at home in overtime. The opponent this time will be FC Bayern Munich, a team making its first playoffs appearance ever. Whoever comes out on top from the series, it will be their first Final Four appearance in the modern EuroLeague since the turn of the century. Milan’s last appearance in the tourney was in Istanbul in 1992, where it lost in the semis to eventual champ Partizan Belgrade.

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