For the second time in four years, Real Madrid is fighting for the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague title at Stark Arena and there are many similarities between Los Blancos' 2018 and 2022 runs.
Deja vu? Real seeks another triumph in Belgrade
In both seasons, Real suffered several frontcourt injuries early in the season. Ognjen Kuzmic went down in October 2017 with a knee injury. Gustavo Ayon had to undergo surgery due to a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for four months. With both centers out and Anthony Randolph also sidelined for 14 EuroLeague games, Real signed Walter Tavares, who quickly became the team's starting center.
"It just happened, I came at the right time and we won it, but every year is so tough to win. For us it is a pleasure to be here, just to be in a spot to fight for the title," Tavares said. "So for us, it is a pleasure to come here and to do it every year, to get a chance to win. It came in my first year and I don't know if it was a kind of luck to be here at the right time but I was super happy to win my first one here."
Four years later, Tavares has become one of Real's pillars. He has earned EuroLeague Best Defender honors twice and name to the All-EuroLeague First Team in back-to-back seasons.
This season, Real has been through a lot, too. Both Randolph and Trey Thompkins were injured before the season started. Real's signing of Vincent Poirier late last season fortified the frontline and this time, its main centers have been healthy. Poirier has played 36 of a maximum of 38 games this season, and Tavares took part in 34. Just like in 2018, Real added another key piece midway through the season by bringing back Gabriel Deck.
Real had a 12-6 start to the 2017-18 season but slowed down after that to finish fifth overall with a 19-11 record. That sent Real into a playoff series against Panathinaikos OPAP Athens without the home-court advantage. Things looked horribly wrong for Real after the Greens romped in a 95-67 Game 1 victory. However, Real bounced back at the right moment, stealing a road win in Game 2 in Athens and taking back-to-back home wins with Sergio Llull - who had missed most of the season with a torn ACL - back in the lineup to advance to the Final Four. Once in Belgrade, Real eliminated CSKA 83-92 and edged defending champion Fenerbahce Istanbul in the 85-80 behind 17 points from Fabien Causeur.
"After being injured the whole season, I came back in the playoffs at home and helped the team qualify to the Final Four," Llull said. "Then we won and Felipe [Reyes] allowed me to lift the trophy with him. It was great."
Like four years ago, Real started strong by winning 20 of its first 23 games, but struggled towards the end of the regular season and needed to regroup in the playoffs. There it swept its series against Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv to become the first team to advance to the Final Four. In the semifinal against FC Barcelona, Causeur had 18 points en route to an 83-86 victory. Causeur, Llull, Randolph, Rudy Fernandez, Tavares, Trey Thompkins, Jeffery Taylor and head coach Pablo Laso are still with the team, four years later.
"The soul and character of the team are the same. There are similarities and we try to remember what we did well to win this trophy four years ago in order to repeat," Causeur said. "In a game like this, you have no choice but to play well. It is known that you come here to win. We are not the favorites, like in 2018, that's true, but here we are, in another final.
"These are special games and you have a lot of eyes watching you, so every time you play well, it kind of counts double. I will try to play well in the game that matters the most. In the end, playing well in the semifinal to lose the final would hurt even more. We are here to try to lift this trophy which we want so much."
Injuries? Check. Mid-season signings? Check. A slow regular-season finish? Check! Bouncing back at the right time? Check! Downing an Istanbul-based defending champion in the finale to lift the trophy? Well... we will find out soon!