With the playoffs probably out of reach and a 10-game losing streak at one point this season, not many people would check Milano games on their schedule and label a Thursday home game at Mediolanum Forum as «must see Euroleague TV». Except that Darüşşafaka has stakes as high as their budget, and need to hold to the playoff picture like treasure hunters, having lost their last 2 to Efes and Žalgiris. Against an Italian team that has been strangely basketball-relevant in the last few weeks, they looked in complete control in the 3rd, before crumbling in spectacular fashion despite having the obvious best player of the night in Ante Žižić, who was scoring at will.
It’s safe to say that the Croatian center left his coach with mixed feelings after such a game. Often a stat sheet filler, Žižić started the game and was as impressive by the eyes as he was by the numbers (17 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks). Of course, Milano’s frontcourt rotation wasn’t exactly the type of defense invented to stop him — Repeša went with 2 forwards most of the game (McLean-Mačvan with bad results, Sanders-Pascolo during the whole 4th with great success; Miroslav Raduljica’s new, awesome, “Tuco-like” moustache made an aesthetically interesting appearance against Oğuz Savaş, so the Fashion Week crowd was pleased). His choice was to be aggressive in pick-and-roll defense and willing to switch on some screens. All this led to a dominating game from Žižić — effective as the roll man, capable of passing the ball on the short roll, applying constant pressure on the offensive rebound, punishing mismatches with some low-post scoring, and providing good looks from 3 without having to touch the ball via his rolls and off-ball screens. He even created opportunities with his defense.
Despite the impressive performance, David Blatt decided for some reason that he should mimic Repeša’s small ball, playing Harangody next to a very good Moerman. This spacing-heavy system worked quite well with Moerman at the 5 in the first half. While Žižić started the second half and contributed, growing the lead to +25 (43-68 in the third), Blatt went back to the small ball 5 that sunk late, giving up improvised shots to magician Davide Pascolo. What had looked like another blowout suddenly became a not-so-impossible-to-lose affair. At this point, we can suppose Blatt should regret playing and resting Žižić at the wrong times — it was puzzling to see that after a not-so-bad start to the fourth (scoring on an offensive board, a big block on Pascolo), he was quickly benched after 2 mistakes that you may consider overlookable when they are made by such an impactful young player. Even if one of these mistakes was being abused by a throwback Pascolo play.
It’s not common to see David Blatt out-coached, especially by someone as criticised as Repeša. His Kalnietis-Simon-Fontecchio-Sanders-Pascolo lineup may not be something you learn in coaching classes around Europe, but as soon as it had leverage, he decided to stick to it while Blatt desperately looked for a counter-formula. Simon going mad from 3 (on a night Milano went 10/16 and 3/5 in the fourth) while Darüşşafaka coughed up possessions without even using a pick-and-roll made it clear that Blatt should have brought back Žižić sooner, to anchor a more classic offensive and defensive scheme. Even the playcalling in the last minute was a disaster, with Clyburn losing himself in the forest for an absurd turnover and Wannamaker ignoring everyone for an iso shot. On the other hand, Milano found the exact mismatch they needed with Sanders scoring on Wannamaker — they then survived the foul game.
All this leads us to wonder if Darüşşafaka can really miss the playoffs? Now a win behind Efes for the 8th seed, and having lost 3 in-a-row in manageable matchups, they’re facing Fenerbahçe, then Real Madrid. Not exactly the most favourable situation to find how to use all the talent on the roster in a more convincing way.