At the outset of the new EuroLeague a familiar duet will be invited to greet the audience at another exciting year. Real Madrid and Olympiakos, after three finals among them the last twenty years (Zaragoza 1995, London 2013, Madrid 2015) – and several more big games almost every year – are called upon to do it again in the beginning.
Last year’s meetings between the two rivals had as a result a clear win for Real in Madrid (84-72, Llull 14 – Hackett 14) and the emphatic answer from Olympiacos in Piraeus accompanied with the covering of the point deficit from the first game (99-84, Mantzaris 19 – Llull 17).
At the end of the top 16 though, Olympiacos faced its first disqualification from Euroleague playoffs since 2005 and Real Madrid ended outside of the home advantage ranking. Some days later, Fenerbahce Istanbul swept in fashion the 2015 Euroleague Champions knocking them out of Berlin Final Four.
This year, the two top dogs are facing each other again starting an interesting season with big changes especially in the format of the league.
Real Madrid lost Sergio Rodriguez who decided to continue his career in the NBA (Philadelphia 76ers) but kept compact the recent years winning core including stars like Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernandez, Felipe Reyes, Jonas Maciulis, Gustavo Ayon, Jaycee Carroll and Andres Nocioni.
Quality adds like Anthony Randolph and ex-Olympiacos Othello Hunter along with the highly anticipated break out year of talented youngster Luka Doncic are Madrid’s hopes for a better season.
Olympiacos succeeded to resign Vassilis Spanoulis who will be the go to guy again and next to him Giorgos Printezis is going to co-lead the team with the assistance of the experienced Kostas Papanikolaou, Vaggelis Mantzaris, Daniel Hackett and Matt Lojeski.
The addition of Khem Birch, the gradual return of Patric Young and the presence of Nikola Milutinov are bringing interesting assets on the table at center even if the recruitment on this position seems a mite overmanning. Erick Green is supposed to augur variety on the offensive end, he can create his own shot and helps the team finding the proper spacing too.
Pablo Laso and Giannis Sfairopoulos were both successful on domestic leagues the previous year (opposite to Euroleague), crowned champions versus strong rivals Barcelona and Panathinaikos respectively.
They are coming from different origins, the offensive minded – fast paced strategy of coach Laso will once again come up against low mistake – low possession style of Sfairopoulos. In truth, it is hyped that Olympiacos will open up the defence this year aspiring to improve fast break efficiency but it isn’t sure that the game in Madrid is the right game to give it a go for the first time.
However, before Wednesday night it’s worthy of mention that it’s the same old story for both opponents as sixteen years ago found themselves in a similar situation being the pioneers of another fresh start for the Euroleague.
After the variances between ULEB, FIBA and the European clubs during the summer of 2000, an unprecedented schism took place in European basketball, after which two high-level club competitions arose: SuproLeague (FIBA) and Euroleague (ULEB).
Except for a few although remarkable exceptions, the best basketball teams in Europe decided to participate in the new ULEB competition, expecting a better management of their revenues. Real Madrid and Olympiakos weren’t only two of the biggest clubs of the new ULEB Euroleague but also the teams that were selected to inaugurate the new organisation
Beyond that, there were considerable rule changes starting in the new league that summer: The use of 24-second shot clock (instead of 30-second) was the most important of them as it modified the whole game, especially as it came to the pace. From there onwards, teams had to adaptat to a new style of play, trying to find the best choice available in the fastest time.
Four ten-minutes quarters (in place of two twenty-minutes halves), 8 second violation for not reaching the centre of the court (10 seconds in the past rules) and finally, bonus situation reduced to four fouls (instead of eight) – all those changes came to improve the game, making the new ULEB Euroleague more attractive for the fans.
On October 15 2000 Real Madrid and Olympiakos crowded for the very first game of the new Euroleague.
Sergio Scariolo (Madrid’s head coach) had just succeeded what Obradovic and other coaches since 1993 -1994 didn’t, winning the Spanish League. Madrid was a nice bunch of Spanish talent (Herreros, Raul Lopez, Angulo brothers), Euro help (Sasa Djordjevic as the team leader, Milic, Zidek, Struelens) with only one American, (Erik Meek – ex Iraklis, Peristeri) on the roster.
On the other hand, Elias Zouros in his first heavyweight job had tο turn into a solid team a group of talented but promiscuous players. The signings of Dino Radja, Nikos Ekonomou, Stephane Risacher, Nikos Boudouris among with the return of 1997 Rome Final Four MVP David Rivers, made the story more interesting since the new additions along with players that already existed (Tomic, Vuksevic, De Miguel, Papanikolaou) made Olympiacos’ roster one of the best in Europe.
Dino Radja scored the first basket of the new Euroleague era, Sasa Djordjevic responded for Madrid but seconds later injured when he fell on Nikos Ekonomou leaving Raul Lopez alone as the main ballhandler of Madrid.
Olympiacos looked to be the grand favorite for the win at that time. Piraeus team retained the lead for almost the entire first period having low post game with Radja and Ekonomou and pick-n-roll plays with Rivers and Radja.
At the same time, Real chose to attack with Milic and Struelens in low post, efforts that didn’t prevent Olympiacos from the four point advantage at the end of the first period (19-23).
Real put Erik Meek in low post in the second quarter, Meek scored 7 points while Olympiacos was benching Radja (rest) and Ekonomou (3 fouls) for Femerling and De Miguel. Without the x-factor duo of first period, Madrid took the lead (31-28).
Olympiacos recovered (37-39) scoring a three pointer with Ekonomou and a goal-foul with Risacher. At the end of the first half Zouros played the French as a power forward after both Ekonomou and De Miguel found themselves in foul trouble.
In the third period Olympiacos put a little fast break play into the equation, Rivers had some good moments, Vukcevic and Ekonomou too. The bad news were that the scoreboard of Raimundo Saporta didn’t reflect the reality on the good work that Olympiakos was making at this time. Reds finished the period with only a two point advantage thanks to a Dusan Vukcevic fast break. Madrid had stayed in the game with great low post execution, off-ball cuts to the basket, rebound advantage and nice shooting off the screens. They managed to prepare their counter attack on the last period when Radja and Ekonomou were again on the bench.
On the fourth quarter opening, Zouros played hedge out pick-n-roll defense with Femerling and Madrid responded with pick-n-roll and pick-n-pop plays. Alberto Angulo was the ballhandler and Jiri Zidek finished some open opportunities.
Madrid took the momentum and didn’t lose it until the end. Two three pointers from Ekonomou and Richaser made no difference at the end, in a game that ended not so shocking as it promised for 39 minutes.
Real Madrid took a 75-73 victory, Alberto Angulo made 14 points, Struelens 13 and Marko Milic 10. For Olympiacos, Stephane Risacher finished with 18 points, Ekonomou with 15 and Dino Radja made a heavy double double with 13 points and 17 rebounds.
As the season continued, both teams fell short in their 2000-01 Euroleague campaign: They both reached the quarter finals, Real Madrid suffered a 2-1 block from Paf Bologna (Carlton Mayers scored 41 points in Game 3) and Olympiacos lost 2-0 from Tau Ceramica despite the home advantage.
It’s reasonable that the two of them want to open the new EuroLeague era with better luck starting from next Wednesday.