Fenerbahce Istanbul beat Panathinaikos OPAP Athens 81-69 in the Greek capital, reaching its 10th win in 11 Euroleague Regular Season games. At the same time, the Turkish powerhouse managed to win its Greek counterpart on the road in the early stages of the competition, something unprecedented.
Nikola Kalinic finished the game with season-highs in scoring (18) and assists (4), but was all over the place, hitting 4/5 three-point shots, grabbing 4 rebounds and drawing 4 fouls for a PIR of 22. The Serbian international forward also registered the second best performance in his Euroleague career.
Be it a coincidence or not, five of his top ten performances have been achieved against Panathinaikos (three) or Olympiacos (two). Moreover, he has been great in important games, such as the 2017 Final Four final in Istanbul against Olympiacos or the playoffs against Panathinaikos in the same year. This year only, when Fener counts an impressive balance of 10 wins and only one loss to Efes, Kalinic scored 16 points against the Reds and 18 vs the Greens in his two season-best nights so far.
TalkBasket.net interrogated him after the game at OAKA and this is the result.
Q: What was the story of this game?
A: Finding a solution to their switch defense. When we managed to do that and stay calm, things were easier. When you start reacting to what the referees and the fans are doing, you can lose focus. It happened to us in a few moments. Once we managed to play our game and find solutions to their offense and defense, we were pretty good.
Q: Do you believe that Fener made it impossible for Panathinaikos to come back to the game?
A: They were close, but we had our game plan and stuck to it. It wasn’t impossible; everything is possible in a basketball game, but we played solid, trying to break their guards. We wanted to be physical and play tough and at one point, opponents would break. We tried to take away from them what they like to do: start running, dunking, making three-pointers and get their fans involved. I don’t know if I can say that because they are going to kill me, but the most important thing is to control their game. When you’re playing in a tough atmosphere like this, you have to control the whole environment.
Q: Are they more predictable this year?
A: I don’t know. As I said before in the post-game quotes, I believe that they are an amazing team. They’re still finding their roles. It’s true that Panathinaikos have already lost twice at home, something very unusual, but I don’t think they are worse than last year. They are probably either on the same level or a little bit better than they used to be.
Q: How about Fenerbahce?
A: I think we’re playing very well in this period, maybe too soon, something I’m scared of. It’s only December and that’s why I will try to tell my teammates to start working harder to push us even more, in order not to go down and have more space to evolve.
Q: Do you believe that the team has room for improvement and, if so, in which direction?
A: Yes, we have been doing an amazing job on offense, but some players have not reached their level. I mean Erick Green who is an amazing scorer, but also Bobby Dixon. His impact on the team is big. The night the opponents don’t let him take the shots, someone else will do the job. Panathinaikos left me open and I scored. It’s always like that.
Q: How do you see the competition this year?
A: It’s almost the same. I was talking about that with one of our assistant coaches and he told me that this year, Euroleague seems easier. But when I look at the teams, I don’t see that. It’s somewhat strange because we’re playing so well. I believe that our breakthrough game was in Vitoria, when we won a very hard match against Baskonia. From then on, we started feeling better and more confident, while some guys started helping the team more. It was our turning point.
Q: So far, Fener has managed to take care of a very hard schedule. The fact that your team had never won both Olympiacos and Panathinaikos in Greece in the same year speaks for itself?
A: Yes, it’s truly amazing. That’s why I think those wins are even more important. I don’t know how many teams will survive such a difficult sequence of games: we won two times in Athens, also in Vitoria, Tel Aviv and Barcelona, who in my opinion have made a very good team this year. So, I don’t think that the competition has gone worse. CSKA lost to Baskonia, for example. This year, we are a more experienced team and more hungry, to be honest. Last year, we lost in the final against Real Madrid and this loss has remained in our heads ever since.
Q: Nikola, how do you deal with the comments saying that this year Fener, Real and CSKA are not only the clear favourites to go to the Final Four, but the distance between them and the other teams is bigger than ever?
A: Well, that’s the thing about experience. If you have some teams that are always in the Final Four, you see that they gain experience, their players get to know each other better, their coaches remain for many years on the bench. Everything is connected. If you have some veterans playing in Euroleague for 5-6 years and you’re playing four Final Fours in a row, you can tell the difference.
Q: Feeling relieved now that Serbia seems to have almost qualified for the World Cup in China next year?
A: It’s not sure yet, but we are in a good position. Unless we make stupid mistakes and defeats, we will qualify.
Q: What do you think about the FIBA qualifiers?
A: It’s not that they are a bad idea. They just ought to be organised better. As I have already said, there could be a “window” near New Year’s Eve, when players from Europe could return to their countries to play with the national teams, but also non-European players could have a break and see their families.