Coming off a tough overtime loss last week in Belgrade which pushed it to the thirteenth place in the standings, CSKA badly needed a rebound. And it got it Thursday night against Valencia — a worthy rival, and a legitimate playoffs contender. It was an exciting game of runs, both teams determined to fight it out until the final buzzer, but in the fourth quarter CSKA displayed a quality seen not so often in the new season – it closed the game without giving the opponent that one last comeback chance. The eight-time European champs remained in control and cruised to victory. The final score could suggest it was easy.

It wasn’t.

Jaume Ponsarnau has put together a truly competitive squad, one that is relentless and skillful, capable of turning the game around in short spans of time. Points were hard to come by in the first quarter as both teams struggled to score and CSKA clawed a one-point lead. 

Then Mike James stepped up.

When its playmaker is on a roll, CSKA is rolling, too. Before you knew it, the hosts were up by 12, James contributing a three-pointer and a layup to cap an 11-0 run. Valencia responded immediately, propelled by Nikola Kalinić’s trademark aggressiveness on both ends of the court and a beautiful miniature by 19-year-old Jaime Pradilla. If he continues to make progress, this young man could one day follow in the footsteps of his many great predecessors who played center on the Spanish national team.

With the game tied at 30, it was a signal for James to shift gears again and ignite another run. He obliged.

But Valencia just wouldn’t let go, and when Mike Tobey trimmed the deficit to one with 16 seconds remaining in the third quarter, it looked as if we’d be watching this tug-of-war until the final buzzer.

It never happened. After a time-out, CSKA just clicked and spared its fans the nervous endspiel they had watched a number of times in previous weeks. In stark contrast to painful losses against Alba and Crvena zvezda or a tough, grinding win vs. Maccabi, Thursday’s finale against Valencia offered the fans enjoyment instead of drama.

The unsung heroes of CSKA’s triumph were Johannes Voigtmann and Darrun Hilliard.  The German power forward did a little bit of everything and was extremely efficient on both ends of the court. He played smartly, always looking for the best solution, and eventually finding one. He scored, grabbed rebounds and facilitated for his teammates, never losing his cool in critical moments. Voigtmann’s three-pointer at the end of the third quarter set the tone for the final push – CSKA nailed three more in a row from downtown (including another one by Voigtmann), stretched its lead to 11 and never looked back.  

Hilliard, often criticized for his uneven performances last season, played an exemplary game Thursday. He was consistent, focused, and his shot selection was almost perfect. He was patient with the ball and he scored some very important baskets, all of his 12 points coming from the field. Over many years, CSKA offense has provided a multi-pronged threat, and when Hilliard plays the way he did last night, he certainly expands the Russian giant’s scoring options.

And that means a lot when one of your best players is struggling to score. Will Clyburn’s gun went silent for three quarters, in large part due to some great defending by Kalinić. The 2019 Final Four MVP missed his first six shots, including four threes, and went scoreless from the field until 6:58 to play in the fourth quarter. And then, with the stakes as big as they get, he found his scoring touch, burying a key three-pointer (CSKA’s fourth in a row) that all but knocked out Valencia. In the final minutes, he was again what he has been for this team over the last couple of years – a difference maker.