CSKA Moscow’s acquisition of Andrei Kirilenko will now strengthen their position as favourites for this season’s Euroleague.
But it isn’t a formality. There is still a lot of basketball to be played.
Cast your mind back to the 2011-12 Euroleague season. The podium was taken away and the confetti was swept to the trash bin following Spain’s Eurobasket triumph in Kaunas, in preparation for Zalgiris’ first game at the brand new Zalgirio Arena.
CSKA Moscow were the Lithuanian champions first visitors.
Kirilenko, who had played for the Utah Jazz the previous season decided to join CSKA Moscow due, in part, to the NBA lockout. His team in the end eased to victory over Zalgiris and from there, their seemingly indestructible side went on a 13-game unbeaten run and lost just twice, en route to the Final Four in Istanbul.
The Russian giants, led by Kirilenko’s 17 points and 9 rebounds came from a 29-15 first quarter deficit to edge Panathinaikos 66-64, setting up a championship showdown against Olympiacos, who had surprisingly beaten the heavily fancied Barcelona in the other semi-final.
CSKA were heavy favourites. Along with Kirilenko, the Muscovites boasted players such as Nenad Krstic, Milos Teodosic, Ramunas Siskauskas, Alexey Shved and Sasha Kaun among others.
Kirilenko was also awarded MVP and Best Defender at an award ceremony before the final and as the media gathered in the press box to watch the finale, the air in the Sinan Erdem Dome predictably sensed a win for Kirilenko’s men. Panathinaikos fans held up a manner that read: Euroleague: C$KA & MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND, of course indicating that the referees cost the Greens a spot in the title game.
No doubt, the mood was tense but CSKA rose above the big game jitters and played awe-inspiring basketball. They led by 19 points late on until Olympiacos began the unlikely comeback and capped it with a game-winner by Georgios Printezis.
The indestructibles, self destructed.
And for the final 0.6 seconds of game-time remaining, Kirilenko’s dream of winning a Euroleague title for the first time before heading back to the NBA vanished.
You might think that CSKA Moscow’s tag as favourites has been strengthened – and it has – but their success is not certain. Anything can happen in the Euroleague.
All you need to do is remember the 2012 Final Four in Istanbul.
Analysis, by John Hobbs
Despite Kirilenko’s status in Europe, the race to crown a Euroleague champion is still open.
Istanbul 2012 was by far the most enthralling Final Four that I have ever covered. Each game was close with Barcelona’s 74-69 win over Panathinaikos in the third place game being the biggest margin of victory.
CSKA entered as favourites and rightly so; they possessed the strongest team on paper, played the better basketball throughout the season and Kirilenko was head and shoulders the best player in the Euroleague at the time.
But basketball is a team game and one player, regardless of how many awards he has won or how talented he is can not win a game let alone a championship on his lonesome.
Olympiacos played as a team on that night, their on court leader Vassilis Spanoulis took a backseat for Kostas Papanikolaou to take center stage and propel him to a status that has since earned him a spot in the NBA, and Georgios Printezis, who was outstanding throughout the Final Four, highlighted with the game winner in the final.
Press row at the Sinan Erdem Dome was pure bedlam when the buzzer sounded. The European media is known to be much more animated than the U.S press and this was no exception. Greek media were celebrating and giving each other hugs, while taking numerous pictures, while the quiet Russian press quickly exited stage left. The majority of them didn’t even show up for the post-game press conference.
The look of disappointment on Kirilenko’s afterwards was evident. I believe that if CSKA had won the Euroleague crown that day, then this would not be happening now. The veteran, now 34, wants this title. But unlike 2012, he will need his team to help him out.
It doesn’t matter how strong your team is, victory is not always guaranteed.