The Euroleague Final Four has been like a second home for CSKA Moscow, who are making their thirteenth appearance in the last fourteen seasons. But they’ve had an irritating issue that has bothered them since 2012.
They haven’t reached the championship game since the Istanbul Final Four, four years ago. In fact, they have had their hearts broken in the last two semi-final clashes as they once again make a bid to claim their first Euroleague trophy since 2008.
But they will have to get rid of their semi-final bogey first. Something that has haunted them since 2013 in London.
“[It] is like two finals,” explained CSKA Moscow veteran Victor Khryapa. “Semi-final is also a final. So you have to win two finals to get to trophy. And play until then. This is what we learned from the past.”
Unfortunately, CSKA have not learned this and have been victims of last second heartbreak in the semi-finals.
But this year is the chance to wipe the slate clean and in Berlin, they will be facing fellow VTB League rivals and debutantes Lokomotiv Kuban. But despite the battles domestically, Khryapa explains that by the time the two sides tip-off in the German capital, it will be a new ball game.
“For me, the Final Four is always a lottery,” he stresses. “We have been there a lot and we know things go there. This is why you have to focus on your game. Your game is more important than opponents’ game.
“Of course, everyone will do the scouting, try to specially prepare especially for their first game because there is a lot of time to prepare and you know who is your opponent for weeks in advance. Especially, us and Lokomotiv, we meet each other in VTB League and we compete here against each other for many years. Yet, we can prepare for the opponent, but all that matters is how you will defend and how you will score. This is the main point in the Final Fours.”
CSKA though does possess the two leading scorers in the Euroleague this season in newly crowned Alphonso Ford scoring champion Nando De Colo and runner up Milos Teodosic and Moscow play-caller Dimitris Itoudis, appearing in his second straight Final Four as a head coach has that as a weapon. However, there are other tricks up his sleeve. Remember: basketball is a team game.
“When they play together, or even when one of them leads the team inside and the other is on the bench, my job is actually to help those two players to actually develop their abilities,” Itoudis explained. “We accomplished it because also their teammates are giving them a lot of space, a lot of good screens and open looks.
“That’s the system, as you and anyone reading this can understand. If Friz [Vitaly Fridzon] won’t make his shots, if Kurbanov does not crash the boards, if Kyle [Hines] does not set good screens, I can mention all of my players. If Ceva [Andrey Vorontsevich] doesn’t spread the defence, if Victor [Khryapa] doesn’t read the offence, if Jack [Aaron Jackson] doesn’t put pressure on the ball. We need everybody’s contribution, it is important.
“We tried to create a team that has a certain, specific role for everyone. We brought people like Cory Higgins, who is hungry and knows exactly what he is capable of. He is always going to step up strong, just as Nikita [Kurbanov]. It is what it is.”
LOKOMOTIV KUBAN READY FOR BIG STAGE
As a team, Lokomotiv Kuban are first-timers to the Final Four having competed in the Eurocup last season. In fact, only two players on the active roster have featured in the Euroleague’s main event.
But one of those players, Dontaye Draper was injured when he appeared in Milan, two years ago so his knowledge comes from the sidelines and embracing the moment as a spectator. It isn’t much, but the advice he has given to the genuine first-timers is to enjoy the moment.
“My last year when I was injured I really got a chance to see other things and I wanted so bad to be a part of it,” Draper said. “And I just want to tell all the guys, ‘it don’t matter if you’ve been here or not. Just adapt to the atmosphere and just give it everything you’ve got and leave it on the court.’ Because you never know when you’re coming back. Don’t get too crazy about this being the Final Four. Go out there and have fun and enjoy your moment.
“The teams that play hard and tough in both games, they win it. You don’t have to have the best team all season. It’s one game and whoever plays the toughest wins.”
That ethos definitely suits Lokomotiv Kuban, who realistically were not expected to reach Euroleague’s pinnacle this weekend. But as the season has progressed, so has their determination, team spirit and a never say die attitude. They have been one of the toughest teams this term and they will aim to live for the moment in Berlin.
But while, Kuban head to Germany lacking Final Four experience, they can call upon a man who has championship-winning experience: head coach Georgios Bartzokas.
The Greek play-caller won the Euroleague title with Olympiacos in 2013, leading his team that year to two one-sided victories at the O2 Arena in London. The team will no doubt look to him for guidance when Lokomotiv face CSKA on Friday evening.
“I think starting from training camp coach put together a system and everyone bought into the system,” Draper says. “So if we are up or down, I think we just mentally dive into the system. I think everybody wanted to win. To have a chance of a lifetime to go to the Final Four, everybody just locked in and believed that we could win.”
Quotes by Javier Cancedo