Imagine you sign a deadly shooter to a long-term deal, and hand him a seven-figure salary. Then he walks onto a court and starts throwing bricks, making only 20 percent of his shots. How do you feel? Probably, a lot like CSKA fans who’ve seen their team make 15 trips to Euroleague Final Fours in 16 years, and win only three titles. It has to hurt when your top scorer shoots five balls to make one basket. The most recent disappointment? The May 18-20 trip to Belgrade where CSKA finished last and saved face (not the game though) in a seemingly meaningless third-place tie when an inspired Mikhail Kulagin ignited a late scoring run that nearly helped erase the embarrassing 23-point fourth-quarter deficit against a hypermotivated Zalgiris Kaunas.
Prior to Belgrade, CSKA had a string of mishaps losing Kyle Hines and Nando DeColo to injuries whereas Leo Westermann had to undergo season-ending surgery on the eve of his team’s trip to the Serbian capital. To make things worse, early in the F4 semifinal against Real Madrid, the “Army” lost power forward Andrei Vorontsevich whose shoulder injury will keep him sidelined for the remainder of the season.
When it mattered most, CSKA’s stellar backcourt failed to deliver. Following his recuperation from injury, DeColo was apparently not his former self yet, and Sergio Rodriguez was “eaten alive” by his former teammates. Kyle Hines fought like a lion, Cory Higgins, and Nikita Kurbanov had their bright moments, but it simply wasn’t enough to beat the future champion.
Belgrade wounds won’t heal quickly, but another domestic title could speed up the process. CSKA is the perennial VTB champ, and in the past its challengers hardly ever had a shot at trophy in the best-of-five series. Things could be different now, though, in the F4 format where anything can happen within a 40-minute span.
CSKA’s semifinal opponent Zenit already proved that the champion is vulnerable and beatable as Sergei Karasyov’s fourth quarter heroics secured the home team’s win in the January 14 regular season encounter in St. Petersburg. Late in the game, the 24-year-old swingman capped a superb 23-point, seven-rebound performance with a dagger three that swung the game. On May 5, Dimitris Itoudis’ men avenged the loss in Moscow as they cruised to a comfortable 16-point win (100-84) to split the season series.
In the playoffs, both teams swept their opponents in three games – CSKA thrashed VEF Riga and Zenit dominated Avtodor Saratov. Among the Final Four contenders, Zenit is the only squad seeking its first Euroleague appearance. As the semi looms, head coach Vasily Karasyov has to make a decision: VTB rules allow only six international players on the roster, and he has seven. In the quarters, Karasyov omitted U.S. power forward Drew Gordon in favor of five of his fellow Americans and Serb sharpshooter Marko Simonovic.
If regular season is anything to go by, UNICS Kazan should fear only one opponent – the reigning champ. Over the seven-month stretch, Dimitris Priftis’ squad swept all teams in the league (including such heavyweights as Khimki, Lokomotiv Kuban and Zenit) but one. The “Greens” finished with an impressive 22-2 record, their only couple of losses inflicted by CSKA. The two teams were tied for first place, but the Muscovites won the tiebreaker thanks to a better head-to-head record.
In the quarters, however, UNICS at times struggled against a resilient, tough Nizhny Novgorod team. Having lost the opener in Kazan, the underdog won Game 2 on its home court and was on the brink of sealing the victory in Game 3, but UNICS forward Melvin Ejim’s buzzerbeater in overtime buried its hopes of staging a major upset. UNICS then closed the series at home and is now gearing up for the semifinal against Khimki.
It has many aces up its sleeve, such as solid playmaking courtesy of “Quino” Colom and Anton Ponkrashov, Stephan Lasme’s rebounding prowess, Jamaar Smith and Trent Lockett’s soft scoring touch and potent frontcourt presence provided by Ejim and Maurice Ndour. Its main advantage, however, is the team spirit and Priftis’ coaching philosophy, which rests on discipline and a selfless effort of every one of his men. The scoresheet tells it all – over the course of the season, the mentioned seven spread the points equally with less than six points separating the team’s top scorer Smith (14 ppg) and seventh Ponkrashov (8.4 ppg).
Tonight, the Tatarstan team will face its exact opposite. Khimki superstar Alexei Shved runs the floor, dishes out assists, scores, rebounds the ball, and does pretty much everything else a human being can do on a basketball court. His confidence seems unshakable, and his hand is hot on most nights.
This season, the Moscow region outfit played two long tournaments, ultimately paying a high price for grinding through a grueling 54-game schedule. Injuries kept piling up, Georgios Bartzokas constantly had to patch up the roster as Khimki – led by a spectacular Shved – clinched Euroleague playoffs, but finished only sixth in the VTB league. As the team kept sliding down in the standings, allegations were made that Khimki was deliberately tanking in order to fall to number six and thus avoid playing CSKA until the very final. But being sixth also meant facing Lokomotiv Kuban, which had home-court advantage in the quarters and was eager to return to Euroleague where it made a big splash two years ago clinching the Final Four.
Shved & Co. blitzed Loko in the Krasnodar opener, and then won the next two games in Khimki to sweep the series. This year’s winner of the Alphonso Ford Trophy posted mind-boggling numbers averaging 28.3 points, 7.7 assists and 23 efficiency rating points! He was leading his team, but he wasn’t alone. Anthony Gill, Yegor Vyaltsev, Tyler Honeycutt, Sergei Monya, Charles Jenkins all rose to the occasion and provided ample backup to their leader. This semi is not your ordinary semi – if CSKA, a Euroleague regular with a multiyear license, beats Zenit, the winner of the other semifinal will automatically punch its 2018/19 Euroleague ticket. If Zenit upsets the “Army” though, the Euroleague berth will then go to the new champion.