Ten EuroLeague titles between them, eight European champions on the floor (and a ninth, recuperating Nikita Kurbanov, in a courtside seat), two EuroLeague-winning coaches on the sidelines, the great rivalry spanning three decades, and some 9,000 fans in the stands – the matchup, advertised by CSKA in recent weeks as “The Main Game of Autumn”, had everything it takes to produce another classic.
Like many times in the past, the two teams lived up to the billing, keeping fans on the edge of their seats as the game was being decided in the last minute. The script looked familiar though.
Early on, CSKA was in a scoring slump, its players missing even consecutive layups. The visitors were patient and confident as they gradually built the gap. They led by as many as nine points, but in the third quarter CSKA started playing aggressive, suffocating defense, forcing turnovers, most of which were converted into easy baskets and threes. In the fourth period, the visitors staged a comeback, even flirted with a chance to win the game, but then got beaten from the free throw line, and lost by four.
Looks like something you’ve seen before? You need look no further back than Oct. 18, when the “Army” played Darussafaka Tekfen on the same floor. While CSKA was throwing bricks in the first half, the Istanbul team kept pulling away, led by as many as nine (!), then got steamrolled in the third period, came back in the fourth, and eventually lost by four, coup de grâce delivered by Cory Higgins from the free throw line!
These “twin wins” may leave the CSKA fans asking themselves whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. The Muscovites’ head coach Dimitris Itoudis believes in the latter, praising his team for overcoming adversity in tough moments. On Thursday, Itoudis stressed the contribution of CSKA’s bench players who made some key plays during the third quarter run.
“Today’s game also showed how deep our bench is. Misha [Kulagin] gave us quality 11 minutes, Tseva [Vorontsevich’s nickname] stepped on the floor, scored an important three-pointer, made a rebound tip, and a couple of defensive stops. It shows that we have good rotation players, ready [to step in]… I like this versatility, I like the fact that we’re coming on the floor to help,” Itoudis told reporters after the game.
“We have not met our qualities, and our potential, but still we found a way to win the game. And that’s big, that’s a team win, that’s what makes me happy,” he added.
CSKA shares the best record (5-0) with Real Madrid, and will travel next week to Milan to play Olimpia on Thursday. Olympiacos (3-2) is tied with Panathinaikos, Barcelona and Anadolu Efes, and will play its Greek archrival in OAKA, Athens on Friday.
David Blatt loves coming back to Russia, the country where he is still admired for his epic run in 2006-2012 as the national team coach whose tenure was capped by winning an Olympic medal with sbornaya. When he entered the press conference room on Thursday, Blatt’s emotions were mixed as he felt that his team had just lost a game it had a fair chance to win.
“We played three very good quarters, but one poor quarter that CSKA played very well – that was the difference in the game. I think we feel disappointment and we should, because we had the opportunity to beat a very good team today,” Blatt said in his postgame remarks.
“We had seven turnovers in a quarter, we played carelessly with the ball. Seven turnovers in a quarter is an enormous, enormous number, especially considering when you have five the rest of the game,” he added.
Sergio Rodriguez was setting Megasport Arena on fire each time his long-range shots hit the target. He made six three-pointers and was the game’s best scorer with 20 points. Blatt certainly noticed his impact.
“When you got one guy making six threes, that’s a factor. When Rodriguez comes out, makes 6-of-10 from three, 18 points, not all easy shots – in a close game that’s a pretty big factor,” the Olympiacos coach said.
In his nine seasons in EuroLeague, Rodriguez has made that many threes only twice: on Dec. 19, 2013, playing for Real Madrid against Anadolu Efes in Istanbul he was perfect from long range, going 6-of-6 (Real won 86-81); on Dec. 29, 2017, he made six of his nine three-point attempts in Vitoria to help CSKA beat Kirolbet Baskonia 90-81.
Many people see him primarily as a terrific shooter, especially in the clutch, which he is, one of Europe’s best – if not the best. At the same time, his scoring prowess sometimes clouds our ability to appreciate his passing skills and court vision, which are second to none.
On Thursday, when his shots weren’t falling early in the game (he was 1-of-6 at halftime), Vassilis Spanoulis focused on feeding other players in red-and-white uniforms. At 36, he ran Olympiacos’ fast break as if he were 15 years younger, and threw remote-controlled passes right into the hands of his teammates for easy baskets. He finished with six assists, most on both teams. In the fourth quarter, he exploded for 11 points, tying the game twice in the closing minutes before missing a key three-pointer that could have put the visitors back in the lead with 38 seconds to go.
After Thursday’s win, CSKA improved to 23-14 all-time against Olympiacos in EuroLeague. The two teams first met in Europe’s premier club competition in the 1994/1995 season. Despite a negative head-to-head record, the Greek giant has won all four games against CSKA at Final Fours, beating the Muscovites three times in the semifinals (in 2013, 2015 and 2017) and once in the championship game (2012).