CSKA opponents try hard to run Milos Teodosic ragged, but as his decorated backup takes over they might just quit trying.
Five years ago they were opponents contesting a ticket to the Final Four. Pitted against each other in the playoffs, they knew only one could win. In his prime at 31 and seeking his second Euroleague title in three years, Theo Papaloukas was Ettore Messina’s magic sixth man, providing invaluable input as a backup point guard. On the other end of the floor, Milos Teodosic, a budding 21-year-old Serbian prodigy playing in his first season abroad, was getting only glimpses of action at Olympiacos as Panagiotis Yannakis sought to rebuild the squad he inherited from Pini Gershon.
On April 1, 2008, the Reds stunned CSKA in the best-of-three series opener in Moscow, snapping the Muscovites’ 27-game winning streak at home and setting the stage for a do-or-die encounter two days later in Greece. Stripped of its homecourt advantage, CSKA had little choice as it faced a wall of noise at the Peace and Friendship Stadium in Piraeus. Needing a win to stay alive five-time European champs delivered when it mattered most. Their shooters did have a night to remember (Trajan Langdon and Matjaz Smodis never missed from behind the arc, scoring four three-pointers apiece and Ramunas Siskauskas added as many in seven attempts), but it was Papaloukas who provided a sparkplug coming off the bench to help his teammates overcome a sluggish start. Teodosic’s role was expectedly limited again to that of a backup to Roderick Blakney.
CSKA returned home to kill the series and eventually won its sixth title in Madrid, crowning the affable Greek’s six-year stint in Moscow. That summer he rejoined Olympiacos and took the young Serbian playmaker under his wing, serving not only as Teodosic’s teammate, but mentor as well. Similarities were easy to spot – both loved to lead on the floor, relished challenge, never shied from taking responsibility and were fearless in the clutch. A major difference was the ability to control emotions – Papaloukas banked on years of experience and was able to stay calm in almost any situation, whereas Teodosic tended to spin out of control when confronting dirty play, crowd taunts or a bad call.
Their Piraeus chapter ended two years later – despite assembling one of the most star-studded squads in European history, the Greek powerhouse failed to clinch the major prize, coming short in the 2010 Euroleague final against Barcelona in Paris.
By then Teodosic was on every title contender’s radar – he led the Serbian national team to the silver medal at EuroBasket 2009 and capped his breakout season by earning the honors of the Euroleague MVP in 2009-10. When CSKA came calling, Papaloukas was the first to encourage his young teammate to move to Moscow.
Their paths unexpectedly crossed again in December 2012. The news of Papaloukas’ return to Moscow immediately sparked controversy. On the wrong end of his peak years, without a club for six months and contemplating retirement, the 35-year-old Greek veteran seemed an unlikely addition to the team gunning for a new European title.
Having seen him practice, Messina didn’t have any doubts, though. In a topsy-turvy season for CSKA, with a revamped team still adjusting to the Italian coach’s system, Papaloukas had a role. A natural-born winner well-known for his team-first mentality and boundless will to succeed, he’d be a voice in the locker room and the “glue player” this team needs. On a roster featuring only two Euroleague winners – himself and captain Viktor Khryapa – Papaloukas’ experience and ability not to crack under pressure are the kind of assets any team would embrace.
In the past five months consistency has been Messina’s top priority as his players often struggled to maintain focus and provide a dedicated effort over 40 minutes night in and night out. Lapses of concentration became almost customary as the squad alternated brilliant scoring runs with incomprehensible slumps that often saw comfortable margins thaw in a matter of minutes.
Backcourt troubles were part of the problem as shooters Drew Nicholas and Dionte Christmas proved to be selection failures and Aaron Jackson was hardly his former self, playing a somewhat different role than the one he had in Bilbao. With a tight, three-games-per-week schedule that often left Teodosic bearing the brunt of playmaking chores and it was evident that the long season would inevitably take its toll.
Enter Papaloukas. His legs may have lost some speed, but he still has a quick mind, excellent court vision and the safest pair of hands. With a 2.75 assist-to-turnover ratio in 10 games this season he’s still one of the best ball handlers in the tournament, but even more important is his ability to fill the role of Teodosic’s reliever, stepping in when the Serbian playmaker needs rest. Having two aces instead of just one translates to higher consistency and fewer slumps, which means Messina can continue building his system without having to plug the leaks simultaneously.
Championships are rarely – if ever at all – won without great point guards. Jasikevicius, Rubio, Diamantidis and Spanoulis all provided excellent leadership as they carried their squads to the summit in the past decade. En route to four European club titles Messina had some of the best point guards play on his own teams. In Bologna Antoine Rigaudeau was calling the shots and in Moscow the formidable duo of J.R. Holden and Papaloukas took turns slicing the opponents’ defenses and making their lives miserable. Knowing that he’s now got an ample backup definitely takes a lot of weight off Teodosic’s shoulders. Hot-tempered, prone to improvization and sometimes an enigma even to his own teammates and coach, the Serb has often been criticized for his unpredictable and occasionally hasty, hard-to-explain plays in the clutch. Some of that criticism was deserved, but CSKA’s #4 seemed to remain unfazed, hardly registering any. Instead, he’d bury a life- saving three-pointer next time or feed a pass to a teammate for a winning buzzerbeater. Being a difference maker hasn’t been easy, but the re-emergence of Papaloukas should make things smoother for his super talented junior partner. When they step on the court in Athens Thursday to face their old nemesis, Panathinakos, and seal first place in Group E, memories will flood. The Greens’ fans will traditionally hurl abuse at both of them and the arena will reverberate each time they get the ball. But they are accustomed to that – champions are forged through adversity and no better place to fight it than Athens. Theo has won the Euroleague title twice already, but is as eager as ever to notch his third. Teo, despite a host of individual honors and accolades, is still hunting his first following last year’s tragic loss in the final. Together they could be scripting a new chapter in CSKA history. The one that could help them put the demons of Paris and Istanbul to rest for good.