Photo courtesy EFE
Photo courtesy EFE
Photo courtesy EFE

CSKA returns to Vitoria to book yet another Final Four trip while Caja Laboral hopes to grab a lifeline after leaving Moscow empty-handed.

If past stats are anything to go by, CSKA Moscow is a safe bet to secure a Euroleague Final Four berth. Since introduction of the playoffs’ best-of-five format back in the 2008-2009 season, no team has ever tied the series after being two games down, let alone won it. Ettore Messina’s squad thrashed Caja Laboral twice in 48 hours last week, and arrived in Spain determined to bring back the most important win of the season so far.

It’s not going to be easy. It never is in Vitoria. In its packed arena we can expect a completely different Caja Laboral, fueled by its passionate fans and keen to rewrite the tournament’s history.

But judging by its dismantling in Moscow, the Basque outfit today is no match for the surging Muscovites and the series is likely to be wrapped up in Fernando Buesa Arena. In the two games in the Russian capital CSKA was almost perfect at what it aimed to do the entire season – control the game from start to finish and avoid lapses that could threaten the final outcome. Almost – with the exception of the opening six and a half minutes in Game 2 when Zan Tabak’s men scored 21 points. During that stretch CSKA’s defense was non-existent and a handful of turnovers on the other end of the floor provided excellent opportunities to Caja’s shooters to punish the hosts. If it could be maintained at the same rate, the Spaniards’ high-powered scoring pace would have yielded 129 points over 40 minutes! Instead, the visitors scored just 47 during the remainder of the game. One of the reasons was Maciej Lampe’s early foul trouble (he was called for his third just 30 seconds after Caja built up its biggest lead of the night, 21-12), but there was a lot more behind CSKA’s success than just forcing Tabak to bench his top scorer in the first quarter.

“We didn’t start well, not for the lack of effort, but because we were maybe a little bit tired and sometimes you need some time before the engine starts. I think my team did a great thing not to panic when Caja got the big, nine-point lead, they remained calm and from that moment they continued to raise the level of defense,” Messina said after the game.

Playing big, CSKA again dominated the paint, suffocating Caja’s offense and sweeping the glass (35-24 rebounds). Tibor Pleiss and Milko Bjelica were no match for Kaun, Krstic and Khryapa, collecting a total of six rebounds – three less than CSKA’s captain alone.

Defensive tenacity paid off for Ettore Messina’s men and the shots were falling on the other end of the court. CSKA made 72 percent (!) of their two-point attempts and a couple of days earlier they demonstrated an unbelievable 78-percent after three quarters, making 21 of 27.

Khryapa’s versatile input, Teodosic’s excellent passing, Papaloukas’ hawk-like interceptions, Erceg’s fine scoring touch and the robust, physical game of Krstic and Kaun proved too much for Caja Laboral last Friday. Though singling out players is not exactly his habit, Messina did mention one name in his postgame remarks.

“It took us time to start doing things at full speed. I liked very much the intensity and up-and-down [pace] of the third quarter. When Aaron Jackson came on the floor, he really made big, big change in our game in terms of intensity and quickness. He scored only six points, but in my opinion he really changed the game,” he said.

In the earlier stages of the season CSKA’s game often resembled a rollercoaster ride, but Messina has steadied the ship and his players seem to have subscribed to his coaching philosophy. When he was hired last June, clinching a Final Four spot was declared the major goal of the 2012-2013 Euroleague campaign. Despite skepticism, Messina’s team managed to weather the storm and is now just a win away from accomplishing the goal.

“Now we go there and we need to prepare for a completely different game. They are a team, a club and a town with a lot of pride and they will surely fight from the warm-up in the third game. There is still a lot of work to do and I hope we’ll be doing it with the same sense of togetherness,” Messina added Friday.

Three years ago, CSKA had already been pitted against Caja Laboral in the playoffs and the script was familiar – after cruising to two victories in Moscow, Yevgeny Pashutin’s men traveled to Spain to clinch the third, decisive win. But the hosts remarkably fought back, trimming the lead and getting close to tie the series. At one point the return to Moscow looked inevitable, but J.R. Holden’s unforgettable solo run in the fourth quarter of Game 4 saved the day for CSKA and secured a Final Four spot in Paris. If history repeats itself, the Russian powerhouse will set a new record making its 10th Euroleague Final Four appearance in 11 years.