CSKA will bag the title in London if it can beat its biggest adversary – inconsistency.
When CSKA Moscow brought Ettore Messina back to the Russian capital 11 months ago, the Italian coach faced two major tasks – to rebuild the team and clinch a Euroleague Final Four berth in 2013. While the former is still work in progress, the latter has already been accomplished, but now that the six-time European champions are in London, their fans’ expectations are rising by the hour. You can’t blame them – CSKA’s tenth F4 appearance in 11 years is an all-time Euroleague record that will not be beaten soon. In the previous nine trips to the season-ending tournament the red-and-blues won just twice, though, making the fans’ appetite only bigger.
Getting to London wasn’t easy. All new teams struggle at times and CSKA 2012-13 was no exception. It took time for the squad to adhere to Messina’s system and it would be wrong to think that process is completed. The biggest worry was consistency, the team’s ability to control games from tipoff to final buzzer – a trademark feature of all championship-winning teams, including Messina’s CSKA squads that won it all in 2006 and 2008.
Moreover, the team had to gel, evolve into a cohesive unit and prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. At certain moments (impressive wins on the road against Besiktas, Zalgiris and Panathinaikos have been exemplary) it did resemble CSKA of old: tough, resilient, crafty, aggressive, dominant and above all – demonstrating unbreakable spirit and will to win. At some others it was unrecognizable as it suffered painful losses and looked dispirited and lost. Its worst hour came against Caja Laboral in Game 3 of the playoffs – when Milko Bjelica sank a three-pointer with nine minutes to go to stretch the Basque outfit’s lead to 34 (73-39), CSKA was not just getting beaten to a pulp, it was being embarrassed. Paradoxically, it happened on a night when the team demonstrated its best ball control of the season, committing only six turnovers. In the 28 games it played so far in the 2012-13 Euroleague campaign CSKA turned the ball over in double digits in 25, limiting it to 7 and 6 respectively on only two other occasions – against Besiktas in Istanbul and Brose Baskets in Bamberg.
Excellent ball control and smart passing are bread and butter of Messina’s brand of basketball, but are certainly not the only ingredients in his recipe for winning. This season, CSKA has won tough games in Belgrade and Barcelona despite turning the ball over 26 and 21 times. In Vitoria, on the other hand, it had a catastrophic shooting night that killed the magnificent effort of protecting the ball. And then, within 48 hours it regrouped as true champs do and closed the series despite all adversity. The key – as always – was sticking to its own game: running a smart half-court offense and making the opponent work hard for every shot on CSKA’s end of the floor. In Game 3, Russian giants bit the bait and got massacred by Caja Laboral’s run-and-gun game. Understanding that his team would get hurt badly in the fastbreaking up-tempo basketball imposed by the hosts, Messina demanded during a timeout that his players slow down and change the pace. They couldn’t and soon they were trailing by 34.
That game once again exposed the big enigma this team is as it goes into decisive Final Four battles. Undoubtedly, CSKA can win it all at London’s O2 arena if it can be consistent over 40 minutes twice in 48 hours. The enigmatic part is how the team responds in the moments of crisis, when the opponent is surging. Messina surely has the right medicine and knows when to administer it. However, the question that lingers is how the players are going to react and handle the pressure, with some of them making their debut F4 appearances. If they can come to terms with that, the seventh European title should be on its way to Moscow.