After opening a new chapter in their epic rivalry last week in Moscow, CSKA and Panathinaikos move to Athens as the Greek powerhouse tries to accomplish what no other team has managed so far – to bring the series back to Moscow and force a Game 5 despite back-to-back losses in the Russian capital.
Boarding the plane to Athens Sunday, CSKA was exactly where it wanted to be – a win away from clinching its 11th Euroleague Final Four berth in 12 years.
“I hope not to see you,” CSKA head coach Ettore Messina jokingly told local reporters last Friday as he wrapped up his press conference after Game 2 of the playoffs series against Panathinaikos, hinting he’d prefer his team to close out the series in Athens.
If tradition is anything to go by, Messina’s team will be returning home with a punched ticket to the Final Four – since the inception of the best-of-five playoff series format five years ago, the Russian giant has missed the playoffs only once, in 2010/11, and closed out the remaining four series on the opponents’ floor after protecting home-court advantage in Moscow.
On Friday, CSKA trounced PAO 77-51 to improve to an all-time 10-0 at home in the new format playoffs and is now in the driving seat to book a trip to Milan in mid-May.
However, despite the Greeks’ dismal performance in Game 2, Messina knows well that nothing is over yet.
“For sure, they will be more than ready and will bounce back. They are fierce competitors. I told my players at the beginning of the series: Diamantidis, Batiste, Fotsis and the coach [Alvertis] have more titles together in Euroleague than anybody else. We have some at this club, and they have some in Barcelona, but no club has more titles than this altogether, so we better be very careful, respectful. They also have experience to know that to lose by 20 or by one doesn’t make any difference in playoffs,” warned the Italian coach.
The number of individual Euroleague titles under the PAO stars’ belts certainly isn’t the only thing that keeps Messina alert.
Stat fiends would have a hard time tracking down a game – if there ever was one – when any of his teams committed seven (!) turnovers in the first quarter. Last Wednesday’s Game 1 against PAO may have set the precedent. With his starting point guard Milos Teodosic recovering from a tendon injury in his right foot in Israel, Messina’s playmaking options are limited. On Friday, the Serb was yet to return from Tel Aviv and wouldn’t be thrown into action before getting some practice, said Messina.
The two games in Moscow showed that Aaron Jackson is doing his bit, but underachieving Jeremy Pargo is not making the kind of input his high price tag would imply. Meanwhile, Messina is playing Viktor Khryapa at small forward and using the team captain’s superb passing skills to reduce the impact of Teodosic’s absence. Naturally, that shift comes at the expense of sacrificing Khryapa’s role at power forward where he’s excelled throughout his stellar career.
“In this series I am not using him in the 4 position. One of our best ball handlers is missing on the perimeter, so if Viktor can give me 25 minutes, I need all of those at the 3 position. I cannot have him at the 4 and lose 10 minutes of good ball handling on the perimeter,” Messina explained.
After building a comfortable 13-point lead early in Game 1, CSKA struggled in the third quarter as PAO responded with a hail of three-pointers and eventually erased the gap. Euroleague leaders in assists had a hard time moving the ball and penetrating the Greeks’ defense, and PAO was on the verge of a sensational break: with 2:40 to play Fragiskos Alvertis’ men were up by five, but then Sonny Weems stepped up to keep CSKA in contention. His eight points – including two three-pointers – down the stretch and a pair of key free throws in overtime helped Muscovites secure a hard-fought win.
Following Friday’s rout Messina admitted that ball movement and offensive spacing were his top concerns going into Game 2 and praised his players for quickly adapting to adjustments he’d been forced to make in just one practice session after the series opener. His team shared the ball well, handed out 20 assists and had a brilliant scoring night, hitting 60 percent of their three-pointers and nearly 65 percent two-point shots. This helped offset the negatives, such as turnovers in double figures (14 against PAO’s six) and paved the way for a blowout win. Weems got hot again in the closing stages of the game, making shots from virtually every spot on the floor but it was overall team effort that earned Messina’s praise, with Jackson giving another fine performance at point guard.
“I think that Aaron did a very good job today. He had one turnover, five assists, his +/- [indicator] is +22! He really conducted the team in a very good way like he did all last year in the VTB League playoffs. We had a little bit too many turnovers at our wings, but that’s part of the game. What we had today was balance. If Aaron played his good game, it’s because Viktor [Khryapa], Sonny [Weems], Vlado [Micov] and Fritz [Fridzon] played a good game around him and helped him. I think Vlado had a big comeback after Game 1, made very big plays offensively and defensively,” Messina said. Micov went 3-for-3 from behind the arc and Andrei Vorontsevich made all four of his field goals, including a three-pointer. Khryapa followed his Wednesday double-double (17 pts, 11 rebs) with another great rebounding performance, grabbing again 11 boards.
In probably one of the shortest press conferences in the history of basketball, a visibly disappointed Alvertis summed up his postgame thoughts Friday in two sentences.
“It’s a bad night that I prefer to forget. All the rest is history, now we go back to Athens to continue the series and I hope that on Monday we’re going to have a completely different picture,” he said.
Alvertis spoke little, but his determination to reverse the course of the series was steely, as was his gaze. But then, you wouldn’t expect anything less from a true warrior, would you?