In the first of our looks at each of the teams taking part in the Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul, Emmet Ryan on how CSKA Moscow can finally change the narrative once and for all with a successful weekend
As has been cited a few times, this corner got literally one team’s finishing position in the regular season right. CSKA Moscow, the defending champions, always looked good for a top two finish and they did it. Second place followed by about as unconvincing a sweep as anyone could deliver against Baskonia in the playoffs has the Red Army back in the Final Four as is routine.
One team in Europe can basically book its hotel and bar* as soon as the Final Four venue is announced. Anything less than getting to this stage is a failed season for CSKA irrespective of what it does in the VTB League. Failure at this stage basically became the norm from 2012 through 2015. Unless you count third-place games, if you do I feel sorry for you, the Moscow club managed to go 1-4 in Final Four games over that stretch. A narrow win over Panathinaikos was followed by a final loss to Olympiacos, a semi-final loss to Olympiacos, a semi-final loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv, and a semi-final loss to…yup…Olympiacos.
The ghosts were real. Dimitris Itoudis came in not caring about them, which is the right approach, and still felt their wrath in Madrid. Finally, in Berlin, the streak was broken. A victory over Lokomotiv Kuban in a game that was devoid of energy was followed by CSKA almost CSKA-ing again. This time, they got it together and pulled off a gutsy win in overtime having been utterly shocked by Fenerbahce’s comeback. That should have been the end of it. Then the final rankings came in and the playoffs shook out the way they only could in order to secure one more meeting with the ultimate demon.
Vassilis Spanoulis is Mr Final Four and he’s built an awful lot of that reputation by standing atop the fallen hopes of CSKA Moscow. Take that 2015 semi-final win. Billy was awful for the bulk of that game. Not so-so, not below par, he stunk up the joint. Yet, when it mattered, he came along and did what he seems to always do to CSKA. Spanoulis went 4 of 15 from the floor, all 4 made buckets came consecutively at the end. Oly advanced.
It’s great for narratives but somewhere along the way CSKA being CSKA is going to be about just being a dominating monster. This team is too deep not to have a rich vein of success, as in the trophy after trophy kind, not to deliver. In three previous chances over the club’s long history, it’s failed to defend the title at the final hurdle. Getting over that hump and delivering a first ever back-to-back run would be huge for CSKA.
There are oodles of questions here jinxes aside. Match-up wise, none of the three possible opponents look great for the Red Army. Kyle Hines commits 2.9 fouls per game which isn’t all too bad until you look at the single-game breakdowns over the season. Hines had 9 games with 4 fouls and 1 where he fouled out in the regular season, which meant he sat at lot in quite a few outings. If you look at the one hole CSKA has depth-wise it’s the 5. Hines is great but if he sits a lot it’s going to be a huge problem because all of the other sides there bring some interesting looks at that spot.
The talent everywhere else is comical. When Aaron Jackson is your third option in the back court and Vitaly Fridzon is your fifth, you are doing really well there. As ever, the usual rumours are swirling around injuries ahead of Istanbul. Like last year, the story is Milos Teodosic might not be fully healthy. That’s a huge factor normally but you know he’s going to play hurt and CSKA have the options to give him more rest than usual.
The big positive for CSKA coming into this is how battle-hardened this side is. When you are expected to walk to the season deciding weekend, it’s not easy to forge that steel but CSKA have a few things going for them. Most of this line-up has been there and seen both the ups and downs before. They know that they will be the side with the crowd against them in the semi-final and there’s a good chance it’s even worse in the final should they get there (although a Real semi win would lead to liquorice allsorts with the crowd come Sunday).
It’s not going to be easy but it is a rare moment for CSKA Moscow. They may have vulnerabilities but they don’t need to search for hunger. Psychologically, everything is in place for them. That’s about as much as they can hope for going into the biggest weekend of the year.