CSKA completed the 3-0 sweep of Crvena Zvezda in front of a hot crowd at Kombank Arena but Emmet Ryan says we still don’t know what type of team is coming to Berlin
There weren’t all that many surprises in this series. Pretty much everyone expected a CSKA sweep, likewise most folk expected at least one tight game, and there was never any doubt that the crowd in Belgrade for Game 3 would be great. Sure enough, CSKA took the series 3-0 having endured a big wobble in Game 3 and looked composed despite being drowned in noise by over 20,000 locals in Belgrade.
Getting to the playoffs was a big achievement for Zvezda this year. It’s easy to forget that this side had to winner an absolutely bonkers game with Bayern just to make the Top 16. To overcome far more affluent sides like Anadolu Efes in that stage and get here was big. It’s the first time since 1973 this club has tasted the air this deep in Europe’s top competition. If they can overcome Mega Leks in the ABA Liga finals and manage the roster over the summer, never a sure thing, there’s every chance they get back here next spring. For this year, this is their ceiling and there was little doubt a brave display was the best to hope for against CSKA.
As for the victors, it’s another case of them doing all they can to convince us that this is they year they finally don’t CSKA. When you have a habit of implausible collapses in the Final Four, to the point that your name is also a verb synonymous with said collapses, it’s hard for the public to buy in that any year is the year the run finally ends. Here is a club that is the pinnacle of consistency in European hoops, now in the showpiece weekend for the 13th time in 14 years. Once again, there are lots of reasons to think this is the year they don’t CSKA.
The depth is a big factor. Assuming Joel Freeland is healthy for Berlin, and really even if he isn’t, this is a meaty roster that has a lot of things to like. Freeland may not be the flashiest player but he’s an intelligent operator. CSKA have several of those this year, including Nikita Kurbanov and Cory Higgins and both of those guys are utter luxuries as role players. The immense depth of the back court has been clear throughout the season. When Vitaly Fridzon is essentially your fifth option at guard, you are doing really well at guard. Throw in the top tier guys like Milos Teodosic and Nando De Colo and the road to believing that this is the year CSKA finally keep it together becomes easier to buy into.
Then you throw in the big mental part, where so many of the players who were part of those collapses of yesteryear are no longer there, how Dimitris Itoudis looks like a guy who doesn’t worry about the heat and is the type of head on the sideline you want in those crunch minutes.
Then you notice how the defensive boards haven’t exactly been all that for CSKA this year. You think about the odd ones they dropped and how perhaps playing Zvezda wasn’t the right way to get battle tested for Berlin (while noting that being battle tested in each of their previous two years was somehow going to help them when nope it didn’t). You look for all those sources of doubt and think of the ways in which either Loko (already owners of a win over CSKA in the VTB League) or Barca (dramatic winners over CSKA in Top 16) might be able to take them in a single game situation.
Essentially you talk yourself into a corner, start humming a song by The Pursuit of Happiness that essentially no-one remembers, and realise that the only thing you ought to do, that you need to do, is ensure that this is finally the year where you pluck up the courage to be that person who clearly isn’t Russian that walks into the CSKA bar wherever it ends up being in Berlin.