The defending champions stare their ultimate nightmare in the face. The location is Istanbul. The combatants are CSKA Moscow and Olympiaocs. And, as Emmet Ryan writes, the time is now. It’s the first of our two fearless prediction previews
There’s a little bit of an extra chip on the shoulder when you play the first semi-final. It’s a signal, intended or otherwise, that you aren’t the main event. You’re not the reason the people are here. You won’t matter until Sunday. The second game, that’s the big show. Who cares for the undercard? There’ll be a few thousand loud voices from Piraeus disagreeing strongly with that contention when their Reds take on the Red Army.
CSKA’s weaknesses, tangible and intangible, have been beaten into the ground at this stage. We know they are challenged at the 5. We know that Olympiacos tend to be their poison at the Final Four. Their strengths however just can’t be overlooked. In Milos Teodosic and Nando de Colo, CSKA have the undisputed best back court in Euroleague. Behind them stands serious talent like Aaron Jackson, Kyle Hines, Andrey Vorontsevich, Nikita Kurbanov, and James Augustine. This side has depth, options, and so many ways to hurt you. Last year, having collapsed in the final quarter, they picked themselves up to win the Euroleague title in overtime. This is a good basketball team, one with mental toughness, and one built to go back to back.
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Staring them down is an Olympiacos team that has looked rejuvenated this season. While it can’t match the outright back court quality of the reigning champions, in Vassilis Spanoulis it has Mr Final Four. Kill Bill knows what it takes to win at this stage and he has never lost a semi-final. Alongside him it’s the other two parts of the Greek Big Three, Georgios Printezis and Kostas Papanikolaou and a bench that is far deeper than it is given credit for.
This won’t be a bish bash bosh of a game, it’s going to be one of changing paces and whoever runs with the flow the best is going to come out on top. CSKA have the firepower to put Olympiacos under pressure but the Reds have the resolve to dig their way out of big holes. Especially against this opponent.
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The one man who refuses to believe in ghost stories, who won’t be unnerved by a Spanoulis charge, walks the line for CSKA. Dimitris Itoudis is all business when it comes to big games and he silenced the doubters when he needed to last May. Now, he gets a chance he may not have even cared for. He can banish the ghost of Spanoulis from CSKA’s nightmares once and for all. He can lead his side back to the final for a chance to retain their title having vanquished the last of their psychological demons.
It’s not going to be easy but no game in the final four should be. The champions have managed to make hard work of an impressive record. They have that impressive record because while their faults are visible, they have the strength to get around them.
Fearless prediction: CSKA Moscow