From the moment they stepped on the floor alongside Milos Teodosic and Alexey Shved, it was clear that it would take a mammoth effort to keep the Russians out of the Euroleague Final Four for a second straight season.
After steamrolling their way to an 18-2 record in the Euroleague, all it took was one enormous comeback against the defending champs—Panathinaikos—to prevail by a pair of points, 66-64, and advance to the Euroleague finals this Sunday at 2:00 EST.
The Greens’ chants sent Sinan Erdem Arena into spastic vibrations before the game even started. Once it did, it seemed like CSKA had heard every note. Sarunas Jasikevicius and Aleks Maric redefined what it meant to pick, then roll and Panathinaikos jumped out to a 29-15 lead after the first quarter.
Unfortunately for the Greens, the rules required them to play the even-numbered quarters, and the Greeks followed five points in the second with 21 in the third and only nine in the closing period as CSKA crept steadily back behind defensive line-ups which evoked more mentions of wingspan than ESPN’s televised coverage of the NBA Draft.
In the end, it was the legendary Dimitris Diamantidis with the rock with his Greens down two and the final 8.3 seconds ticking away. As he dribbled once, twice, three times at the top of the key, the entire arena leaned forward in anticipation of the do-or-die three we all knew was coming. A made triple and Panathinaikos would have a shot at defending their title. If Diamantidis drew either iron or air, Zeljko Obradovic’s pursuit of a ninth European title would have to wait until another year.
There was no make. There was no miss. There was only a scramble for a ball that Diamantidis had dribbled off a CSKA leg, and an arena full of people baffled by the 2011 Euroleague MVP’s indecision. A game and season that should’ve ended with a smoking gun finished with a finger still resting on the trigger.
Krstic had his quietest statistical game of the season with eight points, two boards and three blocks, while Kirilenko was as Kirilenko as he’s ever been: 17 points and 9 rebounds to go with his four swats.
To top it all off, Kirilenko was named the Euroleague MVP less than 24 hours later.
But Kirilenko says that even if CSKA can’t bring home the title tomorrow night, he has no regrets about coming to and then staying in Russia. He got to play in front of friends and family, and says he feels incredibly close with this group of guys, many of whom will join him this July at a tournament in Venezuela as Team Russia tries to qualify for the Olympics.
Is this CSKA team closer than any he ever played for during his 10 seasons with the Utah Jazz? I asked him just that.
We also talked about nerves: “We are not robots. We have feelings, we have emotions,” Kirilenko said. I don’t buy it. The full interview:
In Sunday’s final, Moscow will be up against another Greek side, Olympiacos, who upset a lackadaisical Barcelona bunch despite undeniable talent and size deficits. Vassilis Spanoulis outscored Juan Carlos Navarro 21 to 18 for a 68-64 win, setting the Reds up for a shot at the Euroleague crown. It would be their first since 1997.
Whereas Krstic and Kirilenko’s successes were damn near certainties, Acie Law and Joey Dorsey owe theirs to serendipity.
Law, the former Hawks lottery pick who played for more NBA teams (five) than he had years in the league (four), started the season with Nikola Pekovic and Partizan before Olympiacos scooped him up midseason in desperate need of a point guard.
Acie gave the Reds exactly what they were looking for, handing out 4.5 assists to only 1.5 turnovers in Olympiacos’ playoff series against Montepaschi Siena. Unfortunately, Law hurt his ankle late in Friday’s game, and Ivkovic says it will be “very, very hard” for him to suit up against Moscow.
Law did not practice with the team on Saturday.
Dorsey’s Eurotrip started off with Caja Laboral in Spain before injuries, inconsistent play and a rocky relationship with notorious taskmaster Dusko Ivanovic made him expendable. Since coming to Piraeus to play for Dusan Ivkovic, he’s been anything but.
In our conversation yesterday, Dorsey talked about the similarities between his and Acie’s winding roads here, and the rough start he experienced when he first touched down in Europe.
Dorsey’s season has been a tale of two halves, and his Euroleague semifinal wasn’t much different. After the first two quarters, the former Memphis Tiger had only pulled down two rebounds against Erazem Lorbek, Fran Vazquez and Barcelona’s usually intimidating frontline.
“We came in at halftime and [Coach Dusan Ivkovic] got on me very hard,” Dorsey said after the game. “He said ‘Joey, you’re not giving us enough.'”
Well-rested after sitting much of the third quarter, his man Ivkovic unleashed a faster, more ferocious Joey Dorsey onto the floor for the fourth. He snatched four huge offensive rebounds—Olympiacos only had 11 the entire game to Barca’s 19—and gave Olympiacos the energy they’d been lacking on the interior.
Now against CSKA Moscow, Dorsey will be up against a CSKA Moscow battery of Kirilenko, Krstic, Viktor Khryapa and Sasha Kaun whose linked arms could stretch across the Bosphorus.
Joey’s mate Kyle Hines, a power forward slash center who is generally listed at 6-foot-6, says that since CSKA is longer, Olympiacos needs to be quicker.
Kyle’s “low man wins” philosophy sounds nice enough, but to crack CSKA’s defense it will take more than a little quickness. Spanoulis will need to be sharp, Dorsey will need to duplicate Friday’s second half in Sunday’s first, and one or both of Olympiacos’ young guards, Evangelos Mantzaris or Kostas Sloukas, will have to step it up if Acie Law is a no-go.
As Barcelona found out, underestimating a Dusan Ivkovic-led side is a losing proposition. CSKA Moscow won’t be foolish enough to think their heights printed on paper will earn them a Euroleague championship; they will have to scrap for it. With CSKA’s worst quarter of the season behind them, Olympiacos will have to dig in and and lunge low if they want to uproot CSKA Moscow and their forest’s worth of trees.