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The Journey of CSKA Moscow to Euroleague Champions

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The Journey of CSKA Moscow to Euroleague Champions
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After eight years, CSKA Moscow has once again returned as the strongest team on the continent, after defeating Istanbul Fenerbahçe 96-101 in overtime during the Euroleague final in Berlin.

In anticipation of the decisive match, behind the scenes in the Mercedes-Benz Arena, everyone was discussing the future of the team’s coaches. Dimitrios Itoudis, CSKA head coach, was destined for resignation if the team failed again, only winning bronze last year, CSKA does not forgive. On the opposing team, Head Coach Željko Obradović, known as the most successful coach in Euroleague history, having won eight titles, would receive a contract until 2020 if he succeeded in lifting up a championship trophy one more time. The yellow and blue camp didn’t think there would be a chance of failure. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself was said to have already planned for an appearance in Berlin in order to congratulate Fenerbahçe with the prestigious title.

In the end, Itoudis came out on top, receiving a new contract and salary increase. Let’s try to understand the reasons for the improbable outcome in the scenario of the final match.

Dimitrios Itoudis celebrates with his team after the big win.

Dimitrios Itoudis celebrates with his team after the big win.

What happened during the game-changing first half?

Creating the winning formula. The CSKA head coach carefully selected the correct combination to break down his competitors. He continuously introduced substitutions with the highest defensive efficiency. In the first quarter, Fenerbahçe was not able to carry out a single pick-and-roll due to the dominating center, Jan Vesely. CSKA players had also locked Bogdan Bogdanovich in a wardrobe. He tried to rush into the paint and look for free shooters to no avail, but instead of Narnia, the Serbian found himself in a wardrobe filled with two or even three rivals blocking his path. Hines, and Khryapa entered the game ready to put some heat on their competitors, forcing them to lose advantageous positions under the rim.

Faith in Teodosić. Point guard Miloš Teodosić, a previous Euroleague MVP, was able to do what he does best with help from teammate and 2016 MVP, Nando de Colo. The playmaker had an impressive game, a spark, which flamed up against the Fenerbahçe defense. Teodosić, sometimes drawing in two defenders, was able to create advantageous openings for free players within the point as well as along the three point line. Teodosić also held his ground against 2.03 meter tall defender Kaliniç, significantly weakening the attacking potential and defenses of the oposition.

“Hack-a-Shaq” on Vesely. Jan Vesely, Fenerbahçe center came to the free throw line ten times during the evening, but only made one attempt. He spent all of his energy avoiding and rushing on defenders and then could not pull himself together and concentrate for the execution of free throws. Having comprehended it at once, Itoudis introduced the hack-a-Shaq tactic, continually committing professional fouls against Vesely and hindering the scoring potential of the team.

CSKA Moscow increases the pressure on forward, Jan Vesely.

With so much going for them, why did they fail?

Obradović‘s experience. Even when losing by 20 points, it is imprudent not to shrug off Obradović’s leadership and coaching skill. With a seventeen-year career as a coach including eight professional sports club championship titles, he has experienced and persevered through every situation possible. All of his colleagues envy his experience, knowing that a meeting with Obradović, will certainly come with a few tricks before the final buzzer sounds.

Moscow loses their concentration. After a big lead, CSKA returned to the court, understanding that they must defeat their rival on all fronts. Pressure from the opposition destroyed the rhythm of the CSKA team and slowed their momentum. American Fenerbahçe player Ekpe Udoh, took over as the center, continually being evaded by the CSKA offense and drawing in an extra defender during defense. The amplified pressure on the perimeter had seemingly finished the Moscow team, a series of forced errors from CSKA players lead to an equal footing and an uncertain outcome once again.

Inconsistencies among officials. To expostulate on refereeing seems like poor sportsmanship, however Euroleague referee, Luigi Lamonica and the most criticized official of the AVA league, Damir Yavor’s decisions were questionable to those on and off the court. Calling nearly every minuscule contact a foul, the referees continually broke the rhythm of the game. Moreover, without having consistency as to what is considered a violation and what is a fight, each stop of the match increased the tension between the two opponents. Andrey Vorontsevich fouled out at 5:41 of the fourth quarter, depriving CSKA of a key player. It was Vorontsevich who by moving to the perimeter and counteracting defenders, was able to slow down Fenerbahçe’s driving force.

Ridiculous fan intimidation. Until game day, hardly anyone from the sporting world knew the executive director and chairman of the board at SIBUR Holding, Dmitry Konov. However, the Euroleague final made the CSKA supporter the star of the basketball weekend. Konov stood up from his chair and pushed Fenerbahçe’s forward, Nikola Kaliniç who ran out of bounds past the VIP section, provoking a skirmish, which happened after the whistle was blown, creating mass discontent between players and fans and interrupting the game for several minutes. The pause helped Fenerbahçe prepare their next tactical strategy.

CSKA claims their seventh Euroleague cup after a nerve-racking overtime.

How did the underdogs pull through?

Broad rotation. During the first quarter, Itoudis had already tried out almost all combinations of players at his disposal. Khryapa, Fridzon and Korobkov’s playing time allowed the first string of players not only to take a break, but to save them from accumulating fouls. The substitutions of the second string players also forced Fenerbahçe to react, adapt and stay on attentive to the game. Considering how dangerous the situation was in the end of the game regarding fouls, one might say that the decision to substitute key players early on became a great advantage and was a very intelligent coaching choice.

Not again for Victor Khryapa. The most experienced player and team captain for CSKA had lost too many final four games to allow his team to endure the nightmare of Istanbul or Milan once again. During key moments in the game, the experience of the veteran shined through, playing a key role by making the shot which called for overtime and then doing an important block in the last few minutes of the game, which gave possession to CSKA. Through his manner and actions, the forward showed that there was no place for past demons in CSKA any longer. Khryapa appeared to be an excellent exorcist: for the first time since 2008, CSKA became the best basketball club in Europe!

Earlier this month, CSKA Moscow went on to win the VTB United league (the Russian Professional Basketball League). What an amazing season for CSKA!

Written by EU alumnus, Alexander Gugunishvili