CSKA Moscow shot the lights out all night but they never got comfortable as a gallant Anadolu Efes side fought them to the last. Emmet Ryan on an enthralling close to the 2019 Euroleague Final Four
That beautiful big booming voice of Eddy Vidal as he announced the players. Finally, at the end of a wild two and a half week trip and a 7 months season, we were about to find out who would be the champions of the big one. CSKA’s third possession sent a message. With Efes having quickly moved the ball to score on their first three tries, the Red Army slowed it down to take a bit of wind out of the play.
Both sides settled fine all the same, shots came easy in the early going and that was vital to Efes. As newcomers, with only one player on the roster to ever play a title game, they needed to get comfortable fast. 5 minutes down and 12-12. Fresh starts for all.
There have been a few rejuvenation jobs with Efes this year but James Anderson has flown under the radar. He’d basically gone under a rock with Khimki last season but in Istanbul he has thrived. A long two from him briefly put Efes back in front before Cory Higgins gave CSKA their first lead of the day with a three. A second from Higgins, who is an obvious NBA role player if ever there was one lurking, and the confidence was building for the Red Army.
Back came Shane Larkin from deep, his father Barry is in the baseball hall of fame having won a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds and making 12 All Star teams. The younger Larkin has plenty of individual accolades but now was trying to get a first major championship of his own. Just like Friday night, Larkin was scoring plenty early but Daniel Hacket was adjusting to him on D and the Italian pushed the CSKA lead to 7 shortly after shutting down a Larkin lay-up effort.
Towards the end of the first you could see the nerves starting to show in Efes. Low percentage shots were being forced with plenty of time on the clock as they struggled to regain control of the pace. By contrast, everything was smooth from CSKA as they closed out the first with finesse to lead 29-20.
Chacho, baby, from deep and the fear was lurking once more. The Efes side, for all its talent wasn’t used to this kind of heat. Tibor Pleiss botched an easy alley-oop finish and you had to wonder where their heads were. Even the breaks were going the wrong way for them. A perfectly selected three-ball from Brock Motum found iron. The very next possession, Pleiss blocked Kyle Hines neatly only to see it go right back into the hands of Hines and the American duly finished at the second attempt.
Fire was needed and Larkin just plain ran at Kyle Hines, he kicked into gear quickly and drew the unsportsmanlike from Hines. Somebody had to just get angry. It sent the right message. Larkin made both from the line and then Motum got in to bring it back to a more manageable deficit.
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It was just all so calm from CSKA. Simple and efficient play blending with some big time shots. All the while, they let Efes find ways to hurt themselves. Finally a break came their way, after two tough shots missed, Bryant Dunston drew a foul on the third chance opportunity and once more it wasn’t too deep a hole. Next possession he fought just to get a hand on a board, it went to Kruno Simon. He passed back and forth a bit with Vasilije Micic, both were well guarded. With the shot clock gone, Simon just went for it and it dropped. Every little break in the ball Efes needed was coming their way, luck was back with them.
CSKA were worth much more than the gap at the half. Despite having been clearly the inferior side, Efes had seen their first big scare on the grandest stage and overcome it. They were down but right in it as CSKA led 44-42.
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Simon gave Efes their first lead since the opening quarter on their first possession of the second half. There was however a touch of bite there to test their resolve as a couple of quick foul calls against them had them remonstrating with the refs. That slowed them down enough to get Ergin Ataman to bring Larkin back in for Micic. He did exactly what you’d expect, called his own number, mid-range step-back, bucket.
Efes were dealt a huge blow however as Dunston picked up his fourth before the midway point of the third. The big man tandem of Dunston and Pleiss relied on the former setting the tone and the German as the change of pace. Now he was going to have to carry a big load for the bulk of the remainder. It also left the paint thin, and a CSKA side that had been struggling inside even while in charge was built to adjust.
The Higgins and Larkin duel continued, with the CSKA man ready to respond every time Larkin tried to spark something. With Higgins taking up so much attention from the Efes D, Will Clyburn had oodles of room. He’d been working well as the second or third option all evening and three from him pushed CSKA back into a double digit lead.
This was essentially the point where you wonder what CSKA we were going to see. The one that had found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory so many times or the side that came back from the dead two nights prior. Those ghosts are all too real and no lead feels safe when CSKA has it on the grandest stage.
Hackett led the conference by the foul line as Hunter stepped up. This was not a time to let their emotions rule them. Hackett hadn’t been in a game like this before but he’d suffered plenty over the years. He knows what real pain is and was keeping his guys in check. CSKA’s patience kept Efes at bay without pressing home the lead. It was enough to still be ahead but those ghosts started to appear as the third closed. Efes pulled it back to just two possessions on a buzzer beating three from Larkin, trailing just 68-62.
A tentative start to the final quarter was broken by the returning Dunston who powered home a dunk. If Cinderella was going to win this, it needed a sledgehammer and the worst to first dream was still alive. Adrien Moerman then just viciously stripped Kyle Hines before finishing the move with a dunk. The energy was there, what they needed were breaks.
Instead they watched Nando get up, after going down fairly in a tussle with Micic, to drain a three as soon as he was upright. Midway through the fourth, 9 point game, and utterly captivating. Just as it looked like it was getting out of reach again, Simon from deep.
The Serbian is a job doer, he’s alright from deep but not the guy you expect to go full Sloukas to get you out of holes. All the pain of the prior year was being exorcised from his veins in this one. Everything was being left out on the floor as he clawed to keep the Istanbul side’s dream alive. Micic now, to bring it back to where they stood at the start of the quarter. 3 minutes and 10 seconds to beat the strike of midnight.
Once more, CSKA looked to be safe only for Efes to get a break. They were like a nasty rash. With 90 second to gio they were still hanging on. Thrice they they, thrice they failed. Finally, after all the stress, CSKA could breathe. They were in control. Patience had paid off as they ground the clock down to ensure the dream ending didn’t come for Cinderella.
Instead of fairytales, the real life magic of Daniel Hackett’s comeback was complete. He was nearly in tears on the bench as he watch Clyburn drain free throws to end it. Through injury, through the road, he’d hung on. He won the hustle award on the Sweet 16 podcast for the work throughout the year. Now his grinding had led to glory.
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