With the Euroleague Final Four mere days away, the giddiness increases at the prospect of figuring that, yes, without hyperbole, basketball fans could well be getting a complete slate of four classic games. While FC Barcelona and Olympiacos are the heavy favorites (and, ahem, BallinEurope.com’s teams predicted to make the finals at the beginning of the 2009-10 Euroleague season), the prospective top dogs will have no easy way with it.
Case in point: Barcelona. While the Blaugrana continue to look unstoppable, coming off the decisive best-of-five Euroleague series win over Real Madrid and a historic 73-54 blowout perpetrated at Murcia in ACB play, CSKA Moscow is precisely the team they don’t want to face: The Red Army certainly has the potential to give the Barça frontcourt fits, in particular.
BiE’s informal area-by-area briefing on the first Euroleague Final Four game – together with patented BallinEurope Fearless Prediction, naturally – goes something like this.
Point guard: Zoran Planinic/J.R. Holden vs. Ricky Rubio. How will Evgenyi Pashutin answer the Rising Star/passing machine/Euroleague Defensive Player of the Year runnerup/general badass that is Ricky Rubio? By mixing it up!
The Planinic/Holden combo is nicely symbolic of this edition of CSKA Moscow itself, with its synthesis of wily veteran plus the twentysomething putting in a near-career year. In the classic variant, Planinic is allowed to set a quick early pace to soften up the opposition outside while Holden comes in with four minutes gone to exploit the particulars; Holden in fact played the entire 40 against Caja Laboral Baskonia to close that team out, but BiE believes you probably won’t see the 34-year-old do likewise against run-‘til-you-drop Barça. (Weird stat: Pashutin is just seven years old than Team Russia stalwart Holden; is there an assistant coaching gig in J.R.’s future?)
The Holden/Planinic plan is the just-so-crazy-it-might-work-proposition for Pashutin in this game. True, no one’s come up with a sufficient answer to shut down Rubio this season; on the other hand, Holden’s been in seven freaking EL Final Fours and has handled just about everything The Continent has thrown down the pike. On the other other hand, he’s never seen anything like Rubio. Advantage: Barcelona.
Two guard: Trajan Langdon vs. Juan Carlos Navarro. Langdon contributed another steady Euroleague season for CSKA Moscow, but Navarro may be on too torrid a pace for the American right now. Since March 30 – game 3 of the Barcelona-Madrid playoff series, Navarro is averaging an even 17 points per game on 47.8% overall shooting (33-for-69 in six games) and just under 44% on threes.
The possible saving grace for Langdon: Winning the battle of the turnovers. Navarro turns the ball over more often than Langdon (1.8 per EL game versus 1.5 for Langdon) and manages fewer steals (0.9 to Langdon’s 1.3). Here’s to thinking this won’t be enough to win this head-to-head. Advantage: Barcelona.
Frontcourt: Ramunas Siskauskas and Viktor Khryapa vs. Erazem Lorbek, Terence Morris and Pete Mickael. With this trio, Barcelona can go big or small, relying very often on the latter (and thus not Boniface N’dong at center) for those long dominating stretches when Barça’s running opens up the floor. And Mickael’s versatility has posed matchup problems to the point of distraction for teams all season long – just ask Ettore Messina.
However, Barcelona big isn’t Moscow big. I mean, we’re talking a duo that gets 10.4 rebounds per game, including 8.7 on the defensive end: This beats any combination of two Barça players and beats most any Euroleague twosome this season in either category. Add in Khryapa’s Euroleague Defensive Player of the Year trophy and Siskauskas’ two EL championship rings and it all adds up to the supposition that early on the Blaugrana’d better be hitting their shots because second-chance opportunities will be rarer than usual. Advantage: Even.
Center: Sasha Kaun vs. Boniface N’dong. Though still not quite the powerhouse he may yet become, Kaun is definitely doing the right things down the stretch. In Euroleague Top 16 play and beyond, Kaun was able to crush smaller defenses like those of Asseco Prokom, Žalgiris and particularly Baskonia while merely occasionally tormenting the others along the way to final: Kaun has “shot” a ridiculous 72.7% in the Euroleague. Taking out the first five EL games, in which he went a combined 7-of-15 and his dunking/shooting percentage goes to an insane 79.8%.
The question then becomes, “How long can N’dong contain this freak of nature?” At a listed 6’11” 240 pounds, N’dong would appear to be the biggest, tallest body to stop Kaun (listed at 250; giggle). Unfortunately, stamina appears to be an issue with N’dong – he got up to 20 minutes per game in the EL playoff round – and Barça fans seriously need to worry about the big Russian wearing their man down. Advantage: Moscow.
The bench. Both teams will most likely be employing a short rotation after the six players listed for each squad above, as throughout the playoff round. Barcelona’s bench is replete with solid, if unspectacular-looking, substitutes. Fran Vazquez has seen a jump in his playing time recently and has been contributing some sweet D for 20 minutes per EL game. Roger Grimau and Victor Sada figure to be close to the DNP line and, while fourth guard Jaka Lakovic has occasionally seen good playing time recently, odds are he might not see too much court, either.
But then there’s Gianluca Basile, the mystery of the mighty 2009-10 FC Barcelona team. So respect goes some way in explaining the 15-year man’s extensive playing time (18 minutes per game!), but seriously. The man’s shooting 26.7% and 30.5% on twos and threes, respectively, in EL play – no typo. Meanwhile, Basile’s stealing only 14 minutes of play per game in a league wherein Barça’s regularly blowing out the opposition; in Spain, he’s shooting 62% and 43%, not to mention far less frequently. Speaking pure subjectively, he’s a step slower than 2008-09 Giancolo Basile and two slower than 2009-10 Ricky Rubio while contributing none of the solid D any of the three aforementioned point guards bring.
So, in a nutshell, what gives? Is this a blackmail thing? (And yes, assuming it isn’t, BiE’ll be docking points from Xavi Pascual’s score for his bizarre overuse of Basile.)
For the Russian side, Andrey Vorontsevich has been looking like a revelation for a while in 2009-10, though his playing time has slowly dissipated in the Baskonia series as CSKA’s big men linger longer on the court to wear down offenses. After that, it looks like a lot of roster-filling Russian nationals (Victor Keyru, Nikita Kurbanov, Anton Ponkrashov, Dimitry Sokolov) sitting next to BiE’s X-factor in this game: That’s right, Pops Mensah-Bonsu.
In Pops’ short time with this club, he’s demonstrated his remarkable ability to energize a hometown crowd and his team with a single crafty steal or trademark Mensah-Bonsu megablast. Pops may not be the best player on this team, but here’s to thinking he’ll be more than welcome to re-sign with CSKA after this one’s said and done. Advantage: Barcelona, despite that one guy.
Coaches: Evgenyi Pashutin vs. Xavi Pascual. It’s difficult to find any negatives with a coach who’s led his team to, what, 52-5 cumulative, at this point in 2009-10, but Pascual’s job has definitely had an element of wind-it-up-let-it-work this season. No major injuries have befallen the club and either starting five has won on off-nights by coasting on sheer talent.
Sure, with a Barcelona win Pascual may acquire a Phil Jackson-esque “superstar’s coach” mystique, but in a single tight game, BiE might prefer to invest intellectual resources in Pashutin. The Moscow boss, just in his second year of high-level coaching, managed to form an excellent synthesis for CSKA in a rare season when the Red Army entered the season relatively unheralded. This season, Pashutin proved to be one of three Euroleague head coaches (along with Pini Gershon and Dusko Vujosevic) absolutely critical to their team’s successes. And in terms of reputation, Pashutin has nothing to lose in this head-to-head, while Pascual faces a serious test. Advantage: CSKA Moscow.
Fearless prediction. Since about, oh, week one of the 2009-10 basketball season, there’s been a certain aura of inevitability about Barça nabbing a spot in the finals. As the machine rolls on, does anyone see anything – even the monsters of Moscow – that can make it seem otherwise? BiE thought not. Final score: FC Barcelona 75, CSKA Moscow 65, as the Blaugrana bombers lead the way from long range.