CSKA went about their business like only they can but FC Bayern look like they’re here for the long haul. Emmet Ryan reports from the Audi Dome on a night where the result concealed the potential and attitude of this improving Bayern team
It’s no accident that the bigger mural in the press lounge is from a game for Bayern against Bamberg. As I take my seat in press row, I can see Katharina Förtsch, the social media brain of Brose Bamberg from there courtside with a friend. She’s got as much Euroleague experience as anyone else in this barn, albeit not on the floor. Bayern are a young side in Euroleague terms. They almost made the playoffs on their first outing, fuelled by Malcolm Delaney, but their sophomore campaign was a disappointment, and their third was a disaster. They needed a few seasons to find their feet truly.
Now, unlike that first campaign where they also won Bundesliga, they look read to make it stick. Their superiority in Bundlesiga isn’t unquestioned yet but a second straight title is assumed. Their attention this season was meant to be solely on cementing their Bundesliga dominance then an injury crisis proved serendipitous. They had little time to find a suitable big man and they ended up with a narrative changer. Derrick Williams came in and has been like a cheat code for the German champions. An upset win over Panathinaikos coupled with an absolute rout of Darussafaka had them at 3-3 and firmly among the playoff contenders even in these early days of the season.
This was not the case last time I was in Munich. The route to the Audi Dome still involved negotiating my way through a park in the dark, danke Google Maps, but the spirit was so much better. That night, in the autumn of 2015, saw them get taken apart by FC Barcelona in predictable style. Here, they were welcoming perennial Final Four side CSKA Moscow but in an arena where the fans truly believed they could contend.
Even during the intros you could feel the difference. The crowd was banging along like it was a team on the up as We Come 1 by Faithless blared out. A sweet stroke from Nihad Dedovic, the scariest looking face in Euroleague, for three got the fans off to the perfect start.
The pace was silly early to the surprise of nobody. Bayern had taken the offence heavy mind of the Bundesliga and pushed it right out. That meant a lot of running and plenty of buckets. Alba Berlin do it differently but with similar results. The domestic league is offensively heavy, long making it one of the more watchable in Europe on a lazy Sunday afternoon, but the reigning champs were out to prove it could work against the best in the continent.
Sergio Rodriquez loves this stuff. He was scoring freely early and hunting for behind the back passes. One to Othello Hunter didn’t work out, the next to Cory Higgins was all money. That was the big risk Bayern knew by playing their game against this CSKA side, it was all too suited to a big dose of Chachismo and he was scurrying around Stefan Jovic on D while pursuing every hint of an offensive opening. By the first time-out, with 4.51 left in the first, there had already been 35 points in a one possession match-up.
Out of that TV break, Alec Peters and Chacho went on a mini run to put CSKA up by 10. The pace was all too much to their liking. This was the kind of game they rarely get, where opponents want to get into a shootout with them, but it was one they relished all the same. A quiet had fallen over the Audi Dome crowd, albeit temporarily, as they got that touch wary about what might come next.
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CSKA is the Mr Potter of Euroleague. It’s pockets run so deep that it can bring Nando de Colo and Will Clyburn off the bench. The former was MVP when CSKA took the title in 2016 while Clyburn is perennially on the radar of players likely to make the jump to the NBA. Similarly Kyle Hines, a three time champion in Euroleague and one of the best bigs to ever grace the competition, can come in to give the starters a rest. That’s the threat anyone faces when up against CSKA. That’s why they can book a bar in the Final Four host city for their fans before the season starts. They may not be able to shut down the building and loan but they’re going to be one of the few standing come May no matter what.
No team in Germany weeps for Bayern as paupers, with the football club at their back they are easily the richest in Bundesliga right now but wealth is relative when you hit the continental level. The same goes for Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania or Maccabi in Israel. They are giants in small markets but need to be savvy to fight the deeper pockets in Euroleague.
Bayern were hanging in there at the end of the opening frame, trailing 23-30 after a furious first quarter.
Nikita Kurbanov nailed a three early to give CSKA their biggest lead of the night as a rep for the Russian side pumped his fist to the left of me on press row. Certain biases that would get you escorted out of the arena in the US are the norm here. You can be happy, visibly so, even audibly, just so long as it doesn’t get in the way of anybody working. Like the US, you can call any play idiotic or great from a neutral standpoint so long as you carry the right demeanour of ‘I am a person with no dog in this fight emotionally moved by stupid/wonderful thing’. It basically involves having a duh face with your arms slightly out and back at your side while leaning back in the chair. Turning your head towards another journalist but none in particular is also advised.
It was getting tougher for Bayern to finish and through the opening 3 minutes of the second they’d only managed one score. Andrey Vorontsevich, a Russian stretch 4 who shoots threes like he grew up in the Badalona youth system, kept the punishment coming. The hardcore Bayern fans at the far end of the stadium still had joy in their voices but even at this early stage they could tell it wasn’t going to be their night.
The rest of the arena took to their feet in solidarity with their side. A 16 point deficit be damned, this was a Bayern side with fight to match the fun of the product on the court and they were buying into that. Jovic tried a quarterback pass, well a Vince Young sidearm one, to Williams that didn’t connect but it’s the type of play Bayern wouldn’t have thought sensible just a couple of months prior. That’s the confidence he’s brought to this outfit. One that should carry long past one rough night against a team that has, checks notes, finished second and first in the regular season standings each of the past two seasons.
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The mascot made a big bucket during a mid quarter timeout, not bad going when you’ve got a giant bear head on. That brought some mirth to proceedings as Dedovic sought to close the gap a touch. Williams gave him a hand and it was just looking manageable until Kurbanov did his thing again. He’s probably the best Russian not in the NBA, defensively alone he is simply majestic, but he’s not got quite enough offensively to get a real look from the association. Instead he’s been logging big years in the red of CSKA and the national side to varying degrees of success. With CSKA, it’s tended to go well. With Russia, it’s been a rollercoaster.
A foul line jumper from Semen Antonov pushed things out again yet hope remained in the stands. Vladimir Lucic was battling at both ends, likewise Maodo Lo was getting in his licks. CSKA however were just running too much and Berni the Bear was even looking tense crouching on the steps beside the media seats.
With the Russians shooting 69 per cent from deep in the first half, it wasn’t exactly a shock that they led big. After 20 minutes of relentless offensive might, Bayern trailed 40-56.
Through all this, Cory Higgins had been the only play to hit double digits personally in the first half, Dedovic became the second early in the third but Bayern were still facing that air raid from CSKA as Higgins nailed their 10th of the night.
Williams knew how to work this crowd. He went right up in Hunter’s gut, put a lay-up over him and drew the foul before roaring towards the dancers. For the first time in a long time the gap was only 10. The respite was brief. CSKA’s numbers game was just oo much. Sit Clyburn, bring in De Colo. Sit Hunter, he comes Hines. That’s a monster ask.
Yet the fight remained. Lucic from deep and then Dedovic to bring it within single digits once more. A Jovic to Williams alley oop nearly brought the roof off but the American found iron and instead we got groans. That dreadful campaign from a few years ago couldn’t have felt more distant. The crowd, despite seeing the gap on the scoreboard staying static, was full of hope.
There was a lull in the middle of the third. CSKA were holding off any possible Bayern charge without putting the hammer down and the crowd almost needed a breather before raising their voices again. Bayern had been down by a dozen of more for most of the game yet, save for a dire night beyond the arc, they were clearly playing well. They were matching a far more talented, and substantially deeper, outfit in most areas and maintaining a high tempo in spite of the challenge before them.
Williams finally got his moment to really rouse the crowd as a two-handed dunk got everyone going late in the third. A lovely little half fake by Lo got another roar as the horn neared. With 10 minutes to play, they trailed 65-77 but their heads remained up.
The half court shot by a bald chap got the crowd going during the break, it was short but he got a good applause for his trouble. Berni meanwhile was showing off around the rim. We get it, you’re able to make shots in a bear suit. Don’t gild the lily.
Petteri Koponen fed Devin Booker, not that one, with a bounce pass for a dunk to fire everybody up in the fourth. Koponen has seen his fair share of drama. He missed a huge chunk of his maiden, and lone, season with Barcelona following a car accident, and has bounced around some great teams with varying success. He’s generally been the Finnish guy most linked to the NBA prior to the arrival of Lauri Markkanen, with Mark Cuban of the Mavs singing his praises, and he has been a hero for the Susijengi internationally, but luck hasn’t been his friend in recent seasons.
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It feels like he’s landed at the right spot. Bayern are steady and with an upward trajectory, the type who can use an off the bench shooter who has plenty of talent to create as well. He reminded them of the later with an alley oop to Booker.
CSKA? They’d hit business mode by this stage. A Chacho to Hunter feed for an easy finish looked effortless. They were chasing that century because they knew their coach, Dimitris Itoudis, would be ready to complain about them slacking off if they didn’t. When you’re expected to be the best, you’re often competing with yourself.
With 5.04 on the clock it was still plausible for Bayern to put together a comeback. They were down 13 coming out of a timeout. Jovic brought kept the hope alive but the clock kept ticking and no real inroads were being made. All Bayern could count on was that CSKA might lose focus in the closing minutes. Jovic stared down Chacho as the 2 minute mark ticked by looking to bring it down to single digits. His pass was overcooked but Williams recovered and tried to get it back to him. Instead CSKA pounced, Peters from deep and the chance was gone
CSKA didn’t get their century but they got the W. 79-93, the Euroleague anthem played as the Bayern fans stood clapping off a team they believe in.
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