CSKA Moscow (1) – Khimki Moscow (8)
CSKA being the (clear) favorite in a series is something most fans are accustomed to. CSKA dominating city rival Khimki with home court advantage favoring them isn’t screaming ‘woah what happened there?’ either. Pretending this matchup will be the most anticipated one outside of Russia would probably be a lie, nevertheless there are enough things to talk about. The gap between those two teams might seem large, but without injured center Kyle Hines Khimki will definitely see their chance. Hines, always a little bit overshadowed by guys like Nando de Colo or Milos Teodosic, is CSKA’s swiss army knife, defending five positions on one side, running one-man fastbreaks on the other end. Hines defensive impact can’t be overstated enough, making him a not-so-early frontrunner for DPOY like in years past. With Hines on the floor coach Itoudis’ squad can effectively switch ball screens and demoralize opponents with their flexibility. Especially in combination with his like-minded teammate Nikita Kurbanov, CSKA is able to slow down offenses on a regular and consolidate their reputation as the best team in Europe. The first meeting between CSKA and Khimki went therefore as expected:
Before injuring his calf in Moscow’s last regular season match, Hines missed just one game and was one of the most realiable two-way options in the Euroleague. Going to battle without him will likely trigger some additional minutes for rebounding machine Othello Hunter, while also opening up some small-ball minutes for Vorontsevich at the five. Expecting those guys to have the same impact defensively (as Hines) would be a huge mistake, expecting them to do just fine however seems fair. The red and blues still have more than enough weapons to win the series, but a better scoring Khimki (just 73, 71, 68 points in the last meetings) shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Do they have to change the whole strategy?
Pointing out the value of Kyle Hines in general would already seal the deal here, but really digging deeper reveals why the injury is so much more important in this case: almost every other team in Europe tries to force the ball out of Shved’s hands – and CSKA isn’t all that different in that regard. But to which extent is surely different. Teams like Maccabi or Fenerbahce would almost always sent two guys in Shved’s direction, just to make sure he passes the ball. Sometimes guys like Malcolm Thomas or Anthony Gill couldn’t help but shoot the ball, because they were so open. CSKA is truly different. It really seems they are trying to play Shved one on one at first sight, of course preparing to help if the first defender gets beaten. But because they have guys like Hines or Kurbanov, who make a living out of switching onto different opponents, Shved is forced to take really tough shots. Taking tough shots is nothing new for him of course, but it’s not always the best recipe for winning. And even when CSKA tries to trap him, their key players have more than enough foot speed to rotate quickly back and at least contest those shots. They could do the obvious and make other players beat them, but they have the luxury to follow their own plan, unless Shved absolutely catches fire.
Without Hines, CSKA is looking more and more like the regular ‘Nope, Shved’s not beating us’ – team, we have seen so many of. His main backup, Othello Hunter, is certainly not a liability on defense by any means, but his willingness to switch out on the perimeter is limited. Being more of an old-school, ‘drop back center’, Hunter surely has to step out of his comfort zone to hedge/switch out and give his team an advantage. He showed in the past, that he’s able to do that, following his effort and performance in the pick and roll against Shved on a three (+) game basis will be fascinating to watch though. Itoudis subbing him in right when Shved went to the bench in their Dezember meeting is definitely throwing some wind in Khimki’s sails. Anthony Gill showed everyone he’s comfortable taking the shots the defense is giving him, but the same can’t be said about Malcolm Thomas or Stefan Markovic. One thing seems sure though: If Khimki wants to beat CSKA, their role players have to deliver. Which is easier said than done, looking at their roster and their performance over the last months.
Switch after switch
In terms of their defensive style both teams are quite similar. On Khimki’s side athletes like Thomas and Gill are used to defend way outside of their usual habitat, making them key factors in potentially slowing down CSKA’s guards. Having back James Anderson and Tyler Honeycutt would certainly help in that regard, not knowing if they are at 100% or even playing makes it a little unpredictable however. Offensively coach Bartzokas still needs to figure some things out. CSKA likes to put Sergio Rodriguez on low-usage guards like Markovic or Charles Jenkins, letting Cory Higgins do the dirty work. Giving Markovic the ball in the post worked for Khimki a couple weeks ago – a good strategy to give ‘Chacho’ at least a hard time. Charles Jenkins could make his presence felt in the pick and roll, but standing in the corner to watch Shved go to work all the time will most likely prevent that.
On CSKA’s side most plays are well know at this point. Coach Itoudis has always another ace in the hole, but why going away from something that worked all season? Nando de Colo ist still Nando de Colo and Sergio Rodriguez will run the pick and roll to perfection even when he’s 50. Throw some Clyburn one-on-one magic in, some russian shooting and you have a pretty good mix. Pointing out, that CSKA likes their ballhandlers to sprint into handoffs and further screen and rolls is always important, but for the most part that’s already in people’s heads. Put some nice flex-action into the already working mix, and there you have it: a pretty good basketball team!