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Game 1 observations – CSKA vs Khimki

CSKA won the first game against Khimki - what went as expected, what was surprising?

CSKA Moscow looked like the clear favourite going into this series, but struggled to show their usual brilliance in game one against a good Khimki squad. After hard-fought 40 minutes they managed to get a narrow win (98:95), fueled by a crucial call in favor of the first seed just 43 seconds before the end. Giving up almost hundred points to a team, they normally have the blueprint of, is definitely raising some eyebrows and it has to be seen, if they can improve on that end without injured center Kyle Hines. In contrast to the home team, Khimki and especially coach Bartzokas matched the eye test in this game and suprised fans and surely their opponent with a couple of new sets and good shooting next to Alexey Shved. As expected, Bartzokas and Itoudis got into an own coaching war, trying to outsmart each other in every way possible. Time for us to look at what went almost exactly as expected, what didn’t went as expected and which questions are floating around before game two.


As expected:

CSKA going after Alexey Shved
In order to make Shved work on defense and eventually get him in foul trouble, coach Itoudis ran one post up play after another against Khimki’s star guard. They attacked him over and over again, mostly with their forward duo of Nikita Kurbanov and Will Clyburn. Kurbanov had success on the low block early on, scoring four points against Shved and handing him his first foul of the evening. After some questionable plays by Kurbanov on the other end, Itoudis relied heavily on Clyburn to shoulder some of the post-up duties. Clyburn delivered in big fashion and was the main reason, why Shved had to sit on the bench with four personal fouls midway through the third quarter. Moments before the final buzzer sounded, Shved even fouled out; for the first time since May 2017. Expecting Shved to do the same thing in the upcoming games would certainly be a mistake, but CSKA at least won this little battle in game one.

Othello Hunter, not Kyle Hines
Stating Othello Hunter is not as good as Kyle Hines defensively is clearly not an insult to the former, more a praise to the latter. Actually, Hunter did a really decent job on defense in this game, especially in the last quarter. He was willing to switch out more and more as the game went on and stayed in front of Shved on numerous occasions. The problem was more in the first half, where he tried to hedge out and recover, but didn’t manage to do that in time. That again caused some ‘unnecessary’ rotations by other players and led to a couple of open threes for Khimki. Besides that, there were some plays, where you don’t fully expect a guy like Hunter to do some heroics, but you also can’t quite cut out the thought in the back of your mind, that Kyle Hines would have pulled off some ‘rabbit out of a hat’- type plays in those situations.

Khimki’s switching defense
After completely changing their (normal) defensive system heading into this game (more on that later), Khimki went back to their well-known switching defense in the second quarter, trying to contain CSKA’s offensive weapons. Bartzokas changed the way his team should defend before the game, but after ten minutes it was more or less the usual, especially obvious in the second half. Khimki has always had some serious defensive potential with guys like Charles Jenkins, Malcolm Thomas and Anthony Gill and they showed that to some extent against CSKA

But playing steady defense for only ~ 20 seconds instead of 24 isn’t enough against an offensive juggernaut. Khimki had numerous plays, where it seemed they finally locked down their opponent, just to hand them an easy basket at the end of the shotclock. If they can sustain their intensity level for just a little bit longer, they have a chance.

Shved getting shots up
‘Shved getting shots up’ is obviously a very expectable headline. A certain defense, which stops Alexey Shved from getting 10 or 15+ shots up a game has still to be invented. That’s a fact and everyone involved knows that. However it has to be said, that Khimki’s main man had a very balanced first half, scoring eleven points on eight shots while also dishing out 6 assists. His stats in the second half: eleven points on 12 shots, while dishing out zero assists. You can’t always blame missing assists on the ballhandler, because defenses adjust, teammates aren’t hitting shots and all that stuff, but it gives you at least a little bit of context. Shved is always going to force some tough shots and he absolutely should do that if a slower big is defending him, but there were at least a couple of shots in last night’s game, that were flat-oud bad.


UNEXPECTED:

Khimki going under in the first quarter
Coach Bartzokas really surprised everyone with his tactic to let his players go under on ball screens in the first quarter. A tactic you normally won’t see against CSKA, because Sergio Rodriguez and Nando de Colo are well-known for their ability to knock down pull-up J’s. Khimki tried to prevent the drive – De Colo and Higgins are deadly sprinting from the corner into handoffs or pnr’s, then driving to the rim with ease – and possible lob-passes to Hunter, which led to a scoring barrage by ‘Chacho’ (eight points in six minutes) and De Colo (ten points in eight minutes). With Malcolm Thomas and Anthony Gill sitting back in the pick and roll instead of hedging out, they could also leave their help defenders in the corner to take away those deadly spot-up threes. Khimki’s guards tried to make contact with Hunter every time they crossed his way, just to make absolutely sure he has no rhythm rolling to the rim.

Giving Rodriguez and De Colo so much space to work with by choice speaks volume to the fact, how incredible CSKA’s offense really is and how it’s pick your poison time when you prepare for them. Cory Higgins was the only player, who really seemed to be caught off guard, constantly struggling with himself whether to shoot the ball or hit the roll man, ultimately resulting in turnovers. There was one sequence in the first quarter though, where everyone saw what happens, when you don’t beg CSKA’s guards to shoot the ball: Chacho to Hunter, who smashes the rim, not giving a damn about a possible help from the weakside.

Markovic to Shved
Instructing his troops to go under in the first quarter wasn’t the only ace, Bartzokas had in his hole however. On offense Khimki ran a simple, but effective post-up play multiple times to get Alexey Shved an open catch-and-shoot look from three. Important to note, that they ran this set only a few times in the regular season, making it an even more dangerous weapon for the playoffs. On the one hand it worked so well because it clearly wasn’t on CSKA’s radar going into this game, on the other hand because Markovic had success in their last meeting scoring the ball and looking for his own shot gainst Rodriguez. Surely the home team was expecting Markovic to try to duplicate his success in this game, only to see him attempting zero shots out of those plays on Tuesday. Also worth noting, that Khimki isn’t known for their flashy set-plays or plays in general, where Shved hasn’t the ball in his hands most of the time.

They even ran it for Charles Jenkins. Unsurprisingly it worked better with Shved as the receiver.

Rudd starting
As you might know every coin has two sides. With Victor Rudd starting there was one ‘why is he starting?!’ part and one ‘yeah this outcome was forseeable’ part. It didn’t end well. Rudd had the worst plus-minus of every CSKA player and looked out of sync on both ends. He overhelped on ‘D’, refused to take open shots on ‘O’, turned the ball over and looked every bit like a new player coming to an already functioning team. Oh wait…

Vialtsev scoring 21 points
As with Rudd, there are two sides here as well. Did anyone expect Egor Vialtsev to drop 20+ points and score just one point less than Alexey Shved? Probably no. Could you expect quality minutes from him and a three here and there? Absolutely! Few have noticed that the russion veteran – in part due to injuries to James Anderson and Tyler Honeycutt – has been getting more playing time as the season went on and logged more than 17 minutes in all of Khimki’s last five regular season games. He nailed eleven of 24 threes in that stretch. It took Bartzokas some time to figure out, that a knock-down shooter next to Shved might work, but at least he figured that thing out before the playoffs started. And when a player looks for his own shot regarless if Shved is demanding the ball on top or not you can say in all likelihood that this player is feeling it right now. Vialtsev played great, but Khimki might need another high-scoring game from him to make this a real fight.

Kurbanov in trouble
Nikita Kurbanov being overmatched defensively is not a thing anyone ever expects. Regardless if he’s defending a guy like Alexey Shved or the basketball god himself. But, being honest, Nikita Kurbanov had all sorts of problems staying in front of Khimki’s top scorer on Tuesday, playing only seven minutes while also collecting four fouls in that timespan. Without Kyle Hines CSKA’s No. 41 looked stranded on an island and he had noone behind him to make up for his ‘mistakes’.

Coach Itoudis went away from him and trusted Will Clyburn more than usual to shoulder that burden. Clyburn was active all game long, collecting nine boards and playing physical defense.

T-Rob back alive
Thomas Robinson finally looked more like the pre-injury Thomas Robinson than the player he was in the last games for Khimki. He took a charge, had five offensive rebounds, a nice block against De Colo, some deflections (he’s actually quite good at poking the ball away from guards) and looked under control while doing it.

He was more decisive than usual and even had a nice pass to the open man under pressure:

Of course he made some dumb fouls, resulting in numerous trips to the foul line for CSKA, but there was clearly more good than bad in this game.
Although Bartzokas can’t be happy with those random switches, where he simply isn’t saying anything and not even pretending to be in a defensive stance.

WHAT’S NEXT?
The big question heading into game two will be the health situation of Nando De Colo. CSKA can’t really afford to lose another key player and they will be in trouble, if De Colo is out for the upcoming game(s). Besides that it will be fascinating to watch, if Bartzokas has something substantial left in his coaching tank and if Khimki is able to surprise CSKA another time. Finally it comes down to this: Marko Todorovic, Thomas Robinson, Anthony Gill, Egor Vialtsev, Stefan Markovic and James Anderson all played good in the first game – and Khimki still lost to CSKA. Are they able to bring their ‘A-game’ once more? And are they able to defend without sending CSKA to the free-throw line 40 times a game? We’ll see…

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