It was easy to forget about how dominant CSKA Moscow was this season, especially leading into the VTB Finals against Moscow rival Khimki.
After all, considering their 2015-2016 campaign included a Euroleague and VTB title, this season could be considered a disappointment. They finished second in the regular season, looked shaky against Baskonia in the playoffs (though they did sweep), and they finished 3rd in the Euroleague Final Four, losing to underdog Olympiacos in the semifinals. For a powerhouse like CSKA, those results just aren’t enough.
And then there were all the other stories. The Milos Teodosic leaving to the NBA rumors. The whether “Dimitris Itoudis will be back as head coach” rumors. The rumors of David Blatt coming to replace him. Khimki’s epic comeback against Zenit St. Petersburg in the semifinals. Khimki’s Alexey Shved winning the VTB Regular Season MVP award.
There seemed to be all kinds of indicators that this would be series, that maybe CSKA would run out of gas, and Khimki, qualifying for the Euroleague with their semifinal win, would build on the momentum they achieved from their victory over Zenit. Milos would be distracted. Nando wouldn’t be able to handle the load himself. Itoudis would fold under the pressure of being on the “hot seat”. These were all stories that I thought would make this CSKA-Khimki finals a close and competitive series. Even the promos got me pumped that Khimki had a puncher’s chance of pulling the upset.
(Yes, I have no idea what the words say; I am not literate in Russian unfortunately.)
And yet, CSKA just slapped me and other doubters back into reality three games later.
This was not a series by any stretch of the imagination. This was complete and utter domination from start to finish. CSKA completed their 9-0 undefeated run through the VTB playoffs (they also swept Astana in the first round and then Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in the semifinals) by beating Khimki by an average of 16.3 ppg. The combination of Aaron Jackson and Cory Higgins guarding Shved made the reigning VTB MVP a complete non-factor, as they limited him to 31 percent shooting from the field and a cumulative PIR of 23 for the series. It was the kind of performance that made the Golden State Warriors’ run in the NBA postseason look pedestrian in comparison.
While all the attention was on Shved and Teodosic, and for good reason, de Colo proved once again this VTB finals why he is one of the best guards in all of Europe. De Colo didn’t really impress in his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs, and there are always doubts amongst European basketball fans about the legitimacy of de Colo’s tenure so far with CSKA. Is he a MVP-caliber player because of or despite Teodosic? Some people will credit Teodosic’s big time shooting and playmaking as the reason why de Colo is successful: teams are more afraid of the Serbian wizard hurting them than the French guard.
De Colo bucked that theory in what was a magnificent series from beginning to end. In game 1, he scored 21 points, shot 57 percent from the field, put up an efficiency of 20 and had a +/- of 22. What is probably the most underrated aspect of de Colo’s game is his ability to draw fouls and get to the line. The 29-year-old guard did that in bunches in game 1, as he drew 7 fouls, and went 12-13 from the line. As for Teodosic? Well, he only scored 7 points and put up a PIR of 8 while shooting 25 percent from the field.
In game 2, Teodosic stepped up and his biggest game of the series, as Khimki actually made things close in the first half. He scored 23 points, on 8-of-11 shots from the field (73 percent), and posted a game-high PIR of 24. But once again, de Colo’s performance was also solid, as he scored 20 points, shot 7 of 13 from the field (54 percent), posted a PIR of 14, and drew a game high 6 fouls. While Milos got all the attention, you can see in the highlights below that de Colo did his share of damage in the series swinging game 2 win.
In the deciding game 3 CSKA victory, it was once again de Colo who shined brightest, as he scored 20 points, 6-of-12 from the field (50 percent), had 4 rebounds, 3 assists, put up a PIR of 19, and had a +/- of 34, a game high. Once again, Khimki threw all they could to stop the French national, whether it was Shved or Markel Brown or the “Russian Delly” Viacheslav Zaitcev, and yet it had no effect. De Colo proved once again that though he doesn’t have the personality or flair of teammate Teodosic, or perhaps even Khimki’s Shved, he’s the VTB’s best overall player, and there was no doubting that as he was awarded Final MVP during CSKA’s trophy raising ceremony on Khimki’s home turf.
There were other stories worth talking about from this series for sure. Semen Antonov emerged as CSKA’s go to guy and leading minutes-man in the block as he put up 16 and 18 points in game 1 and 2, respectively. Aaron Jackson may have earned himself a bigger contract and role for another club in Europe for his efficient performance as well as shutting down Shved. Kyle Hines continued his streak of winning championships as a player, going back to his time with Olympiacos as well as Bamberg. And one has to wonder if Dusko Ivanovic and his ponytail will be back on the Khimki bench after going down so soundly in the VTB Finals.
And while it wasn’t the biggest story, one has to feel that Itoudis validated himself and his future as CSKA head coach. Itoudis, a disciple of Zeljko Obradovic (he was his top assistant when Obradovic was at Panathinaikos), has done nothing but succeed in his tenure with the “Russian Army” team. Three Euroleague Final Fours, three VTB titles, and a Euroleague championship. Yes, he does coach a club with the biggest budget in Europe (35 million Euros). However, big budgets don’t necessarily translate to automatic success. Real Madrid, who has the second-largest budget (27 million Euros), is in a dogfight with Valencia in the ACB Finals and was whooped by CSKA in the third-place game in the Euroleague Final Four. And Olimpia Milano had the sixth-biggest budget in the Euroleague (19 million Euros) and they finished in dead last in the Euroleague, and were bounced in the semi-finals of the Lega Basket Serie A playoffs.
The bottom line? Money helps, but you need the right coach to put it all together. Itoudis has done that in his three years in CSKA, and he should do that going forward as head man of CSKA in the next couple of years at least. And if CSKA decides to go “crazy owner” and let him go? Well, Itoudis will have his pick of the top jobs in Europe. And he will be successful, no doubt about it.
But even that Itoudis redemption story is secondary to de Colo. De Colo will be back in CSKA, and the roster will look a whole lot different for the most part. Jackson will probably be gone, as well as his running mate Teodosic. And yet, the CSKA train will keep humming. De Colo will keep making big time shots, getting to the line, and carrying this club to top-level success, even though we will try to think of ways to doubt him or lessen his accomplishments. Maybe we will say it’s “Itoudis’ coaching” or “Kyle Hines’ mentorship” next year as the reason why de Colo puts up another All-Euroleague campaign.
But let the highlights speak for themselves below…
Yep. It’s about time we put those doubts of de Colo as a superstar player in Europe back in our pockets where they belong.
And make sure they stay there for a good stretch of time…