CSKA and de Colo remind VTB (and doubters) that they’re arguably Europe’s best

1497382822

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.


img_6294-690x530

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.


18721905_1845013859151110_5314973229381582848_n

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…

Does Valencia have a chance against the Real Madrid juggernaut?

Since 1983, the Liga Endesa (ACB) has been dominated by three clubs: Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Saski Baskonia. Every final since the league began has involved one of those three clubs, and though this year continues that trend (Real Madrid), the top-heavy stranglehold has been challenged a bit. For the first time since 2010-2011, we will not see an “El Clasico” (Barcelona-Real Madrid) ACB Final, as Valencia Basket punched their ticket to the Final after beating Baskonia 3-1 in the semifinals.

For Valencia, this ACB Final is another crowning achievement on what has been for the most part a stellar and historic season in a variety of ways, as they have reached the Eurocup and Copa del Rey championships this season. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to capitalize on the championship opportunities, as they fell to Unicaja Malaga in the Eurocup final, and Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey championship. Despite being heavy underdogs to one of Spain’s premier clubs, Valencia is hoping that their third shot at a trophy will be the charm.


914966965315-2x3-640x350

Valencia finished 23-9 during the ACB regular season, tying for second-overall, but ceding to the third spot due to a tie-breaking loss to Baskonia. Valencia has thrived at home at Fuente de San Luis, as they went 18-2 at home in the regular season, and 4-0 during the playoffs. Though they were nearly a .500 team on the road in the regular season (10-9), they did win a huge game 1 against Baskonia in Fernando Buesa arena that ended up being the difference in the tight, competitive series.

The No. 1 seed Madrid had the easier path to the Finals, as they beat a young, but inexperienced 8th seed Andorra in the first round (2-1) and then swept Eurocup champion Unicaja 3-0 in the semifinals. On the other hand, Valencia had a “more difficult than you think” route, as they beat a Barcelona team that was desperate to salvage a disappointing season (2-1) and beat a Baskonia team that not only had an edge in terms of talent, but also got a late-season reinforcement who happened to be one of the best 1-on-1 scorers in the Turkish BSL this year (Ricky Ledo).

That story has been a familiar one for Valencia this off-season, both in ACB as well as European play. On paper, Valencia doesn’t really jump out at the casual basketball fan. They had to face VTB MVP Alexey Shved and Khimki in the Eurocup playoffs, and Valencia came out on top. They had to face former NBA All-star Amare Stoudemire, Euroleague Final Four coach Simone Pianigiani and Hapoel Jerusalem and they came out of that series victorious. Valencia was also considered heavy underdogs in the semis, as many figured Ledo was just the cherry on top that Valencia couldn’t handle, and yet it’s the Southeastern Spanish coast team that’s in the Finals, not the Basque club.

The same situation will be true in the ACB finals against Real Madrid. Valencia didn’t have much success against the top-seeded club this year, as they lost 94-75 in Round 2 at home and 85-71 in Madrid in Round 18. They fell short again in the Copa del Rey, but were a bit more competitive, as they lost 97-95. To imagine that Valencia can win three games against the King of Spanish basketball when they weren 0-3 against them in 2016-2017 seems like a tall, if not impossible task.

That being said, don’t expect this Valencia club to go down without a fight.


cronica-valencia-basket-baskonia_1032809089_130105571_667x375

Valencia is a team that is as strong as the sum of the parts. In other words, they really depend on the “team” rather than one individual player. They don’t have that star guy who can take over a game. They don’t have a Sergio Llull or Anthony Randolph or even Luka Doncic like Madrid. But, they play incredibly polished team basketball on both ends of the court, as I have chronicled about after their loss to Unicaja in the Eurocup final. That is a credit to head coach Pedro Martinez, who has had tremendous success not only at Valencia, but in the past with Gran Canaria.

If Valencia is going to depend on a player, that honor would go to either center Bojan Dubljevic or forward Fernando San Emeterio. Dubljevic really is the heart and soul of the team in many ways. The Montenegrin post led the team in points (12.4 ppg), rebounds (5.6) and PIR average (14.7). Furthermore, Dubljevic’s impact goes beyond the court, as he connects with teammates and fans alike. He garnered a lot of fans beyond Valencia for his “Will Griggs”-inspired performance in front of the Valencia faithful after their clinching game 4 victory.

San Emeterio doesn’t have the “big” personality of Dubljevic, but nobody came up bigger in game 4 than the 33-year-old Spaniard. In game 4, he scored 19 points, and had 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in the deciding victory. What made his performance even more impressive was his perfection from the field. Yes. He was completely perfect, as he went 4-4 on 2-pt shots, 3-3 from beyond the arc, 2-2 from the charity stripe. That is some Christian Laettner-esque shit right there.

San Emeterio’s hard-nosed defense will also be needed to neutralize Madrid’s wings, especially sharpshooter Jaycee Carroll, who can get hot from three quickly, and Doncic, who can be a do-everything playmaker. But for Valencia to have a shot at all this series, they will need their posts to have big series’ in order to neutralize Madrid’s depth in the frontcourt. Madrid has not only the best frontcourt in Spain, but in all of Europe, with Randolph, Gustavo Ayon, Felipe Reyes, Othello Hunter, and Trey Thompkins playing in the paint. Obviously, Valencia can’t match up with that kind of star power on paper. However, if they can get physical with the Madrid frontcourt, force them out of the paint, and get them out of rhythm, they’ll have a shot. Teams who have beaten Madrid have been able to employ that strategy, whether it’s forcing Ayon or Hunter off the block, or forcing Reyes, Randolph or Thompkins to be jump shooters. If Valencia wants to win, they will need to to outwork and outhustle the more talented Madrid posts with Luke Sikma, Will Thomas and Pierre Oriola, while also getting some offensive production on the other end.

Valencia has accomplished a lot. Appearances in the Eurocup, Copa del Rey and now ACB finals are nothing to shrug off, and they have apparently qualified for the Euroleague next season as well (though the EL does have a provision preventing more than 4 teams from one country being represented in the competition). And even if they don’t pull off an upset against Madrid, they should not be disappointed. Nobody outside of the city of Valencia is expecting this club to pull this upset off. Madrid has too much depth, too much talent, and too much pedigree to lose this series.

But you never know. No club has won the ACB outside of the Madrid, Barcelona, Baskonia triumvirate outside of Unicaja in 2005-2006, and before that, Manresa in 1997-1998. Will Valencia join that small, but illustrious group?

We’ll know Valencia’s chances of pulling the miracle off after Game 1 on June 9th.