Friday of Game 4 in the EuroLeague Playoffs proved to be the stuff of great drama, with both games up for grabs late. The two teams with the most continental titles in history met the moment, but it wasn't easy. Here's how they got to the promised land.
CSKA digs deep to return to familiar territory
CSKA Moscow pulled out a victory to remember on Friday night. After squandering a 17-point third quarter lead, CSKA prevailed in a thriller that turned into an instant-classic against its cross-town rival Khimki Moscow Region.
To do so, CSKA not only overcame the absence of key players such as Nando De Colo and Kyle Hines, but had to deal with a historic performance from Alexey Shved, who set playoff records with 36 points and 8 three-pointers in Game 4. Shved led Khimki from 17 down to lead by 87-85 with a minute to go. But CSKA found a way, as it has so many time this season, and over the years.
As Coach Dimitris Itoudis said, it would not be easy for any team to play without two major stars in such important games. But that situation also united CSKA and inspired other players tostep up. "Compared to Game 3, we had many players who stepped up, in the starting lineup and off the bench," Itoudis said after Game 4. "Leo Westermann, Andrey Vorontsevich, Semen Antonov, a lot players stepped up and showed character and helped the team."
Yes, there were clutch free throws from Sergio Rodriguez with 21 seconds to go, and the game-winner by Cory Higgins. But Vorontsevich and Antonov hit 3 triples apiece, Westermann had 4 assists and 3 steals. Itoudis rotated 9 players in Game 4, and they fought for 16 offensive rebounds that repeatedly helped them fend off Khimki’s momentum.
"It shows we are on the good road," Itoudis added, and that road leads CSKA to Belgrade and a date with Real Madrid in the semifinals. It is Itoudis's fourth year with CSKA and their fourth trip together to basketball's pinnacle event. CSKA reached its seventh consecutive Final Four and the 15th for the club in 16 years, an unprecedented record that might never be broken. CSKA knows better than any club what it takes to reach a Final Four, but having to dig so deep to get there this time might help the Russian giants even more in Belgrade on May 18 and 20.
Duo of duos sends Madrid to Final Four
There was not one particular key for Real Madrid's series-clinching victory over Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens on Friday night. Rather, several factors combined for the Spanish team to eke out an 89-82 victory that at one point looked like it might come a lot easier than it eventually did. But perhaps the most decisive element of Madrid's triumph was a duo of duos: Gustavo Ayon and Felipe Reyes in the frontcourt, and Sergio Llull with Luka Doncic in the backcourt.
Firstly, Ayon enjoyed an outstanding end to the first quarter, scoring a pair of baskets in quick succession before adding free throws to give his team the lead. He then ended the quarter with another two-pointer to extend the advantage.
In the second quarter, it was time for Llull to enter the game and he did so in thrilling style, sinking his team's first two long-range conversions of the night and dishing 6 assists in just 7 minutes of action. The last pair of those were delivered to Reyes, who scored 2 baskets within 90 seconds of coming onto the floor and then added a three-point play, allowing Madrid to finish the first half with a 16-point advantage.
That lead was quickly taken past the 20-point mark thanks to Doncic, who had endured a relatively quiet first half but returned from the break to immediately sink a triple and then added a couple more, making the score 65-43 midway through the third quarter of a game which was threatening to become a blow-out.
But Panathinaikos fought back, and the man to step up to plate just when Madrid was in danger of being overtaken was none other than 38 year-old Reyes. The veteran captain netted his team's first field goal of the final quarter after more than 5 minutes of waiting, and then kept Panathinaikos at arm's length with another tough finish, moving into double figures as he made 5 of 5 two-point shots. That wasn't quite enough to secure the win, but Doncic made sure with his fourth triple, sinking a wondrous buzzer-beater to finally put the game to bed.
This was very much a team victory with many more players pulling their weight, but with Doncic and Llull pulling the strings while Reyes and Ayon provide the muscle, this Madrid crew will take some stopping in Belgrade.