Game of the Week: Off-road CSKA-Khimki series is playoffs first

Apr 17, 2018 by Frank Lawlor, Print

They call it the Leningradka Derby. Considering that the rivals who play in it are CSKA Moscow and Khimki Moscow Region, the name may seem odd to geography buffs who know that Leningrad was the former name for St Petersburg, which sits 712 kilometers away from the Russian capital.

But the trick here is in the word endings. CSKA's headquarters in central Moscow sit on Leningradsky Prospect, an avenue that soon turns into Leningradskoe highway as it begins its long trek northwest, all the way to St Petersburg. Along the route, that highway crosses through – you guessed it – the Khimki area on the northwest perimeter of the capital.

As such, the teams and fans going either way to games between CSKA and Khimki do their traveling on Leningradka, whose word ending makes it a short, slang term for highway and avenue.

The question is: Just how busy will Leningradka be with basketball traffic over the next couple of weeks?

That is an open question precisely because, in a few hours, CSKA and Khimki will tip off the first city series in Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs history, a best-of-five affair that could last from nine to 14 days depending on the results.

The received wisdom is that CSKA will win, and that's a perfectly logical assumption to make now, before the series starts. CSKA is, after all, the top team in the EuroLeague this season and the most successful ever at making Final Fours, thanks to a perfect 12-0 record in playoffs series since the system was established in 2005. CSKA also has a recent history of knocking the stuffing out of Khimki in their both the EuroLeague and their domestic competitions.

Indeed, the list of reasons why CSKA is expected to win this series is as long as Leningradka. But of course, the reason the games are played is to find out if all those assumptions are ultimately true – or not. Luckily, we don't run the playoffs through a computer program to find out who wins. We prefer that the players decide matters for themselves in the arena.

This series is of the utmost interest as it starts because it questions some of the tenets of home-court advantage. Yes, CSKA will play the first and the most games, if necessary, on its own court. And Khimki will play the third and, if necessary, fourth ones further up the Leningradka road. But both of their arenas are rather new to these teams and they've faced each other enough in their domestic competition that little about the venues themselves will be unfamiliar to either of them.

What will be different in this city series is that both teams are already home – and they are not going anywhere until they have settled this showdown for posterity. No packing, no shuttles, no airports, no flights, no change of time zone. And no practices missed by one team, but not the other, due to the travel. The likelihood is that everyone sleeps at home instead of hotels would be another playoffs first.

Can any of this change the dynamics of the series? It's hard to say because the aforementioned benefits of being in one's home city apply here to both teams. Although it still must face the toughest team from the regular season, the disadvantage of having to travel before the opener and to a hypothetical fifth game has been deducted from Khimki's penalty for finishing eighth. Khimki also has the benefit of knowing CSKA a lot more than they would know any other opponent.

Injuries may play a bigger factor, with Khimki having missed some key players late in the season and everyone waiting to see if Kyle Hines will try to play for CSKA or not. But more than who doesn't play, of course, is how those who do play go about their business, and that is another reason why CSKA is favored. The club and many of the players on this roster have gone about their business impeccably as far back as many of us can remember – and good habits run deep.

Khimki does not yet have such good habits but is fortunate to have a head coach who brought two other teams to Final Fours in his first season on their benches. That shows that good habits can be learned quickly. The key to this series may well be how much Khimki has learned – or not – in 30 games to date. The talent is there for the underdogs – no one doubts that – and Khimki is not averse to depending on its defense, which as the saying goes, wins championships.

But in CSKA, the challengers are up against a winning machine whose laser-like focus this season might be even more impressive than in years past. CSKA has not taken its eye off the ball yet, and chances are they will not. The hard truth is that if Khimki wants to even push this series to more than three games, it will have to outplay CSKA. There is no other exit. CSKA will not give away anything at all.

In the end, Khimki will hope to travel up and down Leningradka as much as possible over the next fortnight. Because that will mean that this series goes the distance. And if Khimki can get it that far, to Game 5, then anything can happen. That may be true, particularly, when a do-or-die final game is not on the road – as in all the way across a continent – but just a quick ride to the near end of Leningradka, the highway that unites the very first cross-town rivals in EuroLeague Playoffs history.