Two teams that have won more playoffs series in a row than any others, CSKA Moscow and Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, meet for their third best-of-five showdown this decade starting on Tuesday, April 18.
Masters of the playoffs
CSKA Moscow has never lost a EuroLeague playoff series. In its previous 11 playoff appearances – out of a possible 12 – CSKA had the home-court advantage in every single one of them and advanced to the Final Four each time. Four of those were sweeps, including last season's against Zvezda, and CSKA has 29-8 all-time record in the EuroLeague playoffs. Not just the club has dominated in the playoffs, but also its current players. There are only 12 players on all eight playoff teams this season with 20 or more career playoff appearances, and five of them come from CSKA: Milos Teodosic (ranked 10th all-time with 27), Victor Khryapa (26), Andrey Vorontsevich (23), Kyle Hines (21) and Aaron Jackson (20). And those were not mere "appearances": four of those guys – Teodosic, Khryapa, Vorontsevich and Hines – have been to the Final Four in each of the last five seasons. Just during that span, Khryapa (92) and Hines (91) are ranked second and third in rebounding in the playoffs, Teodosic is third in assists (88), with Khryapa (64) fifth and Jackson (57) sixth. Hines has scored fifth-most points (205) and Teodosic is ranked 10th in scoring (182 points) since 2011. That's on top of Teodosic ranking third in assists (130) in playoff games all-time, and Khryapa having accumulated the fifth-highest index rating (325) in playoff history. For comparison, Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz players have 11 playoff appearances combined. Apart from Andrea Bargnani, who played in two playoff games for Benetton Treviso back in 2005, all the remaining appearances came last season when Baskonia swept Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens and reached the Final Four. However, only two players – Jaka Blazic and Kim Tillie – appeared in all three of those games. CSKA began its record streak of eight consecutive Final Four qualifications two years before the playoffs started in 2005. After failing to survive the regular season in 2010-11, CSKA has returned to the Final Four for five more years in a row, the second-longest streak ever. That makes for a total of 13 Final Fours in 14 years, a mark that may stand for a long, long time – and one that CSKA intends to add to now.
Old standby, new names
Since the playoffs format was introduced in the 2004-05 season, Baskonia has been a regular participant in this stage of the season. Appearing in the playoffs in the past under the names Tau Ceramica, Caja Laboral and Laboral Kutxa, the club has only missed this phase in 2012, 2014 and 2015. This will be 10th playoff appearance for the club in 13 years. Baskonia won its series every year from 2005 to 2008 – twice without home-court advantage – leading to four consecutive Final Four berths. Its sweep of Panathinaikos last season was Baskonia's first playoff series win after eight years. Its return to the playoffs now, for a second consecutive season, reinforces the notion that Baskonia is back to the consistency it had last decade. But despite its rich EuroLeague playoff history, Baskonia has quite a long list of players who are set to make their playoff debuts in the series against CSKA. Shane Larkin, Rodrigue Beaubois, Johannes Voigtmann, Tadas Sedekerskis, Nicolas Laprovittola, Arturs Kurucs, Chase Budinger and Rafa Luz have never played in a EuroLeague playoff game. That's more than half of the team. As a matter of fact, even head coach Sito Alonso will be tackling his first-ever EuroLeague playoff series. But regardless of all the names on the back or the front of the uniforms, the new generation of Baskonia warriors is more than willing to carry the flag for a club that has its own distinctions in the playoffs. Baskonia is tied with Olympiacos Piraeus and Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv for the most series won without home-court advantage: two. But Baskonia is the only team ever to win a deciding, do-or-die playoff game as a road team, which happened in 2006 against Panathinaikos. New names or old, home-court advantage or not, what's sure is that Baskonia will battle CSKA for the chance to add to its great playoffs legacy – or die trying.
Offensive machine setting new heights
Since the arrival of head coach Dimitris Itoudis in the summer of 2014, CSKA has been thrilling fans around the continent with its easy-flowing, pass-happy, ball-moving, offensive-minded basketball. Last spring, CSKA not only won the EuroLeague title, but dis so as just the third team in competition history to average more than 90 points per game (90.97 to be exact). This season CSKA's scoring dropped to 87.3 points, but that still ranks first among all teams and sixth all-time in the competition. CSKA also ranks second right now in assists (20.4 apg), which is fourth-best this century, too. It looked at times this season as though there simply was no way to stop CSKA's offense. The team led the EuroLeague in three-point (40.6%) and free-throw efficiency (81.6%), and ranked second in two-point accuracy (55.5%). CSKA's offense was helped a defense that ranked third in steals (7.1 spg) and blocks (3.3 bpg), all which led to the many transition opportunities that CSKA executes so well. Its efficiency was hurt, however, by the second-highest turnover average (14.5) in the EuroLeague this season. Also, do not forget that Nando De Colo and Milos Teodosic combined to miss 13 games due to injury. De Colo is the EuroLeague's second-best scorer (20.1 ppg), while Teodosic ranks fifth (16.1 ppg) and first in assists (7.2 apg). If both they had remained healthy, CSKA might have shattered the competition's single-season record of 2,656 points scored, set by Real Madrid in the 2013-14 campaign. However, CSKA is only 37 points shy of that total now, and if the last three seasons are any indication, that mark will be broken before the halftime of Game 1 next week.
The Baskonia formula
At the start of the season, few were optimistic enough to bet on Baskonia making the playoffs. After its big success last season and a Final Four appearance, the loss of the head coach Velimir Perasovic and several key contributors like Ioannis Bourousis, Mike James and Darius Adams, it seemed as though this could be more of a transition season in Vitoria. However, despite having nine newcomers and a new boss on the bench, Baskonia never skipped a beat. Point guard Shane Larkin made an impact from the beginning and has started all 30 regular season games to become the top scorer on the team (12.9 ppg.) and also Baskonia's best passer (5.7 apg.). Joining him in the newcomers club were scoring ace Rodrigue Beaubois, with his 11.5-point average, and Johannes Voigtmann, who scores 10.2 points and grabs 7.2 rebounds per game, third-best in the league. Others had their moments this season, too. Rafa Luz had 10 points and 4 assists in a key road win at Fenerbahce Istanbul. Chase Budinger scored 15 important points in a valuable road win at FC Barcelona Lassa. And Andrea Bargnani, despite missing 15 games due to injuries, scored 26 points in the season opener against Anadolu Efes Istanbul among his four double-digit games near the start of the season. It all contributed to Baskonia finishing the regular season ranked fourth in scoring (81.5 ppg), but with a caveat. While normally high-scoring teams tend to possess firepower from beyond the arc, Baskonia ranks 14th in three-point accuracy (34.8%). Sito Alonso's team found points elsewhere. Baskonia has made second-most two-point shots (650) this regular season, while ranking fourth in two-point accuracy (53.3%). In those two-point tries, it was team's frontcourt that was especially effective. Andrea Bargnani, Johannes Voigtmann, Ilimane Diop, Kim Tillie and Toko Shengelia as a group converted an impressive 58% of their two-pointers this season.
Face to face
One can argue that the most important among 28 clashes between these two clubs happened more than a decade ago when Baskonia shocked CSKA in the 2005 Final Four semifinals in Moscow. Since then, however, the team from Vitoria is winless in 10 games in Moscow. In the last seven matches, CSKA beat Baskonia on its home floor by an average margin of 17.9 points. Four of those wins came in the playoffs, as CSKA and Baskonia played a pair of best-of-five series, which both finished 3-1 in favor of the Russians. Each time, in 2010 and in 2013, CSKA comfortably won first two games at home, and after losing the third games in Vitoria, clinched the series in Game 4. But as much as CSKA has been dominant and has had Baskonia's number in Moscow, Baskonia had its share of success when games were played at the Fernando Buesa Arena in Vitoria. That includes home wins the last two seasons. The trend of CSKA handling Baskonia easily in Moscow continued this season in Round 9. Behind Milos Teodosic and his career-best 34 points and 10 assists, CSKA set its EuroLeague club scoring record in a 112-84 blowout. Teodosic was so dominant in that contest, he became the first and only player in EuroLeague history to get at least 30 points and 10 assists in a single game. In Round 26, however, Baskonia edged CSKA 79-78 despite shooting just 4-for-18 from three-point distance. Baskonia had five scorers in double figures, led by Adam Hanga with 15 points, and a solid all-round performance from Tornike Shengelia, who posted 9 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals. On the other side, Nando De Colo and Teodosic combined for 41 points and 12 assists and 7 turnovers in defeat.