After qualifying for the playoffs despite losing at CSKA Moscow in Round 30 of the regular season, KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz returns immediately to the Russian capital in a quest to overturn the odds and progress to a home court Final Four.
History on CSKA's side
Baskonia isn't only battling against a formidable CSKA team in this series, but also against the weight of history. The Spanish side's 82-78 defeat in Round 30 – which saw CSKA overturn a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit despite having nothing to play for – was just the latest in a long line of home victories for the Russian giant over Baskonia. The list of consecutive wins for CSKA against Baskonia in Moscow now stretches to 14 games, all the way back to 2006. The Basque club has only won twice in the Russian capital with the most recent being a stunner in the 2005 Final Four. The game was played in Moscow's Olympiysky Arena, so it wasn't technically a home game for CSKA. To find Baskonia winning on CSKA's home court, you must venture back to a 73-90 victory in the Top 16 in 2002. Some of the names featuring in that encounter make it plain just how long it has been since Baskonia last tasted triumph in the Russian capital: Gordan Giricek led the home team's scoring with 26 points, while Luis Scola scored 22 for the visitors and Elmer Bennett recorded a double-double.
Of course, this season Baskonia has more motivation than ever to finally end its barren run in Moscow and advance to the Final Four, because the grand finale to the season will be staged at its very own Fernando Buesa Arena. Considering Baskonia's 11-4 home record this season, Velimir Perasovic's team could feel highly confident of taking the title if a Final Four spot can be secured and, if you look on the bright side, CSKA's long winning streak at home only means that a Baskonia road victory is long overdue. Doesn't it?
Clyburn and Shengelia in big battle
Another key to this contest is the big battle between two of the league's top performers over the last two seasons, CSKA's Will Clyburn and Baskonia's Toko Shengelia. Both forwards are consistent providers of points and rebounds, albeit in different ways: Clyburn is athletic and dynamic, while Shengelia is exceptionally strong and powerful. And they are both hugely effective. Clyburn is a candidate for the season's MVP award after averaging 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game for an average PIR of 18.0 – the fifth-best of all players over the course of the regular season. Tellingly, Clyburn is also the most-used player by CSKA coach Dimitris Itoudis, spending an average of 26:56 on the floor per game (Higgins is next with an average playing time of 24:39). That says a lot about the importance of Clyburn within his team's game plan, something he proved once again in Round 30 by leading CSKA with 16 points and 6 rebounds in the comeback win over Baskonia.
That regular-season finale in Moscow was also Shengelia's comeback from the knee injury which forced him to miss 14 games during the regular season. Understandably after so long on the sidelines, he was only able to make a limited contribution with 6 points and 3 rebounds in that Round 30 loss, but since then Shengelia has stepped up his return in domestic action, coming close to a double-double with 11 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists in his team's Spanish league victory over MoraBanc Andorra on Saturday. Having spent the last couple of weeks regaining his court fitness and game rhythm, Shengelia is now ready to play a prominent role in his team's playoff quest – and his personal showdown with Clyburn could be something special indeed.
CSKA boosted by backcourt depth
In terms of depth, variety and pure quality, surely there is no better backcourt combination in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague than CSKA Moscow's quartet of Nando De Colo (the reliable shooter), Daniel Hackett (the gutsy defender), Cory Higgins (the dynamic scorer) and Sergio Rodriguez (the unpredictable creator). Between them, CSKA's fab four guards have combined for an average of 45.3 points and 11.8 assists per game this season and the dilemma facing Baskonia is that even if you succeed in stopping one of them, the others will come to the fore. The Round 30 meeting was a fine example: Rodriguez only scored 6 points and registered zero assists, but De Colo, Hackett and Higgins all scored in double figures, including 6 points for Hackett in his team's fourth-quarter comeback.
With Jayson Granger sidelined by a long-term injury, the task of stopping them will be led by veteran Marcelinho Huertas and the dynamic Luca Vildoza, who both played in every game for Baskonia this season and tallied solid numbers: 8.2 points and 4.7 assists per game for Huertas and 9.7 and 3.8 for Vildoza. Perhaps the biggest x-factor for Baskonia, though, will be Matt Janning, who just returns from injury, and who will firstly have to provide solid defense to slow down CSKA's fearsome foursome, and secondly produce the goods at the other end of the floor. The experienced shooting guard is a renowned scoring threat from long-range, making 38.7% of the 574 three-pointers he has attempted over his five seasons in the competition. This has been Janning’s best scoring season yet, averaging 10.8 points per game, and if he can deliver a barrage of three-pointers during this series it could just prove to be the extra spark that Baskonia needs.
Will size matter inside the paint?
Alongside Shengelia, a pivotal figure in helping Baskonia exert inside dominance will be Vincent Poirier, who has undoubtedly emerged to become one of the best big men in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague during his second season in the competition. The Frenchman averaged 11.3 points and a league-best 8.1 rebounds during the regular season, recording eight double-doubles along the way. He is also one of the EuroLeague's most consistent providers of spectacular dunks which can alter the mood of a game – most notably when he threw down a game-winning slam in the dying seconds of a crunch clash at Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv in December, a victory which ultimately sent Baskonia to the playoffs at the Israeli champs' expense. Support for Poirier comes from the more subtle skills of Johannes Voigtmann, a good distributor and dangerous shooter from the perimeter who finished the regular season in fine form by registering a PIR in double figures in seven consecutive games, and 14 out of the last 15.
Those two big men (Poirier stands at 2.14 meters and Voigtmann at 2.13) have a considerable size advantage over CSKA inside the paint. The home team's tallest player is Alec Peters at 2.06, while experienced centers Kyle Hines and Othello Hunter (1.98 and 2.03 respectively) give up a significant height difference to the Baskonia duo. With Ilimane Diop (2.14) and Shengelia (2.06) also at his disposal, Baskonia boss Perasovic could use that physical superiority in an attempt to dominate the rebounding battle. Baskonia had a slightly better rebounding record than CSKA over the regular season, averaging 35.8 boards per game against CSKA's 34.8. If that differential can be increased during this playoffs series, Baskonia could give itself a real chance of pulling off an upset.