Two teams with a long history at the top of European basketball get to measure each other in the new milennium when FC Barcelona takes on CSKA Moscow in the second semifinal on Friday. History and tradition are an integral part of this confrontation. CSKA is third on the list of European title-winners behind only Real Madrid and Ignis Varese, but the last time it could call itself champion was in 1971. That's a long time to wait between titles, perhaps, but Barcelona has waited longer. Since coming to prominence on the European stage in the early 1980s, Barcelona has won everything there is to win, except the Euroleague title. In the Final Four era, since 1988, Barca has played in eight semifinals, more than any other team, and made it to the finals four times. Coupled with a title-game loss before 1988, plus a last-second loss in 1996, Barcelona is arguably the most frustrated club among European greats. The same cannot be said, however, for its current team, who will enjoy an ostensible homecourt advantage on Friday, with more fans in the seats, although the court is not Barcelona's.
Any discussion of this game, or perhaps the Final Four in general, begins with one name: Dejan Bodiroga. The most accomplished European player of his generation, Bodiroga is in his absolute prime, having won the Euroleague two of the last three years and led Yugoslavia to the world title against all predictions last summer. Bodiroga's ability to lead teams and finish games is legendary. That he does both so consistently is a testimony to his patience and smarts in the face of the utmost pressure, just the same kind Barcelona can expect to face - maybe moreso than any Final Four team - when the ball goes up on Friday. Bodiroga, of course, is not going it alone. He has a host of great talents with him, starting at point guard, where Sarunas Jasikevicius has proven himself as a world-class shooter and floor director. Woe to the defense who lets him loose at an important moment. His shot is simply deadly and he is unafraid to take the very biggest ones. Also in the backcourt, Juan Carlos Navarro is among the most talented young scorers in the game of basketball. Unique in his ability to score on the run, whether fastbreaking or weaving through the lane on one of his patented drived, Navarro is a constant concern for any defense. In the frontcourt, Gregor Fucka is an eternal matchu-up dilemma for opposing coaches, too tall to be defended by a small forward, to skillful to be stopped by a big one. Under the rim stands big Roberto Dueñas, who has learned to work for space around the basket, and when he gets it, dunk without mercy. The bench is a fine one by any measure. Team captain Rodrigo De la Fuente has proven his ability to change games with defense alone. Big man Patrick Femerling makes Barca the tallest team in the league even when Dueñas is not in the game. Point guard Nacho Rodriguez plays defense that bothers even the most talented opponents. And young Anderson Varejao is a talent on springs, able to make his mark on sheer talent alone. The leader from the bench is none other than Svetislav Pesic, the world champion, the man whose Yugoslav teams beat Dream Treams. He is no stranger to must-win situations. In fact, he seems to love them.
CSKA Moscow has been nothing short of remarkable this season for a team that was changed from top to bottom last summer. Even during a successful season, CSKA has changed for the better, with big man Victor Alexander taking up residence in the post and giving an otherwise youthful team the confidence that only comes with experience. Big Vic looks imposing, and is, but his major quality may be an ability to do just as much damage two meters away from the rim with as sweet a shot as any center could hope to have. At the top of the CSKA offense is another American, speedy J.R. Holden, who has taken the continent by storm in just a few seasons, winning national titles in three different countries already, with a fourth likely soon. Trying to get a handle on Holden, who can score everwhere or just make his teammates better, might be the top chore for Barcelona. Beside Holden is Nikos Hatzivrettas, less known but no less dangerous than any shooting guard on the continent. Hatzivrettas takes his scoring and consistency seriously, so there is no doubt he will rise to the moment despite inexperience in big games. At small forward, rangy young talent Victor Khryapa is on everyone's list of future stars, but is content to be the defensive ace on CSKA now. On offense, his passing ability gives CSKA another dimension and makes sure the offense never bogs down. At power forward, another youngster, Darius Songaila has proven in his first pro season that he can score with anyone in the low post, with a turnaround shot that the best defenders find hard to even bother. Off the bench, unique tall point guard Theodoros Papaloukas takes over CSKA's engine at a moments notice, with no problems keeping up the speed. Yet another young buck, Sergei Monya is on the wing with speed, shooting and strength to spare when needed. Underneath, there is double trouble from the bench, Alexander Bashminov to score and rebound in bunches, and Alexie Savrasenko to bang with anyone who dares. Directing all that talent is a legend, Dusan Ivkovic, who has been there and done that as well as almost any European coach. Now in his fourth Final Four, the first in a few years, he will be as ready as any of his peers to add to his legend.
Thursday, May 8, 2003