Last season's Euroleague finalists meet again with history very much in play as CSKA hosts Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv on Tuesday night in the Russian capital for Game 1 of their best-of-three Quarterfinal Playoffs series. As the most dominant Euroleague teams in recent years, accounting for the last three titles between them, CSKA and Maccabi are candidates to eventually be called the team of the decade. CSKA is the defending champion and has made four consecutive Final Four appearances. Maccabi won the previous two trophies and has played in the last three title games. A remarkable run will continue for one of these teams and will end for the other. CSKA and Maccabi are no strangers in meeting in big games, as they've squared off three times in Final Fours since 2000. Maccabi also won the last time they met in Russia as Nikola Vujcic had 17 points and 11 rebounds to give Maccabi an 80-83 victory in February 2004. But CSKA has had the upped hand recently, as it topped Maccabi 83-79 in the title game last year in Prague behind a brilliant performance by Theo Papaloukas. CSKA also scored a 90-81 pre-season win in Cologne, Germany last October as part of the NBA Europe Live Tournament as Matjaz Smodis leading the way with 24 points. Both teams will surely arrive super-focused after recent upsets in their domestic leagues. The Russian champs have won 17 consecutive Euroleague games heading into the series, however CSKA head coach Ettore Messina knows not to underestimate a Maccabi team that features experienced, big-game stars like Vujcic, Tal Burstein and Derrick Sharp. The key matchup of the series could see Vujcic, Maccabi's All-Euroleague center, battle CSKA's deep frontline of David Andersen, Aleksey Savrasenko and Tomas Van den Spiegel. How much help Vujcic gets from rookie Lior Eliyahu and reserve Jamie Arnold, both of whom will need to contend with Smodis on defense, could determine how things go inside. On the perimeter, a pair of substitutes, Final Four MVP Papaloukas and Sharp, could go a long way towards setting the tone of the series, with both pumping up their forces from the bench. On-the-ball defensive ace J.R. Holden and sniper Trajan Landon make up the starting CSKA backcourt, while recently arrived Oscar Torres holds forth at small forward in the absence of injured David Vanterpool. Young guard Anton Ponkrashov joins Papaloukas as the team's main solutions on the bench. Will Bynum, Burstein and Simas Jasaitas figure to start for Maccabi head coach Neven Spahija, with Yotam Halperin and Goran Jeretin as well as Sharp seeing big minutes off the bench. The biggest test will be for Maccabi players who have never been in games of this magnitude, such as Bynum, Jeretin and Eliyahu, while Torres fits the same description for CSKA. If Maccabi's players withstand the pressure, Game 1 could turn into a classic encounter, but if CSKA's defense commands the stage once again, Messina's men can continue dreaming of back-to-back Euroleague titles. It will take the heart of a champion, a quality well-documented on both squads, to win this series.
Monday, April 02, 2007