CSKA Moscow and Maccabi Tel Aviv face off at Nokia Arena on Thursday at 20:40 CET in the second semifinal of this year's Final Four. It will be a match between two teams designed to win this title. One is the Euroleague's top offensive power, the other is the best defensive team. All ten of the starters could be the go-to guy on almost any team. Both teams dominated opponents throughout the Euroleague season and each beat the other on its home court in two classic showdowns. CSKA beat Maccabi in Tel Aviv by rallying from 19 points down in the final 15 minutes of the game in November to escape with a shocking win. Maccabi struck back in Moscow last February, winning 80-83 with a buzzer-beating fallaway three-pointer by Anthony Parker. After finishing in the first and second spots in Group B with identical 11-3 records, the teams took different routes to the Final Four. CSKA dominated the Top 16 and was the first team to qualify for the Final Four, while Maccabi needed a miracle three-pointer by Derrick Sharp against Zalgiris on the last day of the Top 16 to reach overtime and finally overcome Zalgiris. This match has all the makings of a classic of European basketball.
While there is no disputing that these two teams have the most talented rosters in the Euroleague, Maccabi will have the homecourt advantage. Nonetheless, more than one thousand Russian fans are expected in Nokia Arena, so CSKA too will find some support in the stands. The first time these teams met in Tel Aviv, CSKA left an unforgettable memory in the mind of Maccabi fans when it came back from a 19 point third quarter deficit. Marcus Brown led the CSKA comeback and finished as CSKA's top scorer with 24 points. Although CSKA has perhaps the deepest crew of big men, it was Brown along with backcourt mates JR Holden (17 points) and Teodoros Papaloukas (15 points) who led CSKA in the scoring column. Maccabi's top scorer was Anthony Parker with 24 points. When the teams met in Moscow more than one month later, Maccabi exacted revenge for the earleir loss. Parker nailed the memorable fade-away triple that won the game, but Sarunas Jasikevicius paved the way to victory with 25 points on 5 of 9 shooting from three-point range. Maccabi center Nikola Vujcic dominated in the paint with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Brown was CSKA's high-man again with 20 points and 4 assists.
Maccabi's offensive credentials are impeccable. After averaging 90.1 points per game in the regular season, Maccabi posted 86.4 points per night in the Top 16. It shot 37% from three-point land, 55.1% from two-point range and 79.8% from the free throw line. It is a solid rebounding club, hauling in 30.6 rebounds per game, but in this category it is trails CSKA, which was the second best rebounding club in both the regular season and Top 16. In the Top 16, CSKA averaged 34.3 rebounds per night and 79.5 points per game. CSKA shot a modest 29.2% from three-point range, but a solid 55.7% from two-points and 71.4% from the free throw line. CSKA's greatest strength is its defense. It allowed just 72.7 points per night and will contest Maccabi's offensive fire power with its intense, swarming defense. CSKA gets it done with its amazing speed both in the back court with Brown and Holden and in the front court with Mirsad Turkcan, who has the ability to lock up small forwards and power forwards on the perimeter and in the paint.
Certainly one of the keys for CSKA to win again at Nokia Arena will be slowing point guard Jasikevicius, who improved his scoring average in the Top 16 to 18.6 points per game and drilled 33 of of his last 34 free throw attempts. Jasikevicius had 37 points in that decisive game against Zalgiris proving that he will be ready in big games. Jasikevicius will team up with Tal Burstein in Maccabi's backcourt. Burstein is a consistent player who can handle the ball, post up and knock down triples. Also on the wing for Maccabi will be Parker, who not only killed CSKA in Moscow, but he also had a superb season (15.1 ppg, 21 of 45 threes, 5.8 rpg, 3.6 apg) in his return to Maccabi after spending last year in Rome. Parker was Maccabi's key player when they played in the Euroleague Final Four in Bologna in 2002. Maccabi lost in the semifinals that year, but this season they have a much better front line. Vujcic is supported by Maceo Baston, the high-flying, shot-blocking power foward who is a threat on the offensive glass every time Maccabi shoots. Off the bench, Maccabi has David Bluthental, who has stepped up lately as the sixth man at the forward spot. Bluthenthal uses his athleticism and shooting to fill in the gaps when Maccabi's big three of Jasikevicius, Parker and Vujcic can't find their shot. Maccabi also has Deon Thomas, the power forward who had a superb regular season in which he produced instant offense every time he stepped on court. Bruno Sundov is huge big man who can shoot the three.
Maccabi's individual talents are overwhelming, but CSKA is the team least likely to be intimidated. CSKA has the depth to match Maccabi. Beginning in the back court, CSKA's duo J.R. Holden and Marcus Brown have been the driving force behind CSKA's success and spectacular play on both ends of the court. Both players can play at either guard spot, as Holden takes advantage of his ballhandling and shooting skills, especially off the dribble, while Brown is the team's top gun, scoring in double digits in all games this season and averaging 18 points per game on 60.1% two-pointers and 87.2% from the free throw line, also dishing 4.1 assists per game and showing he is more than a pure scorer. Theo Papaloukas is ready to come off the bench and provide intensity and defensive skills, playing a key role for this team. CSKA's young duo of small forwards, Victor Khryapa and Sergey Monya create mismatches with their size and athletic ability. No-one in Europe rebounds and defends at the power forward spot better than Mirsad Turkcan. Turkcan will likely start along with big man Victor Alexander, who has been one of the premier big men in the Euroleague over the past two seasons and can score in the paint or with his jumper from the perimeter. CSKA's deep front line also includes veteran Dragan Tarlac, Sergei Panov, who is the team captain, Alexander Bashminov and Aleksey Savrasenko.
Maccabi and CSKA have already played two classic regular season matches and Thursday night's game is looking like a classic. Maccabi's high-powered offense versus CSKA's stingy defense. Two teams with stars at every position, amazing depth in the front court and players who shine in big games like Jasikevicius and Brown. It will be a clash of titans and may go down as one of the greatest European basketball games of all time. Thursday at 20:40, Nokia Arena, Tel Aviv....only one of these giants will be left standing!
Wednesday, April 28, 2004