Two teams tied with six Euroleague titles, the second-most in continental history, CSKA Moscow and Panathinaikos Athens, bring one of the classic confrontations in world basketball to the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
The only rematch
CSKA Moscow vs. Panathinaikos Athens is the only rematch from last season's playoffs. As this year, CSKA had home-court advantage after winning its Top 16 group last season, while Panathinaikos finished fourth. The series reached the maximum five games after each team prevailed twice at home, including CSKA winning the opener in overtime and Panathinaikos surviving 73-72 in Game 4. The fifth game was one-sided, however, as CSKA won 77-47. To eight players from last year, CSKA has added stars like Nando De Colo in the backcourt and Andrei Kirlienko into the frontcourt. Also, Milos Teodosic played just 14 minutes of last year's series after missing the first four games with injury. Panathinaikos has revamped its roster, with only five players remaining who participated in that 30-point loss: Antonis Fotsis, Loukas Mavrokefalidis, James Gist, Vlantimir Giankovits and Dimitris Diamantidis. Also, Nikos Pappas is back in a bigger role after having played just 28 seconds in last year's series. The Greens brought in big man Esteban Batista, who has led them with 10.9 points and 6 rebounds per game. Following him in scoring were another newcomer, guard A.J. Slaughter (9.7 ppg.), and Pappas (9.6 ppg.).
History of big battles
In the past 35 years these two teams have met 30 times and are tied all-time at 15-15. Five of those meetings came at Euroleague Final Fours, including a pair of championship games, both of which Panathinaikos won. Ramunas Siskauskas scored 20 points, Dejan Tomasevic 16 and Dimitris Diamantidis 15 in the team's 93-91 victory on its home floor in 2007. Two years later in Berlin, the Greens held off CSKA 73-71 as Vassilis Spanoulis and Antonis Fotsis had 13 points apiece, while Diamantidis and Sarunas Jasikevicus added 10 each. Their first Final Four clash was in the 1996 semifinals, when Panathinaikos won 71-81 on the way to its first-ever title, with Dominique Wilkins torching CSKA for 35 points. And Panathinaikos won their third-place game in 2005, rallying to a 94-91 double-overtime decision in Moscow. CSKA's sole Final Four win against Panathinaikos came in the 2012 semifinals in Istanbul, a 66-64 thriller paced by 17 points and 9 rebounds from Andrei Kirilenko, one of five players CSKA still on the roster from that night, together with Milos Teodosic, Andrey Vorontsevich, Sasha Kaun and Victor Khryapa. Diamantidis is the only player left on the Green's roster from 2012. Of their last 10 games, CSKA has won eight of them, with two Panathinaikos wins coming in last year's five-game playoff series.
A diamond leads the way
When it comes to playoff experience, no one has more than Dimitris Diamantidis. His 30 playoff games are the most ever, tying him with two other former Euroleague MVPs, FC Barcelona’s Juan Carlos Navarro and the retired Theo Papaloukas. Diamantidis has actually logged more court itme than the other two – a total of 50 minutes more than Navarro and 324 more than Papaloukas. Diamantidis has played some of his basketball in the playoffs. In 2012, he led Panathinaikos to the Final Four with an unforgettable Game 5 performance against Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv. Diamantidis went for 25 points on 15-of-18 free throw shooting in compiling a career-high performance index rating of 34. The year before, Diamantidis set a career-high with 26 points in Game 1 of the playoffs against FC Barcelona. Even though the Greens lost that game, they went on to win the series 3-1 with their playmaker averaging 18 points, which was a whopping 59% more than his averaged the rest of that season.
A great offense starts with defense
For the second season in a row, CSKA has put up staggering offensive numbers. This season, CSKA led the Euroleague in scoring with 87.8 points per game, the best average by a team in the last decade. CSKA is also the best three-point shooting team, with 9.6 triples per game on 41.0% accuracy – both leading the competition. CSKA's 20.5 assists per game, led by passing maestro Milos Teodosic with 7.2 himself, is second all-time only to this year's Real Madrid team. Three more CSKA players averaged more than 10 assists between them: Sonny Weems (4.0), Nando De Colo (3.4) and Aaron Jackson (3.3). The other reason for CSKA's production was actually defense. CSKA broke the Euroleague record for defensive rebounding (27.2 per game), held opponents to third-lowest 32.1% three-point shooting this season, and ranked second in blocks (4.1). All of that allowed CSKA to run its transition game often, set up the half-court offense to its liking, and pile up points at the best rate in a long time.
Teodosic the man
CSKA scored 80 or more points 18 times this season and won each one of those games. A big part of that offensive power can be traced to Milos Teodosic, a former Turkish Airlines Euroleague MVP who having his best season yet. Just turned 28 years old, Teodosic averages 16.1 points, makes 3.2 triples per contest and shoots them with 41.2% accuracy. He dished 7.2 assists on average this campaign, and came one assist shy of matching a Top 16 record of 95. All are career-high numbers for a player who already has 732 assists for his career, which ranks him sixth all time. Moreover, since his Euroleague debut in 2007, Teodosic has scored a total of 1,825 points, second only to Vassilis Spanoulis during that span.
The Giankovits barometer
Vlantimir Giankovits is enjoying his first season as a rotation player in the Turkish Airlines. And it turns out that the do-it-all small forward doesn't just help his team in virtually every facet of the game; when he's at his best, the Greens win a lot more. So far this season, Panathinaikos is 6-3 in games where Giankovits scored in double figures. And the team is even better, 7-3, when he has a performance index rating of at least 10. In fact, that stat jumps to 6-1 in games where Giankovits’s index rating was at least 14. The only game he sat out due to injury was a loss, too. The 25-year old appears to be a barometer for his team's success.
The bench bosses
In his first season as a Euroleague head coach, CSKA's Dimitris Itoudis won his first 15 games, the fourth-longest streak in competition history. That success is partially explained by his long experience with his playoffs opponent, Panathinaikos. In the Greek capital, he was the right-hand man for coaching legend Zeljko Obradovic for 13 seasons, helping the Greens win five Euroleague titles, in 2000, 2002, 2007, 2009 and 2011. And while Itoudis joins Maccabi's Guy Goodes and Olympiacos's Giannis Sfairopoulos in heading the bench the playoffs for the first time, Panathinaikos boss Dusko Ivanovic has done so much more often. Ivanovic's first season with Panathinaikos is also his 14th in the Euroleague, where he boasts 154 career Euroleague victories. This is the eighth time he has taken teams to the playoffs. He took Tau Ceramica (now Laboral Kutxa Vitoria) to the playoff finals in 2000-01 and reached the championship game at the 2005 Final Four. A year later, Ivanovic led FC Barcelona to the Final Four, too.