The first cross-city rivalry in Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs history will open the fun on Tuesday, April 17, with a clear favorite and a dangerous challenger clearly identified.
Leningradka Derby No.100
It will be quite a milestone for Russian basketball and two Moscow rivals when the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs start next week. Not only will it mark first time that any two teams from the Russian Federation meet in the EuroLeague playoffs, but Game 1 on Tuesday will be the 100th time that CSKA and Khimki face off in the popular Leningradka derby. CSKA holds 81-17 advantage, and four of those games have been in the EuroLeague, all in the past three seasons. Khimki took their first EuroLeague clash, the Top 16 opener in the 2015-16 season, on Alexey Shved's jumper with 1.1 seconds left for a 91-89 home win. However, CSKA has won their next three head-to-head EuroLeague contests, all by double-digit margins, including both games this season. CSKA also won both times they played in the VTB League this season, by 81-96 at Khimki in November and 90-71 at home in February. This Leningradka derby has not only been one-sided this season, but CSKA has dominated the rivalry lately. Since that defeat against Khimki in December of 2015, CSKA has won 14 consecutive games between them in the EuroLeague and VTB League combined. Moreover, since Dimitris Itoudis arrived to the bench of CSKA in the summer of 2014, CSKA is 16-2 against Khimki. That record includes three sweeps in best-of-five VTB League playoffs in each of the last three seasons.
CSKA and the playoffs
As stated, these two clubs have previously met 99 times, but it's still hard to imagine how such cross-town rivals could approach this playoffs series any more differently. For Khimki, this is history-in-the-making as the club reached the playoffs for the first time in its fifth appearance in the EuroLeague. Khimki has won a pair of 7DAYS EuroCup titles before, but has now made another step in establishing itself as a European basketball powerhouse. Upsetting CSKA in this series would surely cement that status for Khimki, but the challengers have their work cut out for them. Not does CSKA enter the playoffs with the EuroLeague's best regular season record, but it has an impeccable playoffs history. No team has dominated like CSKA since the playoffs system was established for the 2004-05 season. In those 14 campaigns, this will be CSKA's 13th playoff appearance. CSKA prevailed in each of the previous 12, whether best-of-three or best-of-five format, and advanced to the Final Four. CSKA has swept five series along the way, has a 32-8 overall record and is 22-1 in playoff home games, having won the last 18 in front of its fans. As many as eight CSKA players – Nando De Colo, Vitaly Fridzon, Andrey Vorontsevich, Cory Higgins, Victory Khryapa, Pavel Korobkov, Nikita Kurbanov and Kyle Hines – have been with the club for at least three years, helping it dominate. Khimki has players with plenty of playoffs appearances, and five of them have won playoff series: Marko Todorovic twice with FC Barcelona Lassa, in 2013 and 2014; Andrey Zubkov with Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in 2016; and Sergey Monia, Dimtry Sokolov and Shved, all with CSKA on multiple occasions.
Shved vs. De Colo
This series marks the first time that competition's top two scorers heading into the playoffs face each other in a series. Shved had a historic season, breaking single-season records in points scored (643) and three-point shots made (91), totals he set to add to in the upcoming games. Shved scored at least 15 points in each of 30 games this season. His league-leading 21.4 points is among 15 highest averages this century and the third-best in the competition this decade. Considering that Shved also dishes 5.2 assists, he has had a hand in more than 40% of all Khimki's points this season. De Colo has had a stellar campaign himself by posting 17.2 points, making 51% of his three-point attempts, and also averaging 4 assists and 1.3 steals. Saying that De Colo did not have his most productive season ever only highlights the outsized past accomplishments that made him the EuroLeague MVP and Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy winner in 2016. That does nothing to diminish what he has done this year. However, these two players exists in a very different circumstances. While Shved fuels Khimki, and has only one other teammate scoring in double digits(Anthony Gill with 11 ppg.), De Colo is the leader of an offensive machine at CSKA and gets a lot of help from his teammates. Four other CSKA players average more than 11.7 points per game. One, Cory Higgins, scored a career-high 26 points while Kurbanov matched his career best of 18 in a 79-68 victory over Khimki in Round 14. On the other hand, that was the only game this season in which Shved did not hit a three-point shot, missing all 6 attempts. In their Round 28 clash, Othello Hunter (16 points) and Leo Westermann (14) had their respective season highs in beating Khimki 73-90.
Part of CSKA's success over Khimki in recent season comes down to doing a very good job of taming Shved. Since he joined Khimki, Shved has scored more than 21 points only twice in 13 EuroLeague and VTB games against CSKA. He did post 18.3 points in four games against CSKA this season, but has made just 4 of 26 threes. In order to succeed, Khimki will need to give its main man a lot more help. Khimki averages 77.9 points, which is almost 12 points fewer than CSKA's 89.5 per game. Where Khimki did better than CSKA this season is on defense, allowing 78.4 points per game, fourth fewest in the EuroLeague, compared to CSKA's 79.6. Khimki’s interior defense has excelled in holding opponents to just 50.6% two-point shooting, second best in the competition, but needs to better protect the defensive glass after allowing a league-high 11.8 offensive rebounds per game. Khimki would benefit a great deal if Tyler Honeycutt were to return, as he pulled down a team-best 4.3 defensive boards in the 15 games he played in between injuries.
Greek coaches going for seconds
The only two Greek coaches with EuroLeague titles to their names – Georgios Bartzokas of Khimki and Dimitris Itoudis of CSKA – face each other with another Final Four appearance on the line. Bartzokas made history by becoming the first Greek coach to win the continental crown, in 2013 with Olympiacos Piraeus. Itoudis followed when he guided CSKA all the way to 2016 EuroLeague title. Itoudis has led CSKA to Final Four appearances in each of the last three seasons and Bartzokas is looking to take a third different team to the Final Four, having last done so with Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in 2016. Those are not the only EuroLeague accomplishments of the two. In the final round of the regular season, Itoudis tied Xavi Pascual as the fastest man to reach 100 wins in the competition, needing only 124 games. Bartzokas needs 3 more wins to become the 12th man to join the prestigious 100-club this century. Itoudis has had more success in their head-to-head meetings. At the 2016 Final Four, CSKA's 88-81 win over Lokomotiv was the first EuroLeague head-to-head between them. Itoudis won twice more against Bartzokas-coached FC Barcelona Lassa last season and two more in CSKA's sweep of Khimki this season. That gives Itoudis 5-0 record against Bartzokas in the EuroLeague, and 8-1 against his countryman overall.