Considering that it never fails in the playoffs, it's kind of hard for CSKA Moscow to accomplish something new in that phase. But the Russian powerhouse did just that on Friday, when it erased would-be Final Four host KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz from their series. This series marked the first time that CSKA had ever lost home-court advantage in a best-of-five playoff, but its reaction to that predicament was impressive.
Before Game 2 against Baskonia, CSKA's only previous Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoffs home loss had happened in 2008, on a buzzer-beater, in a best-of-three series that it rallied to win on the way to that season's title. In all of its next nine best-of-five series starting in 2009, CSKA won the first two games at home, needing only one road to reach the Final Four. Three times, CSKA won Game 3 and swept the series. Five times, it ended the series in Game 4. In the only series where it lost both Game 3 and Game 4 (by a point in overtime) on the road, in 2014 against Panathinaikos Athens, CSKA went home and won Game 5 by 74-44.
Despite trailing by 12 points early in the second half against Baskonia on Friday, CSKA didn't wait for Game 5 this time. Instead, with Nando De Colo in a state of grace and Cory Higgins not far behind, CSKA outscored Baskonia 28-49 the rest of the way. For a remarkable 7 minutes, 30 seconds of the fourth quarter, its defense held Baskonia scoreless during a 0-15 run that included 5 steals and sent the Final Four berth back to Moscow.
CSKA now has an incredible 14-0 record in playoff series since 2005. Counting its qualifications in 2003 and 2004, before there were playoffs, CSKA has made the Final Four in 16 of the last 17 years. This season's berth makes eight in a row, matching CSKA's record Final Four streak from 2003 through 2010.
This, however, is the first CSKA team to use two road wins to reach the Final Four. Just five other EuroLeague teams in 43 best-of-five playoffs to date have accomplished the same feat. Coach Dimitris Itoudis and his troops could have felt confident that they would win Game 5 at home, especially after trailing by 12 after halftime on Friday. But this team is not wired that way, the coach said.
"My team was very motivated since the moment this year when people stopped believing in us," Itoudis said. "When people are flattering us, saying we are the best, the favorite, you are unbeaten or something, even though I'm working on it, it gets under their skin and they subconsciously think we are unbeatable. But when people stopped believing in us, that's when we started to believe. That's when we said to bring us more doubters, more haters, more whatever. We have a great group of competitors; we have a great group of winners. And if we stay healthy, we can make the impossible possible."
As such, CSKA will return to Vitoria-Gasteiz in mid-May feeling good about both its first-time playoffs accomplishment -- and where it happened. No team before has won two playoff games on a neutral court due to host the Final Four, a fact that did not escape Itoudis after his team's undefeated week at Fernando Buesa Arena.
"It looks like we will be a little more familiar with this court," he said, "which is not bad."