December In Review: CSKA’s Firepower, Attendance Rises In Tallinn And Nizhny Hosts Thriller

December In Review: CSKA’s Firepower, Attendance Rises In Tallinn And Nizhny Hosts Thriller

The biggest stories and trends from the final month of 2018.

CSKA scoring 100+

The Army Men continued to score at a super-efficient rate in December. Despite missing several key players and relying frequently on the bench and younger players, the Red and Blue are on record-setting pace for offense. CSKA has piled up more than 100 points in six of its last eight games, which puts them way above every other team in scoring. 

Average scoring by team in the VTB League

If Moscow continues to score at this rate for the rest of the season, the club will set a new League record for average points per game during the regular season. 

Top regular-season scoring averages in VTB League history

Top teams stumble

The teams chasing CSKA, meanwhile, looked shaky in December, suffering several surprising upsets before the New Year. Khimki lost at home to Nizhny Novgorod, Loko got blown out in Krasnodar by Astana and UNICS lost a nail-biter in Perm. 

CSKA now has sole possession of 1st place and the ease with which the Army Men have been winning recently make them the undisputed title favorites once again. 

Zenit’s fall

Zenit’s misfortunes have been another surprise. St. Petersburg lost a pair of games to open the season, but quickly got back on track with four straight wins in November. December, however, was a complete disaster with the club going 0-3. 

The slump cost Vasily Karasev his job. Unlike previous firings in the League (Sergei Mokin at Avtodor and Sasa Obradovic at Lokomotiv-Kuban), the upheaval at Zenit came as a shock to many.

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Joan Plaza is the new coach in St. Petersburg. The highly-regarded Spaniard has extensive experience, including in the EuroLeague, which has been Zenit’s target for several seasons. The team’s style of play should change significantly with his arrival. Whereas Karasev emphasized up-tempo, run-and-gun basketball, Plaza prefers more halfcourt offense. At previous stops, he’s actively used the pick-and-roll and various plays using screens. 

We’ll begin to see changes in January. In the meantime, Zenit’s new boss debuted with a loss to Khimki on the road. 

Astana continues to surprise

Astana’s success contrasts with Zenit’s setbacks. The Yellow and Blue have taken over Zenit’s spot in the top five and even lead Lokomotiv-Kuban thanks to a 7-3 record. The Kazakh club went 3-0 in December, winning by an average of 21 points. The club took out Kalev (105-78) and Avtodor (100-83), but the most impressive win came in Krasnodar (90-71). 

The key to Astana’s success has been the phenomenal play of its leaders. Anthony Clemmons led the League in scoring in December (22 points per game), while three different Astana players ranked in the top five in the League in efficiency rating. 

Most efficient players in the VTB League in December

(Geoffrey Grosselle, Kendrick Perry, Anthony Clemmons, Ken Horton, Trae Golden)

Bolomboy’s eye-opening debut

Joel Bolomboy spent more than two months waiting for a Russian passport. As a result, the center’s VTB League debut came in a December home game vs. Enisey Krasnoyarsk. There’s no question he was worth the wait. Bolomboy was perfect from the field (8-8) and the line (6-6), scoring 22 points, grabbing eight rebounds and throwing down a slew of vicious dunks. 

Bolomboy did not shine quite as brightly vs. VEF and Kalev, but remained effective. Over his three appearances, Bolomboy led the team in points (14.3), rebounds (5.7), efficiency rating (19.0) and field-goal percentage (89.5%, 17-19). 

Nizhny vs. PARMA showdown

The most exciting game of the month, and perhaps the entire season, was played in Nizhny Novgorod where the Volga club hosted PARMA. Unable to determine a winner in regulation, the game ultimately stretched to double overtime. 

Both teams had chances to win. Perm erased a four-point deficit in the final 30 seconds of the 4th quarter, while Nizhny Novgorod played catch-up in the first overtime. In the end, the home team had the final word. 

These days, close games often turn into a free-throw shooting contest or a competition between two star players trying to deliver a win. Nizhny Novgorod’s victory was an exception as the home team came out on top thanks to exquisite execution. With the score tied (98-98) and six seconds remaining in double overtime, Nizhny Novgorod ran a play that resulted in an easy bucket for Ivan Strebkov.  

Here’s how Nizhny Novgorod lined up to begin the play. Strebkov inbounded the ball along the sideline. 

Czerapowicz and Komolov stretched PARMA’s defense, drawing defenders into the corners.

Perry used a screen from Astapkovich to cut toward the center logo. 

It appears the visitors were most concerned about Perry and tried to aggressively to prevent him from getting the ball. Nizhny Novgorod took advantage. Larsson, Strekov’s defender, shifted toward the cutting Perry to prevent a pass. 

But the home team used Perry’s cut as a distraction. The pass went to an open Astapkovich at the top of the key. 

Strebkov immediately cut to the basket. 

Astapkovich delivered a perfect pass to Strebkov.

PARMA’s defense was unable to react in time to the play and the not-very-speedy Strebkov made it to the basket. 

None of PARMA’s defenders were able to stop him as the Russian guard scored the game-winner. 

Kalev and Khimki boost home attendance

Kalev has been one of this season’s breakout teams and the fans in Tallinn have noticed. During the first part of the season, Kalev has enjoyed the biggest boost in attendance, more than doubling last season’s average (+1,350).

The club even set a new attendance record at the final game of the season vs. CSKA, drawing 4,900 fans to the Saku Suurhall. 

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Khimki has enjoyed the next biggest increase. Even an injury to Alexey Shved, which has left him on the sideline for more than a month, hasn’t stopped fans from coming. The Yellow and Blue are drawing 687 more fans per game compared to last season. 

VEF (+467), Enisey (+444) and Nizhny Novgorod (+214) round out the top five in attendance growth. 

Konstantin Kucher