The pause before the NBA Finals was filled by the VTB United League semifinals, which, despite being brief, lived up to expectations. Khimki began with a loss in Kazan, but finished UNICS off at home and received a coveted EuroLeague ticket, while Zenit twice was very close to taking down the newly-minted EuroLeague champions, CSKA.
But the VTB United League has been witness to even more dramatic battles in its 10 years. We bring you the five most memorable match-ups, which all needed a Game 5 to determine the winner.
2013, semifinals. (1) Khimki – (2) CSKA, 2-3
Games: 83-80, 72-74, 47-61, 77-75, 64-87
When the VTB United League was still divided into groups and CSKA could finish behind Lithuania’s Zalgiris in the regular season, a meeting between the Army Men and Khimki at the semifinal stage surprised no one. It happened in 2013. In order to remain in the EuroLeague, Rimas Kurtinaitis’ men needed to win to a five-game series against the winner of that year’s third-place game in the EuroLeague. It was virtually an impossible task.
But Khimki had players who knew CSKA very well, including from the inside. One of them, Zoran Planinic, was the hero in Game 1, pouring in 25 points against his former team, while the second, Sergey Monia, had a chance to hit yet another game-winning shot in Game 2, but his 3-pointer in the final seconds was off the mark, allowing CSKA to even the series.
The teams also traded wins in the USH CSKA and it appeared that Khimki’s home-court advantage would seriously impact the outcome of the series and the entire history of the VTB United League. Those assumptions held firm until halftime of the fifth game. Tied at halftime, Khimki fell behind by 12 in the third quarter and was doomed by poor three-point shooting down the stretch.
Since then, CSKA and Khimki have met several times in the VTB United League and EuroLeague playoffs, but Moscow Region has never won more than one game in a series.
Star: Victor Khryapa. In two of the five games (Games 3 and 5), the CSKA forward led his team in points, rebounds and assists. Thanks in large part to the series with Khimki, Victor Khryapa was named 2013 playoffs MVP.
2014, quarterfinals. (2) CSKA – (3) Lokomotiv-Kuban, 3-2
Games: 83-87, 66-81, 76-73, 79-78, 84-65
2014 was the only time that the VTB League’s two Russian EuroLeague representatives met in the quarterfinals: CSKA vs. Loko, who had played in the United League finals a year earlier. The series was so good that many fans still consider it to be the best in league history.
There are several reasons for that:
1) CSKA lost two straight at home. It’s hard to fathom, especially considering that the Army Men have since won 25 straight at home in the playoffs and the streak is still going.
2) During Game 4, the Army Men trailed Loko by nine points, but managed to come back.
3) Three games were decided by five or fewer points. That’s only happened three times in VTB United League history.
4) CSKA became the first team in VTB League playoff history to come back from an 0-2 deficit.
5) The first two games were played prior to the EuroLeague Final Four, where the Army Men finished in fourth place.
Only the final game failed to match expectations as Ettore Messina’s men rolled in a 19-point blowout. But despite the disappointing finish, this series belongs on the list.
Star: Nenad Krstic. The Serbian big man was CSKA’s top offensive weapon in those playoffs. His best game came in Game 4 vs. Loko, where he scored 26 points on 9-14 shooting and a perfect 8-8 at the line.
2015, semifinals. (2) Khimki – (3) Lokomotiv-Kuban, 3-2
Games: 76-75, 76-83, 55-78, 76-67, 94-77
The first real “battle for the EuroLeague” took place in 2015, when Khimki and Lokomotiv-Kuban met in the semifinals. Marko Popovic was not as consistent as in years past and Alexey Shved had not arrived yet, but Khimki had the home-court advantage. Kuban boasted a ridiculous roster, but lost its biggest star, Anthony Randolph, just before the start of the series, while head coach Sergei Bazarevich struggled at times to connect with the club’s foreign contingent.
Despite all of the problems, Lokomotiv-Kuban led 2-1 after three games, losing only once in Khimki by one point, with Game 4 to be played at home in Krasnodar. But Kuban blew its chance to qualify for the EuroLeague through the VTB United League. Monia and Popovic got hot from beyond the arc and Pateev had a big game under the basket, while Koponen destroyed Loko in Game 5.
Nonetheless, the EuroLeague gave Loko a chance to test itself in Europe. Loko received a Wild Card entry the following season and shocked everyone by advancing to the Final Four in Berlin.
Star: Petteri Koponen. Krasnodar suffered greatly from the Finnish guard’s perimeter assault. Koponen’s 3-pointer with a minute to play in Game 1 proved decisive and he hit five 3-pointers for a total of 21 points in Game 5 as Khimki clinched the series.
2016, semifinals. (2) UNICS – (3) Zenit, 3-2
Games: 94-93, 97-91, 67-82, 82-85, 79-70
There were several intriguing factors at play in the 2016 series between UNICS and Zenit. One, the series featured a match-up between two of the most respected Russian coaches in the League, Evgeny Pashutin and Vasily Karasev, Two, the teams played completely different styles of basketball. UNICS relied on the duo of Langford and Colom, who were capable of producing more than half of the offense. Zenit had a deep bench, with no Sergey Karasev, but Dmitry Golovin as a starter.
In this series, home court proved decisive. This remains the only five-game series in VTB United League history without a single road win.
Zenit was close to winning in Kazan in Game 1. But Artem Vikhrov made a mistake on defense, allowing Quino Colom to convert a three-point play with eight seconds left and give his team the lead. Zabian Dowdell had a chance to win the game from beyond the arc, but missed the shot.
UNICS nearly finished the series in St. Petersburg in Game 4, but Zenit managed a heroic comeback, despite trailing by as much as 15.
Kazan had to play from behind in Game 5. Down by nine points in the second quarter, the Tatar club went on to win by nine. Winning the coveted EuroLeague ticket did not mean it was time yet to relax. One week later, UNICS put up a respectable fight against CSKA in the finals, preventing a sweep (3-1).
Star: Quino Colom. Keith Langford clearly ran the show at UNICS in those years. But Kazan’s Spanish guard was the star of this series. He had the game-winning three-point play in Game 1 and led the team in scoring in Game 5.
2017, semifinals. (2) Zenit – (3) Khimki, 2-3
Games: 99-95, 92-89, 73-97, 71-73, 84-90
One year after the crazy series with UNICS, Zenit had Sergey Karasev at its disposal, plus home-court advantage vs. Khimki and a burning desire to reach the EuroLeague for the first time in club history.
After two hard-fought wins at home to start the series, it looked like Zenit would finally break through. Sergey Karasev was playing the best basketball of his career and ready to take Alexey Shved’s title as the best Russian basketball player. Markovic, Timma and White fit seamlessly on St. Petersburg’s roster and Khimki coach Dusko Ivanovic looked lost in the final minutes.
St. Petersburg needed only one more win to reach the EuroLeague, but they could not do it. Khimki matched CSKA’s feat in 2014, coming back from an 0-2 series deficit.
Game 4 was especially intense. There were four technicals, two unsportsmanlike fouls and four players fouled out. Of course, the game featured a dramatic finish, too, as Kyle Landry and Aaron White missed chances to force overtime in the final seconds.
Star: Alexey Shved. The Khimki leader received a lot of criticism during the series, but he managed to do his job, leading his team to the EuroLeague, while scoring 137 points in five games.