Quarterfinals: Zenit And Avtodor On Brink Of History

Zenit St. Petersburg faces Avtodor Saratov in the VTB United League playoff quarterfinals.

Zenit, 2014-15 VTB United League quarterfinalists
Avtodor, 2014-15 VTB United League quarterfinalists

Time & Location:
Game 1. SIBUR Arena, St. Petersburg, Russia. 7:00 PM (7:00 PM MSK), May 1, 2016
Game 2. SIBUR Arena, St. Petersburg, Russia. 5:00 PM (5:00 PM MSK), May 3, 2016
Game 3. Kristall Sports Palace, Saratov, Russia. 7:30 PM (7:30 PM MSK), May 6, 2016
Game 4 (if necessary). Kristall Sports Palace, Saratov, Russia. 2:00 PM (2:00 PM MSK), May 8, 2016
Game 5 (if necessary). SIBUR Arena, St. Petersburg, Russia. May 11, 2016

Match! Nash sport (Russia), United League TV

Regular Season:
Zenit: 3rd place (23-7)
Avtodor: 6th place (20-10)

Face To Face
Given both teams have only played in the league for two seasons, there's been little time to build up a rivalry. Thus far, Zenit and Avtodor are 2-2, splitting the season series two years in a row. Zenit picked up the first meeting of the 2015-16 campaign, led by Janis Timma to open the season 5-0. Avtodor got revenge at home, despite nearly letting a big lead slip away in the final minutes.

Looking Back

After taking some time to adjust to the league last season, Vasily Karasev's club stormed to a 7-0 start in the fall and finished with a 23-7 record, good for 3rd place in the regular season. Zenit capped the campaign by defeating Euroleague Final Four-bound Lokomotiv-Kuban on the final day of the season.

Avtodor has also impressed, winning 10 straight late in the season to move into 6th place. The club also twice broke the league record for points in a game. In addition to the win over Zenit, Saratov scored an impressive victory vs. Khimki.

The upcoming series presents both teams with the opportunity to reach the VTB United League semifinals for the first time ever.

How will both teams play on defense?

Avtodor and Zenit love to attack the basket, emphasizing up-tempo basketball with plenty of fast breaks and 3-point attempts. Zenit is tied for 3rd in the league in scoring, averaging 88.9 per game. Avtodor, meanwhiles, averages 88.7 to rank 5th. In March, these two teams combined for 46 3-point attempts in Saratov.

But defense often takes on extra performance in the postseason. Zenit won the first meeting thanks to Avtodor's cold shooting from outside (6-23). And Saratov's victory was due in part to an icy 0-6 performance from St. Petersburg sniper Ryan Toolson.

Ryan Toolson (Zenit) vs. Avtodor's foreign contingent.

Ryan Toolson is one of the biggest reasons that Zenit and Avtodor are even facing each other in the postseason. His terrific performance against Loko on the final day of the regular season gave Zenit the win and the three seed. The April MVP and League MVP contender has had several shining moments this season, while consistently delivering big numbers on offense. During the quarterfinals, however, he'll face Avtodor's quintet of Americans, each of whom play a big role on the team (technically, Saratov has six Americans, but Zack Wright obtained Bosnian citizenship). Avtodor's USA corps led the way in the March win vs. Zenit, combining for 64 points (despite a sub-par performance from Travis Peterson).

The frontcourt battle.

Guards generally hog the spotlight in an up-tempo game, with the big men relegated to defensive duties. But the frontcourt can often have a decisive impact in these types of games, free to operate given the excessive attention afforded the backcourt on defense. Both St. Petersburg and Saratov are well aware of that fact.

After losing Kyle Landry, Zenit scrambled to find a replacement mid-season. Kaspars Berzins has fit in nicely, and Anton Pushkov also made an impact in the frontcout. As for Saratov, Artem Klimenko and Artem Zabelin lead the way.

The fans should expect a classic battle in the paint with plenty of blocks and physical play.

Interesting Facts
- Avtodor has one of the youngest players in the league--17-year-old Agasy Tonoyan--as well as the league's oldest player in history--Andrey Sepelev. Both scored their first points of the season in a recent game vs. CSKA.

- Zenit's Ryan Toolson won the April MVP award, while Avtodor's Artem Klimenko was named April's Young Player of the Month.

- Zenit forward Janis Timma set his personal scoring record this season vs. Avtodor, finishing with 23 points in the November win.

Zenit head coach Vasily Karasev:
- The games vs. Avtodor will be pressure-packed. Saratov plays open, up-tempo basketball. They've already shown that they can compete with and defeat any team in the league. Perhaps they don't have the biggest rotation, but I definitely don't expect an easy series. It's unclear how many games the series will go.

Avtodor head coach Vladimir Antsiferov:
- Zenit stands in our way. We know the team well, having played them four times this season in the Eurocup and VTB United League. I expect a competitive, hard-fought battle. When two talented teams meet in the playoffs, it really heats up on the court. Everyone wants to win, but fortune smiles on the team that wants it more. We're ready for this matchup. We're prepared to demonstrate our brand of basketball and win!

- I think Zenit is the favorite, - notes former Zenit captain Artem Kuzyakin. - The home-court advantage will play a big role in this matchup. The two teams have similar styles. They play quick, attacking basketball. Saratov is a little weaker on defense, but has an advantage under the basket thanks to its centers, Klimenko and Zabelin.

As for Avtodor's leaders, that would be Peterson and his terrific 3-point shot as well as Jeremy Chappell, whom I know well from Triumph.

Zenit will play through Toolson and Timma, but don't forget about the Russian players, who are a bit stronger than Avtodor's domestic contingent. St. Petersburg will really miss Valiev and Landry, especially on defense. Defense means a lot in the playoffs.

In addition to defense, I think that the coaching factor will be huge in this series. In my opinion, Karasev is stronger than Antsiferov.

The series is unlikely to be a sweep. Saratov will likely dig in at home and might win both games. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict a 3-2 win for Zenit. Now, after my career has ended, I watch basketball like a regular fan. It's always interesting for me to see a series end in five games, like the Lokomotiv - Barcelona showdown in the Euroleague playoffs.

Team Stats

88.9 Points 88.7
23,4/44,9 (52,1%) 2-pointers 24,1/43,9 (55,0%)
8,8/22,3 (39,5%) 3-pointers 9,8/25,3 (38,7%)
15,7/20,2 (77,8) Free throws 13,5/17/8 (75,6)
38.1 Rebounds 38.8
20.7 Assists 22.4
12.6 Turnovers 14.5
7.7 Steals 8.6
3.1 Blocks 3.0
22.4 Fouls 20.7

Player Stats

Ryan Toolson (17,6) Points Paul Stoll (14,6)
Omar Thomas (7,1) Rebounds Travis Peterson (7,4)
Zabian Dowdell (5,2) Assists Paul Stoll (7,1)
Janis Timma (1,6) Steals Paul Stoll (2,1)
Anton Pushkov (0,8) Blocks Artem Zabelin (1,1)