CSKA hosts Zenit, Lokomotiv-Kuban plays Avtodor and other games.
Sunday, April 7
CSKA Russia – Zenit Russia
Time: 5:00 PM (5:00 MSK)
Place: USH CSKA, Moscow, Russia
CSKA: After losing to UNICS, the Army Men are in a tough spot. Kazan can guarantee 1st place by winning its remaining five regular-season games. CSKA, for its part, cannot afford another setback. This weekend is no easy test with Zenit coming to town, the same club that dealt Moscow its first defeat. The Army Men are also trying to spread out playing time due to a brutal schedule. CSKA played its final EuroLeague regular-season game on April 4, then faces a trio of highly-motivated VTB League opponents beginning with Zenit on April 7, Nizhny Novgorod on the 9th and finally Astana on the 11th. CSKA will then have a few days to rest before starting the EuroLeague playoffs on April 17.
Zenit: St. Petersburg has had a lot more time to prepare, given the club can focus exclusively on the VTB League. The challenge for Zenit is preventing CSKA from slowing the tempo and keeping possessions at a minimum. In the first meeting between these teams, Zenit was able to wear CSKA down by pushing the tempo late and pressuring the ball, forcing two key Sergio Rodriguez turnovers that led to big baskets. CSKA will also be without defensive stopper Kyle Hines in the paint, which is great news for Jalen Reynolds and the Blue, White and Sky Blues. Reynolds, of course, dominated in the first meeting, shooting 9-10 from the field.
Monday, April 8
Khimki Russia – Zielona Gora Poland
Time: 8:00 PM (8:00 MSK)
Place: BCMO, Khimki, Russia
Khimki: By defeating Lokomotiv, Rimas Kurtinaitis’ men are unlikely to finish outside of the top three and could still finish second. Khimki has a favorable schedule. Not counting Nizhny Novgorod, Khimki’s remaining opponents are outside the playoff zone and have few tournament ambitions. Moscow Region has not lost to anyone from the bottom half of the standings this season. Khimki is in excellent shape: Alexey Shved has made a triumphant return, winning the League MVP in March, and Janis Timma is playing like a star, knocking down five of nine 3-pointers in the win over Lokomotiv.
Zielona Gora: The Poles enjoyed a significant accomplishment on April 5, defeating PARMA to pass the Ural club in the standings and take over 12th place. Zielona Gora cannot move any higher. Even if the League rookies shock Khimki and UNICS and both VEF and Enisey lose their remaining outings, the Poles would remain in 12th due to tiebreakers. But Igor Jovovic’s men have any chance to finish the season on a high note and add to their five wins.
Tuesday, April 9
Nizhny Novgorod Russia – CSKA Russia
Time: 7:00 PM (7:00 MSK)
Place: Sports Palace, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
Nizhny Novgorod: An unexpected setback in Krasnoyarsk came at a bad time. Now the toughest stretch of the season awaits. In addition to CSKA and Khimki, Nizhny plays two teams desperate for a postseason berth: Kalev and Avtodor. Nizhny only beat Khimki in the first time through the League. The Volga club also came up short in the Champions League, losing to Antwerp in a two-game series. The game in Belgium exposed Nizhny’s many problems as the season winds down, most notably, the club’s short bench. Playing without Kendrick Perry and Ivan Strebkov, Nizhny scored only 61 points (Zoran Lukic’s men have not scored below 61 in the VTB League since November).
CSKA: Despite a busy schedule and playing away from home, CSKA will be favored. The Army Men’s defense will cause far more problems for Nizhny’s crippled offense than the Belgians did. Plus, CSKA has a much deeper bench, even if Dimitris Itoudis tries to rest some of his key players. The Red and Blues, however, do have to treat every game with respect, given the club is at risk of losing the top seed in the postseason to UNICS. Based on the statistics, CSKA should win going away (the Army Men average 10 more points per game than their opponent), but the first meeting of the season was closer than expected as Nizhny lost by only six points and had a chance to spring the upset.
Kalev Estonia – UNICS Russia
Time: 7:00 PM (7:00 MSK)
Place: Saku Suurhall, Tallinn, Estonia
Kalev: Kalev has won three of its last four, scoring more than 100 points each time. Playing against Zielona Gora, Tallinn set a new club record for points in the United League, pouring in 117. Kalev faces a much stiffer defense on Tuesday. UNICS has the best defense in the League right now (72.6 points allowed per game). But Donaldas Kairys’ men won’t be afraid of the Tatar opponent. Back in January, Kalev created a lot of problems for UNICS, losing by only two points. The Estonians remain the most likely candidate to snag the last playoff spot and play four of their last five games at home.
UNICS: Kazan is in playoff mode already. In order to steal 1st place from CSKA, the Tatars need to win out. The good news for Dimitris Priftis and co. is that they can focus 100% of their attention on the League, unlike the Army Men. UNICS also expects Errick McCollum to return soon, perhaps even by Tuesday. Kazan, of course, took down CSKA without their star guard by attacking the paint. Kalev will try to answer UNICS down low with Arnett Moultrie, who leads the scoring race in the League at 19.5 points per game.
Lokomotiv-Kuban Russia – Avtodor Russia
Time: 8:00 PM (8:00 MSK)
Place: Basket Hall, Krasnodar, Russia
TV: Match! Igra
Lokomotiv-Kuban: The game vs. Khimki was devastating to Lokomotiv for two reasons: Krasnodar not only saw its 3rd-place hopes likely evaporate, but also lost point guard Dmitry Khvostov, who will be out for at least six months. The situation is made worse by Zenit’s recent momentum, which has lifted St. Petersburg into a tie with Kuban. Loko simply needs to win on Tuesday. Remaining in 4th place is imperative in order to guarantee home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Avtodor: Thanks to the terrific play of Trae Golden (31 points), who ranks second on the League’s scoring list, Saratov was able to break down Zielona Gora and secure a valuable win. The victory was Avtodor’s ninth of the season, which means the Russians trail Kalev by only one win. To be fair, the remaining schedule is not easy. Upcoming opponents include Nizhny and UNICS, who will also be highly motivated to win. Tallinn also has a game in hand. After the win over the Poles, Evgeny Pashutin focused on improving the defense, which has been an issue for Saratov all season. The Railwaymen scored 102 points in the first meeting with Avtodor (and also gave up 95). That was Kuban’s first 100+ point game of the season, not a good sign for Saratov’s defense.