Semifinals: Opposing Styles Collide

UNICS Kazan takes on Zenit St. Petersburg in the VTB United League playoff semifinals.

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

Where & When:
Game 1. Basket Hall, Kazan. 6:00 PM (6:00 PM MSK), May 18, 2016
Game 2. Basket Hall, Kazan. 8:00 PM (8:00 PM MSK), May 20, 2016
Game 3. SIBUR Arena, St. Petersburg. 7:30 PM (7:30 PM MSK), May 23, 2016
Game 4. SIBUR Arena, St. Petersburg. 7:30 PM (7:30 PM MSK), May 25, 2016 (if necessary)
Game 5. Basket Hall, Kazan. TBD, May 28, 2016 (if necessary)

Match TV (Russia), Match! Nash sport (Russia), United League TV

Regular Season:
UNICS: 2nd place (25-5)
Zenit: 3rd place (23-7)

Face To Face
Given that St. Petersburg has only been in the league for two years, there's not much history between these two clubs. Zenit and UNICS have met four times, splitting both season series, 1-1. UNICS picked up a 35-point win at home in January, before Zenit took revenge in April, knocking off Kazan 89-65 thanks to a big game from Omar Thomas.

Looking Back

UNICS followed up on a terrific regular-season campaign by sweeping Nizhny Novgorod in the playoff quarterfinals. Zenit also took care of business in the first round, going 3-0 vs. six-seed Avtodor to advance to the semifinals for the first time.

UNICS last played on May 5, while Zenit's final game in the quarterfinals was May 6. As a result, both teams should be rested and fresh for the semifinals. Given the season split, don't be surprised if this series needs more than three games to decide who advances to the finals. It will be fascinating to see how Kazan's patient, defensive approach matches up against Zenit's up-tempo offense.

How much impact will the home-court advantage have?

UNICS boasts one of the league's best home records, losing just twice at the Basket Hall during the regular season. Kazan defeated Zenit by 35 at home during the regular season, but St. Petersburg returned the favor, winning by 24 at the SIBUR Arena. Zenit also matched UNICS's home-court record, going 13-2 in the northern capital.
But unless Zenit can solve UNICS away from home, Vasily Karasev and co. are at risk of returning to St. Petersburg in a 2-0 hole. Even then, it wouldn't be a shock if the three-seed managed to even the series and force a decisive Game 5 in Kazan.  

Keith Langford (UNICS) vs. Ryan Toolson (Zenit)

The biggest duel in this series will feature Zenit sniper Ryan Toolson and league scoring champion Keith Langford. Ironically, neither player had big numbers when these two teams met in the regular season. Langford scored 19 in game one, but only played 21 minutes in a UNICS blowout. Toolson, meanwhile, had just four points in 16 minutes.

At the rematch in St. Petersburg, Toolson scored 11 points to Langford's 10, with both players spending about 30 minutes on the court. Nonetheless, the playoff semifinals will likely be very different. With a spot in the finals on the line, expect both players to do everything they can to bring home a series win.

Janis Timma.

Timma has taken his game to the next level in the playoffs. After joining Zenit over the summer, the Latvian forward had an immediate impact, showing off his impressive two-way ability. He got better and better as the season progressed, before erupting in the quarterfinals to average a 30.0 efficiency rating. He also set two new playoff records in Game 2 vs. Avtodor, scoring 35 points and pulling down 15 rebounds. The UNICS defense will still be focused on Toolson, but expect Timma to cause additional headaches for Karasev's staff.

Interesting Facts
- Ryan Toolson was voted the 2015-16 regular season MVP by the fans, while Keith Langford finished 4th.
- Zenit forward Pavel Antipov spent almost his entire pro career (except for his first season) at UNICS. He started both games against his former club during the regular season, but only scored two points in each appearance.
- These two teams averaged an identical 88.9 points per game during the regular season.
- Evgeny Pashutin and Vasily Karasev played together on the Russian national team at two world championships and three European championships.

UNICS head coach Evgeny Pashutin:
- Zenit is a quick, speedy team. They were quick enough to stop Avtodor, perhaps the league's quickest team this season. St. Petersburg shoots a lot of 3-pointers, sometimes more than 2-pointers. They are also pretty accurate with a solid field-goal percentage. In addition to being quick, I'd add that Zenit is strong and athletic. Adding Berzins and Thomas definitely made the team better and leaders Timma and Toolson were excellent in the series against Avtodor.

Our primary challenges for the series haven't changed: we need to stop our opponent's leaders, play off our defense, battle for every inch of the floor, fight for every ball, especially on the glass, contest their sniper's shots and stay focused for the entire 40 minutes. Controlling the tempo will be important. We can't compete with them in an up-tempo game. That doesn't mean that we should play slow. If we have a chance for a fast break, we need to go for it. If it doesn't work out, then return to a halfcourt game and search for our opponent's weak spots on defense. I expect a tough series, but we are ready to compete. The guys are hungry and ready to go. We will play to win.

Zenit head coach Vasily Karasev:
- After certain games this season, I said that the team was reaching a new level. Of course, beating teams like UNICS and Lokomotiv during the regular season, playing CSKA tough, and winning a tough series vs. Avtodor helped us learn something new about ourselves and gain a measure of experience. The players are getting better and gaining self-confidence.

UNICS earned its two-seed and played at a high level the entire season. They will also have home-court advantage. For our part, we gave a lot to finish 3rd, which had an impact on our injury situation. We started the quarterfinals immediately after the regular season without any break. It's good that there was a pause after the series with Avtodor. The guys regained their strength, settled down and cleared their heads. Some people think long breaks can be bad for a team, but I don't tend to think that way. UNICS finished its series at the same time, so we are in the same boat. There's no euphoria from our victory. We are preparing like normal and will try to play our best basketball.

- First of all, a duel between two Russian coaches awaits us. Second, this is a showdown between two completely different playing styles, - says Seoul Olympics champion Sergei Tarakanov. - UNICS plays methodical, structured basketball with an emphasis on defense. Zenit, on the other hand, plays perky, quick, attacking basketball. I'm personally more attracted to Vasily Karasev's philosophy. He has a lot of young, hungry players on his team. He uses the entire bench and each player gets time on the court. The young Russian players on the team listen to him and try to repay his trust by being productive on the court.

But UNICS appears to have the upper hand in this series thanks to its more experienced roster and the home-court advantage. A lot will depend on Keith Langford. At the same time, I think that's a weakness, rather than a strength, for UNICS, given that Zenit is so team-oriented. Anybody on Zenit's roster can be a star in a given game. Though the odds are mostly even, I think UNICS will go to the finals. But I wouldn't bet everything on them.

Team Stats

88.9 Points 88.9
23.6/41.9 (56.4%) 2-pointers 23.4/44.9 (52.1%)
8.7/22.2 (39.0%) 3-pointers 8.8/22.3 (39.5%)
15.6/21.3 (73.1%) Free throws 15.7/20.2 (77.8%)
38.7 Rebounds 38.1
20.6 Assists 20.7
10.9 Turnovers 12.6
6.6 Steals 7.7
2.3 Blocks 3.1
20.5 Fouls 22.4

Player Stats

Keith Langford (21.0) Points Ryan Toolson (17.6)
Latavious Williams (6.6) Rebounds Omar Thomas (7.1)
Quino Colom (6.4) Assists Zabian Dowdell (5.2)
Keith Langford (1.1) Steals Janis Timma (1.6)
Artsiom Parakhouski (0.8) Blocks Anton Pushkov (0.8)