Saturday boasts two mega showdowns, both worthy of Game of the Week status.
Avtodor – Khimki
Place: Kristall (capacity 5,500)
Time: 4:00 PM (4:00 MSK)
TV: Match! Nash Sport, VTB-League.com
What to Know:
Khimki (12-9) and Avtodor (12-9) have been fighting over 5th place for months. Now they go head-to-head, looking to take the driver’s seat with a week remaining in the season. Following Saturday’s game (Khimki won the first meeting, 88-75), Saratov and Moscow Region each have two more games. Avtodor will take on two playoff hopefuls–Nizhny Novgorod and Astana–while Khimki battles Lokomotiv-Kuban and Enisey.
It’s important to remember how 5th and 6th place could shake out. The 5th-place team is very likely to play Zenit in the quarterfinals, while the 6th-place team takes on Lokomotiv. Krasnodar is looking to rebound from its EuroCup disappointment and earn a spot in the EuroLeague next season via the VTB League. Lokomotiv is dangerous, but on the other hand, the 5th-place team risks facing CSKA in the semifinals, should they advance past the quarterfinals.
Shved and co.’s motivation
Khimki was spread thin between the VTB League and EuroLeague for much of the season. After losing in the EuroLeague quarterfinals to CSKA, Moscow Region can finally focus fully on the VTB League. For the first time in months, Khimki has been able to get some rest and game-plan thoroughly for an opponent. The team’s key players are healthy, while Alexey Shved’s recent play is another reason for optimism. The EuroLeague’s top scorer knocked down eight 3-pointers and scored 36 points in the final game vs. CSKA. Will we see Khimki at full strength on Saturday or will Georgios Bartzokas’s men wait until the postseason to fire on all cylinders?
X-Factor for Avtodor
It’s tough to match Avtodor’s tempo: Nobody in the League can keep up with Saratov and remain efficient. But Evgeny Pashutin’s men often create their own problems by turning the ball over in transition or taking unnecessary risks in the paint. Experienced opponents know how to take advantage. Despite playing at less than full strength, Khimki was able to mount a comeback in the first game vs. Avtodor thanks to 15 points off turnovers. What will happen this time in Saratov?
CSKA – Zenit
Place: USH CSKA (capacity 5,000), Moscow, Russia
Time: 5:00 PM (5:00 MSK)
TV: Match TV, VTB-League.com
What to Know
CSKA (20-2) and Zenit (15-6) are battling for 1st and 3rd place, respectively. The Army Men lead UNICS courtesy of the tiebreaker, while St. Petersburg trails Krasnodar for the same reason. The Blue-White-Sky Blues are the biggest threat to Moscow’s coronation as CSKA closes out the season on the road in Perm. Zenit, meanwhile, finishes up vs. UNICS and Tsmoki-Minsk.
CSKA has only lost twice this season, including once to Zenit. St. Petersburg beat CSKA at home in January, 87-83. The Red-Blues have not lost since then in the VTB United League. Revenge will serve as extra motivation for Dimitris Itoudis’ men.
Injuries to key players and preparing for the EuroLeague Final Four
CSKA is the only team in the League that is still competing on two fronts and the cumulative wear and tear is beginning to show. Moscow played in the EuroLeague quarterfinals vs. Khimki without Nando De Colo or Kyle Hines, putting an extra burden on other players. Given how close each game in the series was, the impact was pretty significant, both mentally and physically.
Neither player is likely to be available vs. Zenit, either. Moscow is more vulnerable without the elite French playmaker and lockdown American defender.
St. Petersburg is very dependent on the three-point shot. On a good day, shooters like Sergey Karasev and Kyle Kuric are impossible to stop. But if shots aren’t dropping, the tempo immediately slows and Zenit is forced to play without its biggest weapon. Up-tempo basketball, big-time shots and heart were the key factors in the win over CSKA earlier in the season. Can Zenit count on the same recipe for success in Moscow?