CSKA and Khimki have played in more championship games and series than any other two teams in the League. These are the only clubs to win a VTB United League title, meeting once again last season in the playoff finals. This season, both CSKA and Khimki are playing in the EuroLeague.
So far, CSKA and Khimki have had to deal with a few setbacks in the 2017-18 VTB United League campaign. The Army Men dropped to 3rd place following back-to-back losses to Lokomotiv-Kuban and Zenit. Khimki is in even further down the standings, posting a 7-5 record, good for 5th in the League.
Nonetheless, CSKA – Khimki is still the biggest rivalry in Russian basketball. There are a lot of interesting storylines to watch in Monday’s match-up. The Army Men will be clear favorites at home, thanks to earlier wins over Khimki in the VTB United League (96-81) and EuroLeague (79-68). But Moscow Region may have a few tricks up its sleeves.
Khimki has the most exciting player in the League
Alexey Shved is enjoying a strong season. He’s the unquestioned scoring leader in the VTB League (23.7 points per game) with three games of 30+ points. But that hasn’t always been enough to put Khimki over the top as Shved’s teammates have struggled at times to provide much support. One of the best examples was the game vs. Zenit, where Shved scored more than half of the team’s points (34 of 66) in a defeat.
The Shved factor will have a big impact on the upcoming game. The Army Men know how to slow down the most dangerous scorer in the League. But they aren’t always able to take him out of the game completely. In the first meeting between these teams, Shved was able to put up 21 points, dish out five assists and draw 10 fouls.
Khimki has plenty of room to improve
During the first half of the season, Khimki lost games to each of the League’s top four teams, plus a surprise setback in Tallinn. That’s why the club is in 5th place. But don’t count them out just yet. Khimki is still oozing with potential. In terms of talent, the roster is 2nd-best in the League behind CSKA, while most of the team’s struggles can be attributed to the EuroLeague, which often schedules two games per week, in addition to VTB United League competition.
Fatigue should not be much of a concern on Monday. Both CSKA and Khimki were at home this week in the EuroLeague, giving the players more time to rest and recover. That should help Khimki, which has a smaller rotation than CSKA.
Khimki losing could mean a semifinal match-up with CSKA
The Final Four is months away, but the top teams are probably keeping a close eye on potential seeds and playoff match-ups.
Khimki is in a tough spot because of its sluggish start to the season. At this point, it would take a miracle for the Yellow-Blues to sneak into the top-three. The more likely outcome is a 4th or 5th-place finish. Assuming the team advances past the first round, Moscow Region would meet the regular-season champions in the Final Four semifinals.
Lokomotiv-Kuban and CSKA are currently in 1st and 2nd place, respectively. CSKA has dropped to 3rd place with two losses. But the Army Men are sitting in 1st place in the EuroLeague and boast the best roster in the League. No one would be surprised if CSKA closed the season on a tear and ended up winning another regular-season title.
Monday’s game gives Khimki a chance to avoid a meeting with CSKA in the semifinals. The Yellow-Blues will have a tough time climbing to 3rd place. But a win over CSKA would deal a serious blow to Moscow’s regular-season title hopes.
CSKA is not invincible
Khimki has dealt with a lot of criticism this season, but the Army Men are not perfect, either. Losses to Loko and Zenit were only confirmation. Moscow also had a narrow escape on Thursday in the EuroLeague, holding off Real Madrid in the final quarter after squandering a huge early lead. Dimitris Itoudis admitted following the game that his team isn’t able to play at a high level for the entire 40 minutes yet. That’s not surprising. CSKA’s stars have struggled with consistency this season and haven’t always received much help from the bench.
CSKA always has a target on its back, whether in Europe or the VTB United League. For Khimki, that’s especially true. Georgios Bartzokas won’t have any trouble getting his men fired up for this game.
It’s hard to say if the same is true of the opposing bench. CSKA has already been surprised twice by Loko and Zenit this season and it’s not clear how the team will approach Monday’s meeting. It’s safe to say, however, that anything less than 100% could mean another defeat for the Army Men.
This is shaping up to be the most exciting regular season in League history as we enter the second half of the campaign. The finish line is approaching. The classic Leningradka derby awaits on February 5 with 40 minutes of thrilling basketball on tap for the fans.