CSKA Moscow buried half its demons, Nando De Colo broke the Final Four scoring record as he dropped 30 points and the Red Army team gave upstart Lokomotiv Kuban a harsh lesson in how to survive the all-or-nothing environment of a Euroleague Final Four. CSKA won 88-81 to reach the final on Sunday.

MVP De Colo but not the only star

De Colo grabbed the headlines with his smooth, in-rhythm 30 point game, the execution often looked effortless. It was an MVP performance from this year’s winner of that trophy, and the Frenchman’s creativity on the ball always gave CSKA an option to break down the competition’s leading defense. But away from the headlines, two players really epitomised this year’s CSKA team, and gave the biggest clues as to how they might bring home the championship that billions of rubles have failed to deliver since 2008.

Kyle Hines played 36 minutes, and put up an 8 point, 7 rebound, 3 assist game for a 13 ranking. Rarely has a number failed to capture a player’s impact on the game. He set impenetrable screens to free up shooters, carved out his own bubble of space in the paint in the familiar way that a 2.00m man shouldn’t be able to do in a game at this level, and turned Loko attackers away from the rim like a nightclub bouncer.

Fridzon refused to beaten off the dribble. There weren’t many ‘key’ moments of this game, as CSKA led from tip to buzzer, but on the few occasions Loko threatened to make a game of it, Fridzon was there, busting his ass to deflect a loose ball; keeping his man in front of him and forcing Loko into mistakes. He canned all but one of his shots too, kicking in 13 points.

Defense + tactics = Quality

CSKA president Andrey Vatutin never fails to put an expensive team on the floor. CSKA’s budgetary advantage is so huge that they could waste $3million on Joel Freeland and not even miss him. But some comments he made to eurohoops.net in the build up to this weekend were telling. He described the roster, accurately, as “less fancy than last year” and claimed they won their playoff series over Crvena Zvezda due to “defense and tactics, not quality.” The precise context is unclear, but if there’s a difference between this year’s CSKA squad and the expensive failures before it, it’s that they realise that defense and tactics are qualities.

Kyle Hines summed up the difference to ELA after the game by focussing on two simple words: ‘Confidence and experience.” He added, “we have the experience of being on the other side, and I think this season we were kinda tired of coming back home with all the disappointments [of previous Final 4s].”

It certainly looked like CSKA were confident and experienced in the first quarter as Loko came out colder than a Russian winter. After Barcelona bamboozled their offense for a time with zone in the playoffs, CSKA gave them a taste of their own medicine, switching screens enthusiastically. Andrey Vorontsevich checking Malcolm Delaney is a mismatch, but it was one that Itoudis seemed eager for his opponents to try to exploit. At the other end, Giorgios Bartzokas’ team came out timid, going under screens and allowing De Colo to settle into an easy rhythm.

Nervous Lokomotiv

It wasn’t the characteristic intense, pressuring, switching defense that had carried them in the Final Four. After the game, ELA asked Bartzokas if his team had been nervous early on, and if the 23-12 deficit was the difference in the game. He agreed without hesitation: “It was exactly as you said. For most of our guys, it was their first experience in the Final Four.” Certainly it looked like CSKA was just too experienced and prepared for the occasion. Bartzokas didn’t make excuses, but it seemed like he realised his team just wasn’t quite ready for this.

One Final Four veteran on their squad, Dontaye Draper, did his best to keep them in the game with a selection of pull up jumpers, including a banked three from just inside half court on the third quarter buzzer to cut the lead to 10. Ryan Broekhoff rimmed out a three that would have cut it to four inside 90 seconds, but mostly nothing Lokomotiv’s players did really impacted the game. They stayed alive thanks to 22 offensive rebounds including eight for Anthony Randolph. There was enough in this game for Dimitris Itoudis to ruminate on before the final, although it has to be said that the switching scheme accounted for a lot of Randolph’s glass-cleaning, and it did its overall job of stopping Loko get the shots they wanted. More than that, he let old man Viktor Khyrapa blow by him and dunk. C’mon man….

Malcolm Delaney racked up 26 points in what could be his final game in Europe before heading to the NBA. But it was a strangely impactless display – only in the early part of the second half did he assert himself in a meaningful way. 12-for-12 from the line is a skill – and whether he can replicate the ability to get to the line in the NBA might make or break his career – but it masked a 1-for-7 line inside the arc, and it wasn’t a farewell that he’ll look back on with any fondness.

Anthony Randolph was another major reason why Loko made it here, but he was maddeningly inconsistent. Sure, he crashed the glass, but he also played tentative defense and dropped off too far to allow some key three pointers. Chris Singleton made an immediate impact when he entered to start the second quarter and Loko went back to switching, but by that point, it was almost too late.

Many of CSKA’s past Final Four failures have been pinned on Milos Teodosic, and he was up and down throughout this game. They might need him more on Sunday, but tonight he took a back seat to De Colo and Fridzon in the backcourt. Cory Higgins was his usual plug-in-and-play self, denying Delaney the ball and generally being a pain in the ass to play against.

Despite the late flicker of hope that this game could produce some drama, it was routine, and in the end, a mundane victory that could have been a VTB league regular season matchup – in fact both of those between these teams were a lot more fun to watch. De Colo drained a three to put CSKA up 16 with seven minutes to go but the stands were already filling up with yellow-clad Fenerbahçe hordes who drowned out anything happening on court. That was the moment the game was really over as an event.

History repeating?

De Colo chipped in a couple of late free throws to beat Ramunas Siskauskas’ 29 point haul on this floor in 2009 and claim the Final Four single game scoring record, but it was nothing more than punctuation. Itoudis knows what happened next though. As an assistant his Panathinaikos team beat CSKA to take the crown. The head coach? Of course, a certain Zeljko Obradovic, his opponent on Sunday.

Some stories just write themselves.