By Rob Scott (@robscott33), Sam Meyerkopf (@HoopLikeDrazen), Rodhig (@rodhig7) and Savaş Birdal (@savasbdl)

The deepest and most open Final Four in years is mere days away, so we we’re going deeper than ever to preview what might, could and should go down in Madrid. Your semi-final matchups, to be played out on Friday night, are:

  • CSKA Moscow vs Olympiacos 18:00 CET
  • Real Madrid vs Fenerbahçe 21:00 CET

We brought in ELA’s Piraeus correspondent Rodhig, and bribed Üsküdar’s own Savaş Birdal into a Kirilenko-esque return. We pull up the chairs round a virtual table in the best tapas bar in Malasaña and answer some key questions. First up, CSKA Moscow vs Olympiacos. 2012, 2013… 2015?

Do you believe in ghosts?

Sam Meyerkopf: I don’t but maybe I would if Viktor Khryapa was still playing major minutes and Ettore Messina was coaching.  This is a new and different, for the better, CSKA.  Olympiacos has had their number obviously but this is a different group.  So the ghosts aren’t the same.

Rodhig: No, but I’m occasionally afraid of them.  Sort of like Gabriel Byrne’s attitude toward Spanoulis… I mean God in The Usual Suspects.

Savaş Birdal: I don’t believe in ghosts. But I believe in primitive human behavior. Matching up against Olympiacos might have been less of an issue before Kirilenko arrived, but since his arrival, all the connections are there. 2012’s Euroleague MVP will do his best not to repeat the nightmares of Istanbul, that is for sure, although his best might be one or two seconds too slow to get the job done as his subconscious mind will be there to haunt and taunt him. If Papapetrou dominates AK47, De Colo misses key free throws and Teodosic punts the ball to the upper sections of Palacio de Deportes, we will know for certain that history only repeats itself.

Rob Scott: Call me an agnostic. This one is like hot-hand theory, where the empirical evidence of dispassionate observation doesn’t comply with a basic instinct for narrative explanation. Compared to 2012 and 2013, both teams have different coaches and have changed in a lot of ways, but some key faces still remain. Teodosic, Kaun, Khryapa, Kirilenko, Spanoulis, Mantzaris, Sloukas… all of these human beings have unforgettable events implanted in their brains and no amount of wire wool is going to scrub that away. In a way we need to believe. Games like this exist as collective folk memory amongst the people who care about them, otherwise it’s just ten guys running around throwing a ball. I want to believe.

Is Olympiacos’ defense capable of withstanding CSKA’s perimeter attack?

SM: Olympiacos plays their scheme well but when CSKA has Nando de Colo and Milos Teodosic attacking you, both carrying a full offensive arsenal, it might not really matter how good the scheme is.  Certainly Olympiacos can slow down the CSKA duo at times but it’s close to impossible to flat out stop them.  And as Ismail Senol described on the ELA podcast, CSKA has also figured out their crunch time issue with Milos, just put him in the corner and give the ball to Nando.

RH: We’ve already established that Olympiacos put a lot of pressure on the ball and pack the paint with help defense. Such an ambitious tactical combo requires extensive rotations which often allow opponents to generate good looks from the perimeter. This doesn’t sound like a great idea against the top shooting team in the competition.

Then again, the Reds held CSKA to 26% from beyond the arc when the two teams met in Moscow and to a 0.26 3PTA/FGA ratio in Piraeus (CSKA season average ratio: 0.38). These numbers could be partly a fluke, but they definitely serve as a reminder that if Olympiacos succeed in taking CSKA out of their initial action in any given possession – easier said than done – then they will have bought enough time to make their rotations toward the perimeter work.

Luckily for CSKA, Andrei Kirilenko can be very efficient when he’s moving the other way round – attacking the offensive glass and finishing at the rim in traffic, off his trademark baseline cuts. This will be just as significant a challenge for Olympiacos’ defense.

SB: Olympiacos answered this question before, as recently as the Top 16 game they played against CSKA in Piraeus, where they ended CSKA’s unbeaten run: They might not be able to stop CSKA’s perimeter attack, but they can win despite the fact. Teodosic and De Colo both had good games in SEF this season yet Olympiacos still managed the game. It will be the way that they contain the two rather than whether they are able to stop Milos and Nando or not.

Obviously Weems only playing 12 minutes in the game mentioned was a problem for Itoudis’ men as he’s one of their backup plans as a primary ball handlers, but Olympiacos have good enough personnel at every position available to Sfairopoulos to make it possible. Mantzaris could make life hell for Teodosic, Sloukas is sneaky enough to know the dark places he can lead De Colo to in order to keep him from getting the mammoth CSKA offense going and Lojeski is good enough of a defender to challenge Weems. The pieces are there but how those pieces will come into fruition is a problem that remains to be solved until the very night of the semi-final game.

RS: Olympiacos’ hard-hedging defense depends on stopping the ball after the initial screen, far beyond the three-point line, for long enough to allow the right rotations to be made. CSKA having a guy like Andrey Vorontsevich who is able to attack off the dribble, split a double team and make the right pass is a valuable counter. In Mantzaris, Olympiacos also has one of the few defenders in Europe who can flat-out destroy a pick and roll by forcing the ball handler away from the screen, but trying to do this against De Colo or Teodosic is one of the hardest tasks he will be given. In-game adjustments are likely to be crucial – if any team has the weapons to force Sfairopoulos to think again, it’s CSKA. Its possible that the back-up option will be to switch everything, particularly if Hines is on the floor ahead of Kaun.

What are your favoured crunch-time lineups for each team?

SM: CSKA: De Colo – Teodosic – Weems – Kirilenko – Hines

I just want Hines in the game and really we all want Hines in the game.  Weems is an all or nothing guy but he can literally score 10 points in a couple minutes if necessary.  In the frontcourt Vorontsevich and Kaun obviously warrant the possibility to be used but I’ll stick with AK and Hines for now.

Olympiacos: Mantzaris – Spanoulis – Lojeski – Printezis – Hunter
Maybe you go three guards with Sloukas who has been there but really it’s just plug in who you want around Spanoulis and Printezis.

RH: Injuries for both teams, coupled with the mid-season acquisition of Kirilenko, mean that lineup data are not particularly helpful in determining who should be out there. For example Victor Khryapa has barely played this season, but saw significant minutes on the floor during the first round of the VTB playoffs. Is that a sign of Itoudis’ intentions for the semifinal?

In any case, the return of Kirilenko on the weak side means that the backcourt combo of Teodosic and de Colo will have less questions to answer on the defensive end, allowing Itoudis to sit Aaron Jackson – a potential, albeit quite risky target for Sada – style rotations by Olympiacos’ D. Sonny Weems will likely be the third perimeter cog, with either Kaun or Hines – depending on energy and/or foul trouble – at center.

Sfairopoulos will rely on the Greek trio of Mantzaris, Spanoulis and Printezis. If Darden does not let CSKA get away with helping off him, he could surprise a few people by getting the nod over Lojeski – remember, Olympiacos is a defense-first team. As for the final piece, Olympiacos centers often get into foul trouble (pretty much like, uh, all Olympiacos players), but all things being equal, I suspect that Hunter will be on the floor in order to sustain a more aggressive approach against Teodosic-run pick and rolls.

SB: Olympiacos: Mantzaris – Spanoulis – Lojeski – Printezis – Dunston.

Very tough question. I decided to form my lineups with consideration to the other one, thus the selection of Dunston ahead of Hunter to contain Hines and Kirilenko’s extra athleticism. For Olympiacos, this will be more about shutting the opponent down than getting their own offense going, so the presence of Mantzaris here is a key. Spanoulis will always be there and thus the inclusion of Lojeski, the perfect side kick to the pick and roll running VSpan, sneakily waiting in the corner. Printezis has to be there for reasons known to everyone.

CSKA: De Colo – Teodosic – Weems – Kirilenko – Hines.

Kaun had a solid season, but CSKA defense is on another level with Hines on the floor and Kirilenko will only help on that aspect. This feels like an insult to the season Vorontsevich had, but I have to give AK47 a shot at redemption and I think so does Itoudis. The trio of De Colo, Teodosic and Weems is what took CSKA this far in the competition, although they have the option to mix things up and go smaller with three guard lineups if they feel the need to, with Aaron Jackson.

If this thing goes to the wire, expect a lot of substitutions and offense and defense lineups almost as if it’s a game of NFL. Aaron Jackson will be in and out of the court a lot to defend Spanoulis and make room for Weems or Teodosic on the offensive end. Olympiacos could use a similar strategy with Mantzaris. Sfairopoulos is not afraid to start him, but he might have to bench him for some stretches if they need more offense.

RS: Olympiacos: Mantzaris –  Spanoulis – Sloukas – Printezis – Dunston

I’m torn between Petway and Printezis for the corner-shooter / switch anything role from the four spot, but Printezis gets the nod because its crunch time. The five will be whoever out of Dunston and Hunter isn’t in foul-trouble. Sloukas in ahead of Lojeski for his experience and unflappability. I’m riding the guys who know where the bodies are buried.

CSKA: De Colo – Teodosic – Weems – Kirilenko – Hines

As Sam mentioned, Ismail Senol nailed it on our podcast when he said the best cure for Milos’ late-game shenanigans was to bring in Nando De Colo. Weems is one of the most difficult wings to check in Europe and isn’t afraid of taking big shots, which can be a curse as well as a blessing, and Itoudis is more than comfortable running Jackson or Fridzon out there as third guards. Kirilenko has confirmed he’s back to at least 90% of his 2012-vintage defensively, so he’s in over Vorontsevich to prowl around the weakside. Hines partly for the reverse-ju-ju but mainly because he’s Kyle F’ing Hines.

If one Olympiacos player reprises the Acie Law Big Game Role, who would it be?

SM: Thinking of someone who could have a huge game that is maybe slightly unexpected might be Matt Lojeski.  There will be so much attention paid to Spanoulis that Lojeski is the guy that the ball will get reversed to for potentially open shots.  And he doesn’t have a shiny ring yet like the many of his teammates so the hunger should be there to get one.

RH: Sloukas and Lafayette have been assigned this role by committee. However I’d go with Dimitris Agravanis. Olympiacos rely on energy and physicality. The young forward/center can provide plenty of both and Sfairopoulos hasn’t shied away from playing him in big moments. If you’re looking for an unexpected source of creativity on offense, Ioannis Papapetrou seems like an interesting bet.

SB: Oliver Lafayette. Not just because he’s Law’s successor on the roster, but because he’s the guy with the most similar skill set. Lafayette can make some shots and create for the others if he is feeling like it. Sfairopoulos will be praying for him to be on his good side on Friday. Lafayette is not the defender Law is, but Olympiacos have Mantzaris and Sloukas for that job at the guard position.

RS: This question should have referred to Kostas Papanikolaou because I have a funny feeling about Agravanis.

Who will win and why?

SM: It’s not fun to pick them but CSKA.  I honestly think this team is different than the on-paper giants we’ve seen of the last three seasons.  The pieces fit better, the coach seems like the right guy for the job, they’ve at least figured out a way to not lean on Teodosic and Khryapa in crunch time, and Olympaicos will have to put up another historic type performance to beat them.

RH: You know, the favourites usually win in basketball.

SB: I have listed all the reasons why CSKA will be haunted by their past ghosts and now I am picking them to win because why not. They have a guard rotation impossible to stop and only possible to slow down a bit and they can tore Spanoulis down on defense using different matchups, going at him on the other end and making it impossible for him to hide on defense. Or I’m just making this stuff up because the other two times I picked CSKA to win against Olympiacos back in 2012 and 2013 Spanoulis ended up being the Final Four MVP twice. I am picking CSKA only to make sure of an inexplicable Olympiacos win in the end.

RS: This is as close to a straight toss-up as it’s possible to get. 1-1 during the season in two close games. CSKA’s new-found positivism with the most talented rotation in Europe against 2012, 2013 and the Final Four MVP from both those years. Like any basketball game between closely matched teams, the game will break on dozens of incremental battles over the course of 40 minutes (or more?) Ultimately though, I’m sticking with Olympiacos until they let us down. Hasn’t happened yet.