Crvena Zvezda backed in to this series with three straight losses to finish the Top 16. You can now make that five in a row as they left Moscow empty handed, but they regained a whole lot of respect and credit from the first two games of their series with CSKA Moscow.
They had one objective from the opening pair of games - go back to Belgrade with at least a split. They came within a few seconds of getting that, and forcing a nervous CSKA team to head to Serbia, and 20,000 Delije fanatics, under extreme pressure.
Considering how Crvena Zvezda came into the series, and CSKA’s home record in the playoffs in which they’d won 14 in a row, maybe the Russian giant was too complacent. After they made it 15 in a row in a nervy but ultimately comfortable Game One, perhaps they took things for granted. Certainly the way Milos Teodosic was careless with the ball twice after he stepped on the floor late in the first quarter didn’t please coach Dimitris Itoudis, who played him only 18 minutes.
They were a Stevan Jovic travel away from having a chance at going home 101. So how can Crvena Zvezda get back into the series? Beyond hoping that the ferocious Belgrade crowd can bring on a mental meltdown. Which could happen…
Continue to trust in Jovic
The Serbian point guard has racked up 11 assists in the first two games, seven on on Thursday, and he should be the main man when it comes to creating shots and handling at crunch time. He has a great understanding with Maik Zirbes, and that pick and roll offense has given CSKA trouble, particular with help rotations from the wings. Vasilje Micic is a talented creator but Jovic just has that feel for the game that you need in a playmaker, knowing when to pass, when to attack. Jovic is better in transition though, quicker up the floor, and that’s the second key to staying in the series.
I wasn’t as keen on Tarence Kinsey handling the ball. Kinsey is a great weapon to have in mid range as he can find space between the paint and the perimeter to pull up for two, or attack the closeout with a one or two dribble pull up, and he’s not afraid to take the big shot. His driving ability makes him a spacer without having a three point shot. But he’s not really a playmaker. Coach Radonjic has enough options without Kinsey taking over too much.
Jovic took his team to this point, he should be given the chance to get them even further. He’s also shot 7-for-11 from behind the arc in the series, with Kinsey on 0-for-6, making him 3-for-27 in 15 Euroleague games since he joined the team. Jovic’s ability to pull up for three is a key part of the Reds’ offense.
Push, push push
Crvena Zvezda is second in opponent turnover percentage in these two games - an impressive 20.4%. One every five trips up the floor, CSKA has coughed up the ball, and that has turned into easy points. One way of levelling the playing field when up against more skilled opponents is to grab those transition points, and the atmosphere in Belgrade should ramp up even further the insanity scale if the likes of Quincy Miller can throw down on the run. During their first half lead in Game Two, when the score was 43-36 in their favour, they’d forced 11 turnovers to CSKA’s two. Get a lead like that in Belgrade and the decibel meters will be blowing smoke.
The only problem is that the leader of the above statistics is… CSKA. The Serbian team has to take better care of the ball if it wants to drag this to five games.
The other factor that makes live ball turnovers so vital is that, in the vernacular style of European hoops, it racks up team fouls through those instinctive half court reach-ins. That will matter in a series as closely contested as this, particularly when one of these teams has a strange habit of perhaps getting the benefit of the doubt on close calls.
Hope Against Hines
There’s been an Olympiacos DNA running through these playoffs - as Pero Antic and Kostas Sloukas carve up Real Madrid; Georgios Bartzokas’ Lokomotiv Kuban recall the strengths and weaknesses of the 2013-14 Reds, but the biggest imprint has been made by Kyle Hines. To many - with apologies to Bamberg - he remains synonymous with the scrappiness of the back-to-back champions, and somehow he’s retained that despite moving to the penthouse section of society with CSKA.
His 40 points over the two games have bailed out CSKA as Teodosic and De Colo haven’t been firing on all cylinders. There he was switched onto Jovic for the crucial turnover with 2.9 seconds left, smothering him like a fire blanket.
He didn’t pick up a block in Game Two but altered several shots. His arms poke into passing lanes, he fights for offensive rebounds. This is not news. Itoudis has put Hines guarding Miller or Simonovic a lot in this series, guarding the stretch four in the corner, meaning he can help from the wing rather than playing ball screen defense. That’s such an advantage for CSKA as he’s a fantastic help defender, though he can obviously also switch out on guards at the top.
But Joel Freeland and Pavel Korobkov’s injuries have meant Hines is front and centre in the big man rotation. Perhaps that’s always at it should have been. After a year misspent lost at power forward under Ettore Messina, and another finding his feet again, it seems like we’re poised again for Peak Hines. The whole reason for signing him was so he couldn’t destroy them again wearing an opposing uniform.
Vlad Stimac put up a physical fight, as did Maik Zirbes - Crvena Zvezda, like many other teams, have the bodies to put on Hines. The trouble is he just finds a way.
It seems like one of the major factors in any Crvena Zvezda win would be Hines having an off-day. There isn’t much anyone can do to make that happen other than hope.