EuroLeague Playoff Previews: CSKA Moscow are as dominant as they have ever been

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CSKA Moscow have been a dominant force in Euroleague/EuroLeague basketball since its very inception. This is the 18th season of Euroleague basketball; in those 18 years, CSKA have won three titles, as well as claim three runners-up spots, five third places and four more fourths. Only twice in their Euroleague history thus far have they failed to make the final four, and only once have they missed since 2002/03 - indeed, when including all the previous continent-wide top tier basketball tournaments before the Euroleague's inception in 2000, CSKA are second only to Real Madrid for overall titles (seven).

To be sure, a historical dominance does not automatically comport contemporary greatness. But it does not take more than a cursory look at this year's EuroLeague season to date to see CSKA once again leading the pack, in terms of both standings and quality. Finishing the new-to-2018 EuroLeague regular season format with a 24-6 record (relatively comfortably ahead of Fenerbahce in second place with a 21-9 record), CSKA did not fluke that record. They have once again been the clear best of the bunch thus far.

CSKA sports a EuroLeague-best offensive rating of 124.5, four points better than Real Madrid, second at a comparatively lowly 120.5. Second-fastest in pace yet only seventh of the 16 teams in the league this season in turnover percentage, CSKA use their wealth of scorers and ball handlers as the base for their barrage of an attack featuring a ball that never seems to stop moving, and players that move just as much.

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Everything begins with that backcourt. While Milos Teodosic's overdue foray into the NBA broke up the dominant offensive partnership he previously enjoyed for so many years with Nando de Colo, Sergio Rodriguez went the other way, and has slotted in in pretty much the same role. Not taking it in turns with de Colo in the clutch like Teodosic did - he is quiet in the clutch, even, and maybe too much so - Rodriguez nevertheless leads from the front. Seemingly always with a live dribble, Rodriguez is always attacking the rim and the paint, dropping off, kicking out, pulling it back out and going again, or, if it is the percentage play, pulling up from mid-range. He is also the recipient of many a good open look from his own movement and the defensive attention drawn by de Colo, a pure-blooded scorer who is always alert, seemingly always open, and both willing and capable to score from any area of the court. de Colo is shooting a staggering .705 true shooting percentage on the season through guile, touch and effort - he seemingly always knows where to be, and what to do when he gets there. The 51.0% three-point shooting helps a bit, too.

Beating CSKA means slowing that duo down. But stopping them isn't going to happen.

The third part of the fearsome three-guard rotation is Cory Higgins, now into his third season with the team. With CSKA, Higgins has found his role perfectly. Gone are the awkward point guard turns that defined his time in the NBA - he can take a turn on the ball, but he does not have the nous of the position or the impulse to move and swing the ball like Rodriguez does, and nor does he have the ability to score inside and outside the arc to the level that de Colo does. However, what Higgins does offer is a useful quotient of both, melded with good size, ball pressure and hands to make him a presence defensively. Between the three, plus the occasional it-really-helps-that-he's-Russian shooting turn from veteran shooting guard Vitaly Fridzon, the guard rotation stands out from the pack.

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Up front, the import pairing of Kyle Hines and Othello Hunte are similarly the foundation of things on both ends. Hines, who recently passed the 1,000 career Euroleague rebounds mark to move into 13th all time, is as much of a foundation of the team now as de Colo is. Into his fifth season with the team - rare for an American import with any team, which speaks to his success - Hines plays perfectly within his role, crashing the glass, being physical and scrappy on defence, rolling to the rim, finishing around the basket, and occasionally getting post touches. Hunter, meanwhile, throws down what seems to be about 42 lob passes per game, is in to do much the same - particularly good in pick-and-roll play on both ends, Hunter adds some explosion and transition speed to a trio of guards plenty willing to run with him. And providing the domestic influence is Andrey Vorontsevich, a slow but smart stretch big who spreads the floor, defends opposing pick-and-rolls fairly well, and never turns the ball over.

On the wing, Will Clyburn is also athletic and willing to use it. Running the court when he can, Clyburn takes some turns in isolation, something at which he is moderately successful. Although something of a ball stopper at times, Clyburn perhaps only looks one in relative terms to the rest of the team - given touches from the mid-range and baselines, Clyburn can drive the generally-slower opposing match-ups he is given, getting to the rim and the line, and also improves incrementally every year. He is shooting 39.7% from three-point range in Euroleague play, somehow still below the team's overall mark of 42.7%. Such is the scoring talent on this team.

Further forward depth is offered by wonderfully named domestic player Semen Antonov, a good spot-up shooter and physical defender with help instincts who never dribbles, but who stands tall and knows how to irritate an opponents, and Nikola Kurbanov, who plays a similar role with slighly more handle, slightly more off the dribble, all while quite a bit slower. Indeed, there is even more depth further down this team - veteran Viktor Khryapa is beyond his best years and little used any longer, but still provides heady defence and rebounding strength when called upon, while at guard, despite the fact he seemingly is so little needed, Leo Westermann brings experience of the top game and a talent level that would see him firmly entrenched in the rotation of basically every team other than this one.

Even when comparing them to the other elite European club teams in this, the top tier of basketball on the continent, CSKA reside at a different level offensively. The ball zips around their myriad offensive options with a freedom and a pedigree, and efficiency and good shot selection define the team at all times. This is an NBA calibre offence, and while it lacks for NBA calibre size and athleticism on defence, the team defence - buoyed by the switching ability of Vorontsevich and Hunter, the hands of Higgins, and the omnipresence of Hines - is plenty good enough here. Indeed, with a 110.7 defensive rating in the regular season, CSKA ranked only behind the two Greek powerhouses of Olympiakos and Panathinakos defensively. And it is not for nothing that CSKA hung an 82.8 points per game average in their four combined games over those two (earning a 3-1 record).

CSKA may have won more tiles in years past if Teodosic, otherwise brilliant, had not choked in some of the bigger moments. Rodriguez mustn't do this - if he doesn't, CSKA arrive into the playoffs as a strong favourite. The single-game format of the Final Four makes nothing guaranteed, but with all due respect to their first round opponent, Khimki, they should not have a problem getting there.

There exists only one major problem. Late last week, Hines suffered a calf injury which will rule him out of only what the team are calling "upcoming games". A significant injury to Hines is a significant problem - much as he can be replaced offensively with more Hunter and Rudd, his defensive speed and awareness is a vital cog of the team, and he ranks amongst the continent's very best defensive players. If he is out, that strong CSKA defence becomes a solid-to-mediocre CSKA defence. And if that were to happen, they would need de Colo to do even more than he already does.

Which, to be fair, is possible.

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