PRAGUE - "I don't think Barcelona is favorite, but I believe the other teams will respect us just as we respect them," Barcelona guard Juan Navaro said yesterday as his team readied to take on CSKA Moscow in tonight's second Euroleague Cup semifinal. (Live on Channel 1, 21:30).
Navaro's statement perhaps sums up more than anything Barcelona's position as it attempts to regain the title it last held three years ago. Barcelona is talented, but it will not be the favorite against any team this weekend, and it will not be the favorite against CSKA Moscow tonight.
Barcelona coach Dusko Ivanovic, who last year led Tau Vitoria to the final against Maccabi Tel Aviv, stunning CSKA in Moscow in the semifinal, will have to rely on his back court tonight if he is to stop Ettore Messina's team.
Shammond Williams is one player who could put Ivanovic into cardiac arrest. Much will depend on the Barcelona guard, otherwise known as Dr. Shammond and Mr. Williams, who has an unpredictable nature. No one can persuade Williams not to take shots, but sometimes the five-year NBA veteran shoots from any position and turns the game into a street-ball match.
Either way, Ivanovic has enough tools at his disposal to make life difficult for Messina. Navaro's pace could put a lot of NBA players to shame, as could his shooting ability, while Greek forward Mikalis Kaziozis can create scoring opportunities for himself out of practically nothing.
But Messina has history on his side, and CSKA, appearing in its fourth straight Final Four, is favored to break its semifinal jinx at Barcelona's expense. "I would like to note that none of my teams has ever lost in the semifinal," said Messina, who is one of a select band of coaches to have taken three teams to the Final Four.
Despite the ripe old ages of forward Gregor Fucka and center Dennis Marconato, Barcelona will have to play a running game, relying on the improvisational skills of Navaro and Williams, and even on swingman Bootsy Thornton, who after a stellar career with Siena has gone astray in Spain.
In a slow-paced game, Barcelona will find it hard to score more than 65 points, and the edge will pass to CSKA.
CSKA will also hold the advantage in the the stands. Only 800 Barcelona fans have made the journey to Prague; the rest, it seems, are saving their money for the Champions League final in Paris.
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