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Astana (Kazakhstan) hosts Khimki Moscow Region in a rescheduled VTB United League regular-season Week 17 contest.
Astana, 2013 Kazakhstan champions, 2013 Kazakhstan Cup champions
Khimki, 2012/13 VTB United League semifinalists
Saryarka Republican Velodrome (capacity 9,270), Astana, Kazakhstan
February 8, 2014, 16:00 (14:00 MSK)
KAZ Sport (Kazakhstan), VTB-League.com
Face to Face
Astana debuted in the VTB United League in 2011 and has been drawn in the same group with Khimki all three seasons. The clubs split their first four meetings. In their first encounter, Khimki won convincingly at home, 85-66, before Astana returned the favor in Kazakhstana, 84-73. Last season was a mirror reflection – Khimki rolled on its home court, 104-75, while Astana won by double digits in the return game, 92-77.
Astana was just coming out of a tailspin when these two clubs met earlier this season. Weighed down by a four-game losing streak, the club had fired head coach Matteo Boniciolli prior to the Khimki contest, bringing in Aleksandar Trifunovich as his replacement. The change gave the Kazakh club a boost right away, as Astana jumped out to an early lead. But Khimki was beginning to hit its stride, after a slow start to the season, and quickly took over the game. To be fair, Astana hung around, trailing by just six points entering the fourth quarter. A big run from Khimki, however, to start the final period put the game away for good. Rimas Kurtinaitis’s men ultimately won by 21 points, 96-75, bolstered by strong bench play. The victory also stretched Khimki’s winning streak to seven games.
First Encounter
Looking Back
Khimki’s undefeated start to the season continues to draw more and more attention, as each new opponent tries to see if it will be the one to hand the Russian club its first setback. Astana already failed once, but certainly has a better shot this time by playing at home.
Khimki set a new record a few weeks ago against CSKA by winning its 13th-straight. Last week, a victory over VEF pushed the streak to 14. And, if you count the Eurocup, Khimki is an astounding 26-0 since October 16! Given the club’s focus and domination all season, there can be little doubt head coach Rimas Kurtinaitis will expect his men to pick up another win on Saturday.
But it’s not going to be easy. We already know that Khimki’s last two trips to the Kazakh capital ended in a loss. This should give the Group B leaders extra motivation. Astana, though, has plans of its own.
Since replacing Boniciolli, Aleksandar Trifunovich has lived up to the front office’s expectations. Astana sat at just 3-6 halfway through the season with a playoff berth in serious jeopardy. But the club has rebounded with a 3-2 record since then and finds itself in position for the postseason. The crisis is over, as Astana has demonstrated with its current three-game winning streak. Though the accomplishment pales in comparison to Khimki’s, the Kazakh hosts would just be content to topple the Russian powerhouse in Astana for a third straight time. The records can come later. For now the team needs to improve its position in the standings. Khimki will be heavily favored on Saturday, but there’s a chance Astana can continue its tradition of knocking off Khimki at home.
Can Astana’s bench make an impact?
As we said above, one factor in Astana’s loss when these teams first met this season was the poor play of its bench. While the Astana starters outscored Khimki’s, 55-46, the bench production favored the Russians, 50-20.
Astana’s bench will have a chance to make up for its disappointing play. For one, Trifunovich won’t need to worry about his frontcourt depth. Team leader David Simon is back from injury, while experienced center Andrija Zizic recently joined the club. As for the backcourt, 6th man Janis Blums has been in good form recently. In his four most recent appearances, the Latvian sniper has scored 10 or more points, and even led the team in scoring against Azovmash with 16.
Astana’s starters are capable of matching any opponent. At the same time, they can feel more confident now that the reserves won’t erase all of their efforts. On the other side, Khimki’s advantage lies in boasting a roster with two equally talented five-man lineups.
Olaseni Lawal (Astana) vs. James Augustine (Khimki).
The loss of leading big man Paul Davis was expected to be a big blow for Khimki. But James Augustine has really stepped up in his absence. While the American used to do little more than the dirty work for his club, providing a bruising force in the paint and solid rebounder, James has recently led the team in both rebounding and scoring. Augustine even picked up the VTB United League January MVP honor and starred in Khimki’s thrilling win over CSKA late last month.
Lawal, who joined Astana last summer, is undergoing a similar transformation. His primary role has been to defend the paint and rebound. He’s always been an excellent shot-blocker, but under Trifunovich he’s joined the starting five and begun to help out on offense, too. Recent double-doubles against Krasnye Krylia (14 points, 15 rebounds) and Krasny Oktyabr (22 points, 11 rebounds) are solid proof. He wasn’t too shabby against Azovmash, either: nine points, four rebounds, six assists and seven blocks (tied the League record).
The battle between the two centers will be among the key factors in the upcoming game.
Astana head coach Aleksandar Trifunovich:
– Right now we have a good chance to test how we look against a top VTB United League club. Khimki’s advantage lies in the fact that it has had the same coach for several years. Of course, the roster changes, but the club tries to retain its key players.
Confidence is most important for us right now. We need the support of the fans. We can defeat any opponent at our home arena.
Khimki head coach Rimas Kurtinaitis:
– After Astana switched coaches and Aleksandar Trifunovich took over, they’ve come together nicely and won three straight, greatly increasing their chances of making the playoffs. Astana has begun to play differently, plus starting center David Simon has returned to the team after an injury. Jerry Johnson is in really good shape right now. We had problems with Astana last year and we haven’t forgotten that. The game will be difficult, since our opponent really needs this win in order to move up in the standings. We won’t do anything different to prepare. We’re looking for a win, as usual. But the game will decide what ultimately happens.
– I’m betting on Khimki; they’re the favorites in this game, – says former basketball star and current VTB United League deputy general director, Ilona Korstin. – If you count the Eurocup, Rimas Kurtainitis’s team has won 26 straight. Khimki hasn’t lost once in the VTB United League and recently defeated CSKA for a second time this season. Augustine is in terrific form – the star of the win over the Army Men should be able to inspire his teammates to new heights.
Astana has a chance if it pushes the pace. Aleksandar Trifunovich’s men are great on the fast break. Plus, leader David Simon is back. He can match up with Loncar and Augustine under the basket. Don’t forget about the home-court advantage, either. Khimki defeated Astana earlier in the season by shooting the ball very well (60% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc). It could be completely different at the Velodrome.