Pops Mensah-Bonsu is confident that he can become the first British player to lift Europe’s club title in Paris this weekend. The former NBA star, who joined the Russian giants from the Toronto Raptors in mid-season, features for CSKA Moscow against FC Barcelona in Friday night’s first Euroleague semi-final (ESPN, 5pm), with the winners facing Olympiakos or Partizan Belgrade in Sunday’s final.
“CSKA’s chances of winning the Euroleague are as good as any,” said the Londoner, who spent Thursday visiting a children’s hospital in the French capital. “It all just depends who is able to perform the best here.”
Securing the crown would be one of the biggest accomplishment of his careers, admits the 6’8” Great Britain international. And he insists that the eventual champions would be able to hold their own in the NBA.
“The standard of competition is tough to compare because the game is so different here,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “Obviously the NBA is the best league in the world but over the last few years, Europe has come within arms reach of the NBA level.”
CSKA is looking to reach its fifth consecutive Euroleague final, an achievement surpassed only by Varese in European basketball history. Barcelona is playing a record eleventh Final Four and is gunning for revenge for last year when Moscow rallied with an 11-0 fourth-quarter run to beat Barcelona to the title game.
“Anything can happen when you arrive at the Final Four and you have to be ready for that particular moment,” admits Barca coach Xavi Pascual.
”CSKA has a plus with its experience. They are also used to opening the Final Four, which is a very tough competition to start. Once you are aware of it, you are already on the court. There is a lot of attention on these games and you need experience to give your best from the very beginning. You need experience for that - and they have it.
“At the same time, they have a lot of talent, so I wouldn't say it's our talent against their experience. They are a very talented team. Holden, Siskauskas, Langdon and Planinic are super-talented backcourt players. If you add Khryapa, Kaun, Vorontsevich and Smodis, they are really strong inside, too."
Plucky Partizan never expected to be in Paris, admits Belgrade boss Dusko Vujosevic, 18 years after the Serbs last won the title. Up against free-spending and free-scoring Olympiakos, whose line-up includes three All-Euroleague candidates in playmaker Milos Teodosic and forwards Josh Childress and Linas Kleiza, they will again look to upset the odds.
“When this season began even in the most daring dreamers could not have imagined this,” said Vujosevic. “It has already been a fantastic success, but it's not something we won in the lottery. It is the result of our well-established system.
“We have flaws and shortcomings that need to be corrected to make it so such results can be expected, but if we want to give birth to such success, the roots must be deep. And we have done so now. This generation has really shed a lot of sweat and put in a lot of very hard work to get here.”
FRIDAY Euroleague, semi-finals (Paris). FC Barcelona v CSKA Moscow (5pm - UK), Partizan Belgrade v Olympiakos (8pm)