NOT OVER YET: With the Baltics going basketball crazy, VEF Riga hopes for another finals’ appearance.
RIGA - Once again, the powerhouses of Lithuanian and Estonian basketball will fight it out in the finals of their respective domestic competitions. Similar to recent years, the teams lining up for the finals have failed to raise an eyebrow with the crowning moment of both tournaments having something of a predictable feel to them. Up in Estonia, Kalev/Cramo will square off with Tartu Rock in a best-of-seven match series which began on May 4, while down in Lithuania Zalgiris will do battle against arch rivals Lietuvos Rytas, also in a best-of-seven series which begins on May 5.
This is the fifth time in the past six seasons that Rock and Kalev/Cramo will do battle in the final of the Korvpalli Meistriliiga, with last season being the one exception. On that occasion Rock instead came up against Rakvere Tarvas as internal issues affected the performances of Kalev/Cramo on the court. In their five meetings in the final since 2005/2005, honors have been shared with Rock winning the title in 2005/2006 and 2006/2007, while Kalev/Cramo took it in 2005/2006 and 2008/2009.
If semi-final form is anything to go by, Kalev/Cramo have well and truly put their off-court issues behind them. Their semi-final opponents, Rakvere, simply had no answer for the rampaging Kalev/Cramo, who quickly whitewashed the best-of-five series 3-0. The highlight of the series came in game 2 on Rakvere’s home court when Kalev/Cramo cut loose, thumping their hosts 104-50.
Rock has been just as devastating in the domestic league this season. Having put behind them the disappointment of missing out on a final four berth in the Baltic Basketball League (BBL), Rock has returned to the Meistriiliga with a vengeance, easily winning their way through to the final. Matched up in arguably the tougher of the semi-final series, Rock made light work of getting past TTU/Kalev, suggesting that the grand final series may finally produce the first real competition of the season.
The Lietuvos Krepsinio Lyga (LKL) in Lithuania provides an even more lopsided picture with Zalgiris Kaunas and Lietuvos Rytas winning the title every year since the competition’s inception in 1993. In fact, the last time that a team appeared in the final other than Lietuvos Rytas and Zalgiris was back in 1997/1998, when Zalgiris defeated their cross town rivals Aletas, three games to one. In their 12 finals’ encounters thereafter, Zalgiris hold the slight advantage, having won on seven occasions. In the latter years, however, the advantage has been with Lietuvos Rytas, who has won the previous two championships.
If Lietuvos Rytas are to make it a three-peat this season they will need to put the past two months behind them, in which the team has lost its focus after narrowly missing out on a quarter-final berth in Europe’s premier competition, the Euroleague. Returning to domestic action, the side unexpectedly lost a regular season game 96-82 to lesser opponents Rudupis. They then failed to make the final of the BBL for the first time ever, losing to VEF Riga 79-68 in the semi-finals, a loss that would ultimately cost head trainer Alexander Trifunovic his job. The firing of Trifunovic looks to have reignited Rytas, who have not dropped a game since, coming through the playoffs to this point unscathed.
Despite this, however, it will still be difficult to see them getting past Zalgiris, who are yet to drop a game in the LKL this season. Combine that with Zalgiris winning the BBL and the fact that the finals’ series will most probably be the last time that basketball at this level will be played at the hallowed Kaunas Sports Hall, and you have the perfect recipe for a team now seeking their second crown of the season.
The Latvian Basketball League (LBL) is still at its semi-final stage, with the finals series not due to start until May 8. At the time of writing, the LBL looks headed for a predictable conclusion with VEF Riga and Ventspils looking headed for another finals encounter.