By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - The princes and paupers of Europe's premier club basketball competition celebrated wins in the latest round of matches with Khimki Moscow stealing the show from more illustrious and wealthier city rivals CSKA on Friday.
Both teams moved a step closer to the playoffs after Khimki ended a week-long strike over unpaid wages with an 88-67 home whitewash of quadruple Euroleague winners Maccabi Tel Aviv while CSKA enjoyed an 87-73 away rout of Lithuanians Zalgiris Kaunas.
Caja Laboral Vitoria continued their impressive recovery after losing six of their opening seven games, romping to a 97-75 win at Fenerbahce Istanbul for a seventh straight success.
Khimki's players, having trained individually all week after refusing to do so under the club's management, returned with a vengeance and blew away Maccabi after overcoming an early nine-point deficit on the back of 20 points by forward Kelvin Rivers.
Fellow American Paul Davis scored 16 points and Finnish playmaker Petteri Koponen added 15 for Khimki, a club from the outskirts of Russia's capital who were founded in 1997 and last year won the Eurocup, the continent's second-tier competition.
"Frankly speaking I didn't expect that we would manage to come together in such a perfect way and I am very happy with the job we did on the court today," Khimki coach Rimas Kurtinaitis told the competition's official website (www.euroleague.net).
Forward James Augustine added: "The team came together and scored a very important home victory after a slow start. Our bench played an incredible game and everyone contributed."
The result left Khimki with a 3-1 record in their section of the top 16, comprising two pools of eight teams playing each other home and away on a round-robin basis, with every chance of reaching the knockout stage for the first time.
Caja squeezed into the second group stage with three wins on the trot after a dreadful start and the galvanized Basque outfit have since notched four in a row to top their section after they sank Fenerbahce with an effervescent all-round display.
Fenerbahce's defeat piled the pressure on coach Simone Pianigiani after his expensively assembled team scraped through the first group stage only to lose their fourth game in a row, leaving them with a mountain to climb to avoid an early exit.
The top four teams from each of the two pools advance to the best-of-five quarter-final playoff series, with the winners reaching the May 10-12 Final Four in London.
Six-time Euroleague winners and last season's runners-up CSKA brushed aside old rivals from the former Soviet Union with superb long-range shooting and outstanding performances by Serbs Milos Teodosic and Vladimir Micov who together scored 44 points.
They nailed nine of CSKA's 13 three-pointers with playmaker Teodosic burying five for a game-high 24 points while shooting guard Micov netted 20 points and Russia forward Viktor Khryapa chipped in 15 plus eight assists, six rebounds and two blocks.
"For us it was very important to beat Zalgiris on the road and we were ready for this because we came here to play hard as we knew this was a big game for them too," said Teodosic.
CSKA's Italian coach Ettore Messina added: "We played very well on both ends of the court, in offence and defense, against a team who are contenders to reach not only the playoffs but perhaps the Final Four as well.
"We have a 4-0 record now but there are 10 more games in front of us and it's still a long road."
Real Madrid, who have won a record eight Euroleague titles, showed resilience in an all-Spanish clash at Unicaja Malaga when they fought back from a 14-point deficit to win 72-64 with 26-year-old Sergio Rodriguez again at the heart of their recovery.
The guard unleashed a three-pointer on the buzzer in last week's thrilling 75-74 home win over Zalgiris and followed up with two crucial long-range efforts against Unicaja to swing the match Real's way and finish with 14 points, one less than top scorer Rudy Fernandez.
"We worked well against their defensive zone by being patient, passing the ball inside and then outside to find space and open shots down the stretch," Real coach Pablo Laso said.
Most of the big guns delivered as Panathinaikos Athens won 79-73 at Alba Berlin and 2010 champions Barcelona strolled to a 73-59 success at Besiktas Istanbul, whose city rivals Anadolu Efes downed Germany's Brose Baskets Bamberg 94-76.
However, holders Olympiakos Piraeus threw away a five-point lead in the final minute of a 74-72 home defeat by Italians Montepaschi Siena, which left them with a 1-3 record in their section and a difficult task to catch up with the leaders.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)