As you probably know, CSKA Moscow has already clinched first place in the Euroleague Regular Season. We have worked nicely so far – not just in the way we prepared for each game and focused against every opponent, but by being very demanding in practice, too. We set the bar really high in practice during the season and that allowed us not just to improve, but to play each game in the best condition possible. It is great to have a good regular season, but we all know that the real goal of the season begins now, with the playoffs, which is what we all have in mind. We will be patient and are also aware of the importance of our last two regular season games, knowing we will face a tough team in the playoffs, no matter which one we face.
I believe that what we have to do, first and foremost, is to keep working the same way, see where we have to improve and build up our confidence in what we do. We are also facing some of the teams we may go against in the playoffs, plus we need to give our best out of respect for the competition. I think we are working in the right direction, but dynamics can change quickly, so we want to keep working hard and stay very focused to keep going in this direction. Winning allows you to be in the right dynamics, always, it is always positive. We are aware how important each game is and what we need to do to give our best. We have to keep growing as a team and gaining experience by winning games together.
I have been with CSKA for almost an entire season now and I have to say I love it here. Playing with Nando De Colo is easy because he is a truly great player. He has shown it for many years, but what has surprised me throughout the season is how effective he is. There are a lot of great players in the EuroLeague and in the NBA with great talent, but Nando is so effective! Everything he does has a high percentage of success in every aspect of the game. That helps us a lot to feel good and play with confidence during each game, because we know that he is carrying the team that way. He hit the game-winning shot against Fenerbahce in Istanbul, which was important. We had lost against them in Moscow, in overtime, on a game-winning tip-in by Nicolo Melli and winning there was big not just for our confidence, but for the standings at that moment. We were happy to win, knowing there is a long road ahead of us and that we need to play a lot of good teams to reach that goal. Nando is aware that he is a great free throw shooter and he draws a lot of fouls, doing what he has to do to draw contact. It is part of his overall effectiveness and that helps us a lot. He knows that every time he goes to the line, he gets easy points for the team and that is fresh air for us.
I have had my own private ball boy all season long – press officer Nikolai Tsynkevich! At the start of the season, I don’t remember what happened, but there were no ball boys around before one game, so he started to pass me the ball and we have been doing that ever since. We have a great relationship and I am all about routines, that helps me stay focused. He is always ready to help me and that is something I really appreciate a lot. CSKA is like a family. We are all one team, from the players to the staff to the club and its organization. We all share the same goal, which is getting to the Final Four and winning the EuroLeague title. In order to do that, what you do along the way is important and everyone is doing what they can so that the team runs well.
This is my first season playing in the EuroLeague’s new competition format and I have to say it is very attractive. For a player, being able to play each game with so much pressure, knowing that a loss can condition the whole season, is always positive. You play a lot of “finals” during the season and that prepares you for even bigger games going forward. It is also true that, like in the old format, it all comes down to one weekend and that makes it even tougher, but you already know that you are playing tough games in October to fight for it all in May, and you have to get ready in the best way you can. Playing so many games just to get the home-court advantage in the playoffs, in one playoff series, is a bit weird. But it is what it is, and it was like that before, too. We are all focused, knowing that it all comes down to one weekend, both in the EuroLeague and the VTB League.
The attendance is higher with the new format; for instance, we play against Zalgiris this week and the game has been sold out for a while. It is great to play against great, historic teams that know how to play under pressure. That is a huge motivation and it is always great to go to Kaunas because people really love basketball there. We will try to compete against them and get another win. I have a good relationship with ‘Saras’; we played against each other in Europe and in the NBA. We also met in some summers and I am really happy for the way things are going for him. The way he played, everyone could see he could be a great coach, and has been proving that for some years now. Zalgiris is having a great season and playing really good basketball. I am very happy for the way he transitioned to coaching. He will be a good coach for many years to come.
It is difficult to switch to coaching and it takes some time. You have to be sure about it, too. I love basketball and would like to stay around the sport when I retire, it is something I am obsessed with. But I still have a few years left in my career and want to make the most out of them. I want to be happy when I look back at what I have done as a player.
Our main goal is to reach the playoffs in the best shape possible, ready to play from the opening tip. We have been preparing for the playoffs all season long and everybody knows how important the first two games at home will be. We are all focused on winning these two games and are working hard for that. We are confident and hope to be in an even better situation when the playoffs start!