For me personally reaching the playoffs means a lot. Last season with Crvena Zvezda we had that final game against Darussafaka Istanbul to decide which team was going to the playoffs. We got really close, but did not make it. So I felt a little more pressure this year, games for me felt a little more important because I remember the feeling we had last year leaving Turkey after that loss.
I think we have done so much this season, but knowing how long the season is, I knew anything could happen. Just look at Baskonia and how they finished with a perfect month of March and in seventh place. So, I just didn’t want to forget what happened last season, and it was really important for me that we made the playoffs. And for the club, too. It is the first time for the club and the first time for most of the guys on the team. It just felt good; we’ve been through so much, especially towards the end of the season. We had some injuries and a lot of the guys were not 100 percent. It is good we are moving in the right direction for the club.
Our game in Tel Aviv was really important, but we had a game at home against Milan, which was an even tougher game because Milan has so much talent, but at the same time they played with no pressure because they were not in the race to go to the playoffs. So that was a little tougher game for us because they played freely, and against Maccabi it was better for us because they had the same pressure. Each possession mattered, as much to us as it did to them. So it was a little easier for us to play, which was important because we were going into a tough environment. They just retired Devin Smith’s jersey. There was a lot going on, a lot of motivation for them, and we had the same amount. It just came down to the final plays that ended up working in our favor.
We celebrated in the locker room, but don’t get me wrong, we didn’t throw a party. We were all really excited in the locker room, more than what we have been after any other game. And we still had some games to go. We had a tough game at Efes, which is the same kind of team, with a lot of talent. That was an important win that was going to seal our playoff ticket and we were able to do so. There was a lot going on for us. I guess it’s a typical EuroLeague season. And it was good we finished it in a positive way.
Now we face CSKA. We have played them five times this season, including once in the preseason. They are one of the best teams in Europe, along with Fenerbahce. It’s the playoffs; it’s a derby for both clubs. They are looking to get back to the EuroLeague Final Four where they have been the last six years, and we are looking to prove we can play against them. They beat us four times this season.
They have a lot of experience, they are coached well, they are very disciplined. At the same time, we are not going to back down against them just because they beat us before. We will try to prepare the best that we can and learn from the games we played them earlier in the season. We will try to make this an interesting playoff series.
This is my first year in Khimki, but I can say that games between Khimki and CSKA have a derby feel to them, and you can tell that by the difference in attendance. You can see from the players who played against each other for so many years that their approach is a little different. You don’t really feel the buzz in the city like in a couple of other sports, but you can see how much the players want to beat them. And like for all derbies, there is a little different preparation, a little different approach to it. But this is the playoffs, and I think that brings that derby approach by itself. We have to play against a very good team, we have enough motivation from that.
From losing four times against them there are not many positives. It is tough to beat a team four times, and they did that to us pretty easily. I think for us, when you are in a playoff spot, everything that happened in the past is in the past. That’s the best thing. We can look forward to a fresh start and try to learn from the bad that we did, and try to do the best we can to play better.
That last loss against them was not that long ago. It is still fresh. From my standpoint, I remember most of the game, how they punished us for every small mistake that we made. But it is not that much to think about. Everyone in Europe knows how good they are, and it is up to us to try to minimize our mistakes and try to play better defense than we did in the past four games against CSKA.
In that last game we did not have James Anderson and Tyler Honeycutt and I would really like to have them out there with us for the playoffs. That would help our chances. They both had their health issues this season. James played through some games not feeling 100 percent, and Tyler had his issues. If they can come back and help us, that would be a plus for us, but we still have guys that have been playing well in their absence and we are going to do the best that we can to play good against CSKA.
Kyle Hines is a major piece for them for everything that he does defensively and offensively. But they are such a good team, they run, they execute, they play together, that I don’t think Hines’s absence would mean that we have an advantage now. It’s just an opportunity for other key and experienced players they have to step up. It is a big loss for them, but at the same time we played a game against them without him already, and they played games without him, and they continued to have a great record, so I don’t think it will be such a big void to fill.
With CSKA, you can just tell how good the chemistry is between one another. For us, the majority of our team is fairly new. And if you think about it, most top teams in Europe have their core of players together for a long time. I think that makes teams successful. And when you play against CSKA, you can see that they have a ton of experience with one another. They are always on the same page. It took us a little bit more time to get on that page because we never played with each other before. CSKA has a ton of that experience and I think that helps them play as smooth as they do. A lot of coaches always talk about experience as an advantage. I think that’s one of CSKA’s main advantages in the EuroLeague, they have guys who have been playing together for so long. But that just makes it an even greater challenge. That’s what makes the EuroLeague’s new schedule so important, you get to play against all the best teams. It is not like having an opening round before, and for me personally, I got a chance to play against all the best players. It has been a really nice experience, and now finally that I am a part of the playoffs I will do the best that I can to help my team.