The EuroLeague Playoffs are here! I am excited! We worked hard all season long to finish third and get the home-court advantage in the playoffs. We really can’t wait and the most important things for us right now is to be healthy and well-prepared for Game 1 against Zalgiris. We were without four players in our last game, also against Zalgiris, and they are taking care of their bodies and working hard to get back. This is the most crucial part of the season and everybody wants to be there.
This is the second season with the new EuroLeague format and I can say it has been a great change. It is a great difference from any previous season. I can say Olympiacos has adjusted pretty well to the new format, because we got the home-court advantage in the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. The change has made the competition more fair for all teams, because you play against everybody. We had the experience from last year and playing more and more games really works for us, but also for fans and of course, for the league. Last season’s experience helped us adjust to the extra travelling, too.
As you know, we will play against Zalgiris. The competition is like that sometimes; we just played against them in the final game of the regular season. It was a very competitive game and even though Zalgiris would finish sixth regardless of what happened, they played very well in the second half. We knew there was a great chance for us to play against Zalgiris in the playoffs, but the game had a lot of intensity. We know they are a tough team, they proved it all season long by playing great basketball and this time they came out on top. The game went to overtime and they won, but I am sure the playoff games will be completely different.
First, we have the home-court advantage and the atmosphere will be great. We definitely expect our fans to be there and cheer for us. I hope they will be loud and give us the extra boost. It is very important to protect the home-court advantage. It took us 30 games to earn it and we want to make the most out of it, and our fans are very important to help us win at home. Second, we have a lot of experience. Some of our players won the EuroLeague twice and Billy [Spanoulis] won three titles and got three Final Four MVPs. Some of us have been to some Final Fours and in order to make it, we had to win a playoff series. Last season, home-court advantage was key to beating Anadolu Efes in Game 5. We had to win Game 4 on the road to earn a chance to play Game 5 and all that really builds the team’s character. I think we know what to expect in such situations and that could be an advantage, too.
Injuries are not an excuse, but it is true that we had no power forwards against Zalgiris last time. Georgios Printezis, Kim Tillie and Jamel McLean were out, so Hollis Thompson and I had to guard Paulius Jankunas. He is a great competitor, very experienced and especially very efficient in everything he does on the court. I found him to be a very tough player to guard, very strong and with a big body, especially for me playing outside my natural position. It was a good experience for me. Other than Jankunas, Zalgiris is a great team. They play good basketball, move the ball really well with great flow on offense and always try to find easy baskets. They are also strong on defense, play really hard and overall are a very good team. We really need to be careful and give our best if we want to beat them.
And I haven’t even talked about Saras yet; everybody is talking about him these days because he is doing great. Everybody says great things about him, how good his team is on offense and defense and how well they move the ball even when things are not working out for them. He was a great point guard and good playmakers usually become great coaches, like Saras has become. He wanted to become a coach and went step by step, starting as assistant coach and then becoming a head coach. Personally, I don’t think Billy will become a coach one day, but if he does, I am sure he will be great, too. I definitely see him working in basketball because that is his life, but maybe in a different position. He had a lot of stress due to all the competitive games he has played throughout his career. What we know is that Billy is a great player and he has a few years left in his career, and whatever he does next, he will be great at it because he is a hard worker who loves basketball. To me, he still looks very young. Maybe I will quit basketball earlier and coach him one day! 🙂
Zalgiris has great fans and every time we have played there, the atmosphere has been great, hostile against us, so playing a playoff game against them will be great. We cannot think that far ahead, though, because we have to focus on Game 1, make adjustments and immediately play Game 2. We will eventually get there and play in front of a great basketball environment. My experience tells me that all the adjustments and improvements you make during the series are critical to win it and go to the Final Four. No matter how the previous game was, you have to adjust, improve and see where you have a better chance to help your team.
We really, really want to make it to the Final Four. Each Final Four is special, but this is in a great basketball city like Belgrade. A lot of people, not just our fans, but people in Serbia, are expecting us to qualify. We are trying not to think about this because we know how tough it is to win a playoff series against such good team as Zalgiris. Being in the playoffs and having the home-court advantage doesn’t guarantee making it to the Final Four; you have to work hard and get three more wins to be there. If we make it, then we will talk about the atmosphere we can have in Belgrade. Wish us luck!