Passion for basketball runs deep in Lithuania, which is why this week’s Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Playoff games between Zalgiris Kaunas and Olympiacos Piraeus can be expected to be played in a festive, yet cauldron-like atmosphere. As a homegrown Zalgiris veteran, sharpshooter Arturas Milaknis knows as well as anyone what to expect. The perennial Lithuanian champs are making their first appearance in the EuroLeague Playoffs since the current playoff format was implemented nearly a decade and a half ago and with the series knotted 1-1 as it heads to Zalgirio Arena, this may be the best chance for Milaknis and some of his teammates to taste the EuroLeague Final Four. For that to happen, Milaknis, who is among the premier three-point shooters in competition history – his career 43.3% shooting rate is second best among the 30 players with the most career triples made – will be expected to play a key role. However, with what’s at stake, Milaknis is ready for the challenge, as he explained in this interview with EuroLeague.net. “Maybe you will never have another chance like this to go to the Final Four again in your career. It doesn’t matter if you are 33 or 23, you may never be in another EuroLeague team anymore, or maybe you are, but your team never even gets to the playoffs again.” Milaknis said. “I think it is really important for everybody, a big chance for the players, fans, for the city and the whole country to reach the Final Four and try to win the EuroLeague.”
Hello, Arturas. This is your first EuroLeague Playoffs series and the first for Zalgiris in a very long time. How exciting is it?
“Of course, everybody in the club is excited, all the players, coaches, staff… and more or less, the whole country is very excited that Zalgiris is in the playoffs. Everybody is waiting for us to come back to Kaunas and play Game 3 on Tuesday. There will be a great atmosphere!”
You won Game 1 looking like a veteran playoff team. What allowed you to get that win and steal the home-court advantage in the series?
“I think it is because of the hard work of our coaching staff. They knew how to prepare us for this game. Okay, playoffs are always a different type of game compared to the regular season, but it is just basketball and we must be focused on what happens on the court. We don’t need to see what is going on around the team, fans going wild and things like that. We just need to focus on following our game plan, that’s it.”
Game 2 was very different from Game 1. Can we expect each game in this series to be very different from the previous ones?
“I think so. I think that every game in this series will be a strong fight for both teams. We got the first victory and in Game 2, Olympiacos played with more contact, more emotion, and it was really hard to play. But we fought back and at the end of the game, the score was tied 1-1. We now come back to play in Kaunas and in our gym, we have to be more aggressive than in Athens.”
Lithuania is a big basketball country. How thrilled are people about Zalgiris’s playoff appearance?
“I can see that, around the city, everybody is waiting for these games. Some people in the street cheer for the team and wish me good luck. I think we will have a sold-out arena for both games in Kaunas. The gym will be full, of course, and the atmosphere will be better than what Olympiacos had.”
There are a lot of veteran Lithuanian players in the team and all of you are making your first playoff appearance. How important to players like you, Paulius Jankunas and Antanas Kavaliauskas is this opportunity of being so close to the Final Four?
“I think it is important for everybody, you know? Maybe for the veterans, it is a little bit more important, but you never know. Maybe you will never have another chance like this to go to the Final Four again in your career. It doesn’t matter if you are 33 or 23, you may never be in another EuroLeague team anymore, or maybe you are, but your team never even gets to the playoffs again. I think it is really important for everybody, a big chance for the players, fans, for the city and the whole country to reach the Final Four and try to win the EuroLeague.”
‘Saras’ made a great transition from star player to coach. How was the transition for those like you, who were his teammates, to see him now as the coach?
“It wasn’t so difficult because when he was my teammate in Zalgiris, in his last season as a player, he was already like a second coach, more or less. He was always watching the games, watching videos not only about what he was doing wrong, but about what we did wrong, too. How we were doing on defense and offense…. He was kind of preparing himself to be a coach and right now, all the players can talk to him like a friend, like a teammate, but everybody respects him and his leadership. He is already a great coach and he will be even better in the future.”
You are one of the best three-point shooters in the EuroLeague. It looks very natural when you shoot.
“I try to practice it – not just spot shots, but in movement, trying to make a shot from set plays and everything. I shoot a lot; it is not like you sit at home, come into the game and you shoot well. You need to work a lot and shoot a lot before and after practice. I have my own routine and always follow it.”
There is an urban legend that you once hit 13 consecutive midcourt shots in practice. Is that true, do you have witnesses?
“Yes, it is true! I was shooting with our physical condition coach and there were some players around. I made 13 in a row and our press office Almantas Kiveris recorded the last three shots. I didn’t want to send this video to the media because I have no proof that I made 13 shots, but our physical condition coach and some other guys saw it. It stays between me and the four walls at Zalgirio Arena!
Zalgiris is very competitive at home when Zalgirio Arena is packed; we recently saw it against CSKA Moscow. How important are fans to your team’s success?
“They are very important, of course, especially when we have some bad moments. The crowd always helps us get back in the game. Every player feels better playing in front of this great atmosphere. You always feel very comfortable and it helps a lot, for sure. The victory we got against CSKA was very excited and our people love it. They love it and their support is great.”
How great would it be for you, Zalgiris and Lithuanian basketball to have your team in the Final Four?
“First of all, we need to reach this Final Four. If we get it, it will be a big celebration not just for Zalgiris fans, but for all of Lithuania. We have to get two more wins and go game by game. If we make it, then we will see.”