Real Madrid comes to Belgrade after a tumultuous season in great form. Head coach Pablo Laso has kept his team in good form with high spirits despite having to juggle lineups and strategies as several players were felled by injuries at different points in the season. When Los Blancos welcomed back EuroLeague MVP Sergio Llull in Game 3 of the playoffs, Laso had a full roster for the first time all season. After they polished off Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens, Madrid heads into its fifth Final Four in six seasons knowing it has what it takes to go all the way, but that it will be a struggle. “I think that the Final Four is not an accurate name for it. To me, it’s two finals,” Laso said. “We are happy to be here, we know how hard it is. We’ve won it and we’ve lost it, we went through everything and we just take this new appearance in the Final Four as a chance and a challenge.”
Pablo, congratulations on reaching another Final Four. What is the atmosphere in the locker room with this new chance to win the big prize?
“The atmosphere is obviously good. It was a hard year for us from the beginning. We had to re-invent ourselves several times this season with the comings and goings of players. However, the team stayed competitive and we had a tough playoff against Panathinaikos that was the confirmation of the work we did all season. Now it all changes with the Final Four. I think that the Final Four is not an accurate name for it. To me, it’s two finals. Against CSKA in the semis is like a final to me, they are the team with the best record all season and many scorers and a great coach. Fenerbahce and Zalgiris also proved they are competitive all season and they deserve to be here, so that’s just like another final. We are happy to be here, we know how hard it is. We’ve won it and we’ve lost it, we went through everything and we just take this new appearance in the Final Four as a chance and a challenge.”
This will be your fifth Final Four in seven seasons. What is the secret to getting to this point?
“Well, work is paramount. The work of many people: a club starts with the president. To be able to have the best players, always be competitive, knowing that everything won’t always be great or horrible. You must be consistent, keep working. Having been to five Final Fours in seven years speaks volumes about how Real Madrid works. If you look at this year, it was different for us. But the team showed competitive character despite the problems we had. We had some better regular seasons and this year we didn’t have the home-court advantage in the playoffs, but the team remained focused. This is a long-distance run and the prize is the Final Four. We see it as a way to play against the best teams in Europe, but also know that we earned our place here and that we deserve it.”
Your team had to deal with significant injuries all season long. Does that make this Final Four qualification one of the accomplishments you are most proud of?
“Yes. For starters, you are in the preseason and then you lose the EuroLeague MVP to an injury in August. We always believed in our group of players, but, obviously, Sergi [Llull]’s influence on the team is big. Starting from there, some people in the team grew a lot, also playing in different positions, we also had more problems: Ayon and Randolph were also out for a long time and then Campazzo, who to me was one of the best EuroLeague players this season, was not with us in the playoffs. I had the feeling that the group always had the team in mind. As a coach I feel proud that the players knew how to make that effort all season to be in a Final Four.”
Luka Doncic has had a major breakout season despite his young age. How would you describe his evolution during this campaign and what do you expect from him in the big tournament?
“I think Luka’s season was magnificent. Since he arrived in Madrid at age 13, the work that the club has put in him has been stellar. The youth teams of the club always make sure to give players the best so they can be of help to the Real Madrid team someday. Luka is a bit of an icon of all that work. He is a player who had a lot of talent since he was really young. He grew up and kept overcoming obstacles. I always joke that when he made his debut, the first thing he did was shoot a three and make it. Since that very day, we always said he is a kid with a star. He already helped us last season, he was important. By the end of the season it was hard on him due to the effort. This year, however, he was much more solid even though he had to play different positions. The expectations he generates are so big, that sometimes people look for bad things in him instead of the good things. I think he played a great season: he played some really great games and maybe others were not so great, but we are talking about a 19-year-old player who did what he did this season. I think he was a key for us in the EuroLeague and we are happy to have him with us. I am also happy about his evolution as a player these last years, and we hope he can keep, or even increase, his level during the decisive games that are ahead of us.”
You had a rough opening to the playoffs with a bad defeat at Panathinaikos. How did you approach your players after that game so they could go on with their heads held high?
“We have to understand the playoffs as what they are: each game is different, and each game ends. You can lose the first game by 1 or by 30 points and you are 1-0 anyway. That’s what we try to make the guys see. The other thing we wanted to make clear to them was that we were not Real Madrid in that game and everybody understood it. Our start was bad, we had many turnovers and Panathinaikos is a team that plays with lots of energy. It really seemed we had lost the game in three or four minutes. Not everything is good or bad. So we focused on making the guys understand those two things: we lost one game, but there was a long series ahead of us still, and that we had not been Real Madrid. We had not been the team that had competed all season. We made some adjustments, not many on a basketball level because I think we had prepared the series well, but we played a solid Game 2. We also had close games in Madrid because I think that Panathinaikos was a great opponent.”
Of course, the return of Sergio Llull in Game 3 after being sidelined for eight months was a huge morale boost to the team. How important was it to have him back for those two home games and how do you think he will help in the Final Four both on and off the court?
“On a basketball level, we had to approach the series with our starting point guard all season, Facu Campazzo. His injury made us think different because he had played great against Panathinaikos in the regular season games. They had two great players at the one and two positions in Nick Calathes and Mike James, very dangerous. Facu’s absence forced us to make adjustments. We never thought that Sergio could reach his best level in his return, but the medical staff did a great job in trying to get Sergio back as soon as possible. We had seen him practice for some 20 days at a good level and we never thought that his presence in the games would hurt the team at a basketball level. We prepared him to play and we were sure that he would deliver. On a mental level, it’s obvious that he was an injection for the fans, his teammates… The feeling when you get back an important player who transmits these feelings in the team. His being in the third game was like a shot of new energy at one of the most complicated moments in the season.”
In the semifinals you meet a great CSKA Moscow team in a classic EuroLeague duel. What worries you the most about them?
“At this level, everything worries me! If we look at the four teams, they all have their weapons and that’s why they are all in the Final Four. CSKA has many scorers, especially in the backcourt: Chacho, De Colo, Westermann, Higgins, Kurbanov, Fridzon… We are talking about good one-on-one players with the ability to overwhelm and to score. They also have a versatile and athletic frontcourt with Clyburn, Vorontsevich, Hines, Hunter, Antonov… They can keep a high-paced game with many possessions and they are always hard to beat because they make you stay focused for 40 minutes. If you are not, they can make a 10-0 run in a minute and a half and that can kill you. The work that Coach Itoudis put into building this team and keeping it at the top, even after losing important players, turned CSKA into a favorite for this season. They are the team with the best regular season record and then they suffered a bit in the playoffs, but then again, who doesn’t? We are talking about the best teams in Europe facing each other in a series. They managed to work it out and they get to the Final Four in a good moment.”
One of CSKA’s key players you know very well: Sergio Rodriguez. What’s it like to face a former player like Sergio who can be so dangerous to your own team’s aspirations? What will Madrid have to do to stop him?
“This is a question not only for Pablo Laso and Real Madrid but for all the teams that struggle against him on the court. Sergio is a player with a great ability to score and to pass. He can play with rhythm and he’s always a breath of fresh air for his teams because he gets everyone involved. We know that in a team like CSKA, the arrival of Chacho is very important and he proved it with his game. We love Sergio, he was with us for a long time and we wish him all the best, though probably not the day we play them. Stop him? I always say that it’s very difficult to stop a player, there’s not a single thing that can stop a player. It has to be teamwork because we are talking about high-level players who can win a game by themselves, like is the case with Chacho.”
CSKA is obviously chasing Madrid’s record of nine EuroLeague titles. This semifinal is an opportunity to keep CSKA behind and also get a chance for Madrid’s 10th title on Sunday. For those reasons, is history an extra incentive in this semifinal?
“This is something that you talk about before the games. In the end it’s data that is out there. As a Madrid coach, I am very proud of the nine titles won by the club. I know that CSKA is a super competitive team in Europe that always aspires to go all the way. The fact that we face each other in the semifinals tells you that we are in front of a great game. But once that game starts, history and stats stay behind and you only focus on what you have in front of you: great players, decisive situations that we may not have planned… All these things, I understand them and I like them, but once the game starts, the only thing that matters is trying to play a good game and, if possible, win it.”
You led Madrid to the title in 2015, but weren’t able to go all the way last year. What does a team need during Final Four weekend to take the extra step and win it all?
“Normally I’d tell you that it is all about the details, because the four teams reach this stage in a great moment. There’s not a single team that gets to the Final Four not ready to play it. You have had to suffer and work all season to be here, so it’s hard to say you’re not in your best moment when you arrive at the Final Four. I think we will see the best basketball in Europe, for sure. In the end it’s all the small details: a player who plays a great game and decides it, the mental aspect of a team that plays with confidence; we saw that in the series between Zalgiris and Olympiacos, and you get the feeling that Zalgiris is playing with lots of confidence. CSKA looked like it suffered in its series, but managed to win it any way, Fenerbahce dominated at home and won in Vitoria… We are talking about four teams at a similar level, and until the ball starts bouncing, we won’t see the details that can become decisive. Talking about my team, I hope my players are able to believe in themselves and be focused from the first minute in Belgrade on what we have done all season. If that makes us champions, that will speak volumes about the work we have done in the team. In any case I am convinced that we had a very good season, but we are in the Final Four and we do not settle for just getting here. We want to win and we want to be European champions.”