By leading Real Madrid to its first Turkish Airlines EuroLeague title outside of Spain in almost four decades, Coach Pablo Laso has written a new page in the legendary’s club history in golden letters. In addition to Laso steering Madrid to its record 10th EuroLeague title, he became the third coach in club history to win multiple EuroLeague titles. Even though Madrid battled injuries all season, Laso kept his team competitive and it peaked at the right time, at the Final Four in Belgrade. Finally having a full roster was very important for Madrid in terms of confidence, as Laso said in this interview a few days after lifting the trophy in the Serbian capital. “New players came in and we had to reinvent ourselves during the season. We arrived to the playoffs against Panathinaikos a bit limited due to Facu Campazzo’s injury, but when Sergio Llull just returned we had the feeling that we had grown up a lot as a team and were very competitive,” Laso told EuroLeague.net. “We were not 100% fit in Belgrade, but we had all our players available. That was very important for our mentality at that moment.”
Hello, Pablo. Congratulations on your second EuroLeague title. How different was it from the first one?
“I believe that every season is different. The team’s vibrations start at the beginning of the season, with different players – and it is a long, tough road. Once you manage to make it to the Final Four, you play in a different city and against different teams. Both titles have something special; the first one was very emotional because it was in Madrid, on our home court in front of our people. This time, we had a lot of injury problems, players going in and out all the time, and we arrived in Belgrade with a full team, more or less healthy, so to say. Each title is different, but of course, I am very happy that we won them.”
Like you said, Madrid had injuries all season long, but the team remained competitive. Was that strong mentality one of the keys to playing so well when everyone was back?
“I think that having a lot of injuries allowed other players to grow a lot, as well as the team as a whole. We had a lot of adversities, but always found the way to be competitive There was a moment, I think it was in December, in which we had seven injured players, but the team kept competing and winning games. New players came in and we had to reinvent ourselves during the season. We arrived to the playoffs against Panathinaikos a bit limited due to Facu Campazzo’s injury, but when Sergio Llull just returned we had the feeling that we had grown up a lot as a team and were very competitive. We were not 100% fit in Belgrade, but we had all our players available. That was very important for our mentality at this moment.”
Edy Tavares was a key addition on defense, but also on offense. How much of a better team are you with him?
“I believe that Edy’s signing is a big success for the club. We were in a difficult moment in which we had Gustavo Ayon, Trey Thompkins and Anthony Randolph all out due to injury and Ognjen Kuzmic out for the season. We knew we couldn’t hold on much longer under these circumstances, with just one player, Felipe Reyes, at the center spot. In that sense, we were very limited, and I believe that signing Edy at that time showed the commitment the club had with its basketball section. It was a difficult signing, as he was under contract with an NBA club, but we considered it was him or no-one else. We knew we wanted to bring in someone who was not just a patch, but productive for the future, too. Not only did Edy give us a lot of good things already, but he will also grow with the team, too.”
Luka Doncic was unstoppable all season. How proud are you of his development and the way you handled the hype, letting him play a few minutes at first and gradually giving him a bigger role?
“Since Luka arrived, we knew we had a big project in our hands. We saw Luke play at age 13 when he arrived here, and we knew he had a lot of talent. At age 13, all those expectations are a bit fuzzy because anything could happen. We knew we had to do a good job with him and keep him focused. In that sense, our youth teams, our youth system directed by Alberto Angulo, did a great job, allowing him to keep growing the way we all expected. Obviously, he is a special kid. I always use the same example: the day he made his first-team debut, he took the ball and hit a corner three-point shot. He is special, but his work ethic is undeniable. He adjusted to more competitive roles when bigger challenges stood in front of him. I had the feeling that once he made it to the first team, we could trust what he could give us and it was important to treat him like any other player from the very beginning. He felt part of a team and slowly but steadily, took extra responsibility. His best basketball was always yet to come, and I still think that way.”
Madrid allowed 30 points in the first quarter in the semifinal against CSKA, but played great defense after that, starting by the second unit. How did your team turn things around the way they did?
“First of all, there are not first and second units for me. That looks good, but it is not for me. It is true, however, that I was not unhappy with our first quarter. We played well, but Cory Higgins was hitting a lot of tough shots and we were missing open shots and free throws, but the feeling I had, as a basketball coach, was not bad. It sounds a bit strange when you are losing by 10 points, but I was confident in us having a lot of weapons that would allow us to return to the game and that is what happened. In the second quarter, it took us less than two minutes to return to the game and after that, we dominated the game rhythm in the third and fourth quarters, even though CSKA is a great team, which forced us to fight until the end of the game.”
A lot of players have limited minutes, but played big roles. Jaycee Carroll is the perfect example. Has it been difficult to keep everybody happy?
“Well, I believe that a team’s strength is in being a solid team. Carroll, Felipe, Doncic, Llull… I have had the luck to coach great players who think team first. It takes a lot of time for those players to play like that in a Final Four; that work doesn’t start a day before playing the semifinal, but many months before that. They have to feel important and know that the team needs them. In that sense, the team did a brilliant job this weekend.”
You won the tactical battle against Zeljko Obradovic in the final. You denied Jan Vesely the chance to play pick-and-roll and Fenerbahce’s offense collapsed. How important was that in the game plan?
“Yes, but at the same time, Ahmet Duverioglu and Nicolo Melli had great games. Still, we know we couldn’t allow Vesely to feel comfortable when rolling to the basket and tried to deny him free access to offensive rebounds, too. It was something that we knew we had to limit, but we also had to stop the players who generate those situations, in this case, especially Sloukas and Wanamaker.”
Fabien Causeur and Trey Thompkins played excellent defense in the semifinals and critical roles in the final. Is that what a champion team needs, players stepping up like they did?
“I believe that Fabien and Trey had great seasons. It was Fabien’s first season with us and it was not easy for him – a new team, a different system, different players. From day one, he put a great effort into adjusting to the team. We knew Trey already, a player with great offensive skills who sometimes struggles against certain players on defense, but who can be focused and work hard for many minutes. Everyone will remember his tip-in at the end of the game, which got us really close to winning the EuroLeague title. With that in mind, yes, both of them had a great Final Four, playing key roles.”
Only Pedro Ferrandiz and Lolo Sainz won multiple EuroLeague titles with Madrid in the past. How does it feel to be compared with such big names in the club’s history?
“I have a lot of respect for Lolo and Pedro. Both of them led the club to a glorious era, and being compared to them seems absurd to me. This is not about comparisons, but about how much they gave to Real Madrid’s basketball section throughout its history. In the time that I have been here as a coach, I am trying to make the most out of my players and make the team as competitive and recognizable as it can be, to help it be in the place it should be.”
The next Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four is in your hometown, Vitoria. Can we expect a basketball celebration on the streets, like we had in Belgrade?
“Obviously, I was born in Vitoria and know how important basketball is in the city. Everyone who experienced any sporting event in Vitoria knows that its people give their best, especially if it is a basketball event. I am sure next year’s Final Four will be great, people will be very well-received and that there will be a basketball party in the city for four, five days.”