Interview: Nikola Milutinov: ‘We needed some time to find our chemistry’

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After a 3-4 start, Olympiacos has won 7 of its last 9 games to rank fifth in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season standings with a 10-6 record. An adjustment period was needed with several new players and a new coach, David Blatt, but once they found their rhythm, the Reds have been able to down teams like Real Madrid, Anadolu Efes Istanbul and, most recently, Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in the Greek derby. One player dominated the game, none other than Olympiacos center Nikola Milutinov, who finished the derby with 18 points, 18 rebounds and a PIR of 41. In his sixth EuroLeague season, Milutinov has been a late bloomer, a big man who has worked with patience to steadily become a force in the paint — even though teammates joke about his rare three-point shot against FC Bayern Munich recently. Facing the best players in Europe in the last six years has definitely helped Milutinov to reach his actual playing level and one of his biggest goals is to lift the EuroLeague trophy. “My dream is to win the EuroLeague one day,” Milutinov told EuroLeague.net. “I hope that my dream will come true but it is difficult because there are many good teams in the EuroLeague and it is such a difficult competition.”

Nikola, congratulations on the big Greek derby win. How different is this game compared to others, in terms of pressure and anticipation?

“Thank you. Well, compared to regular games, derbies are definitely different, because we can see how much it means to our fans and everybody in the club. There is not a big difference between derbies because when we play against them, there are always big expectations and big pressure, because fans expect a lot from us. Every time we play against them, it is always something more than usual. I must say that our fans came and knew that we needed them in this game. The support we got from them was really good, and they gave us strength and energy. Without their support, I don’t know if we could have won that game.”

You have played in a lot of derbies with Panathinaikos. Do you get used to the hype of the big occasion? Is every derby different?

“Well, you know what you can expect in a game against them because we play against them many times every year. And of course, we will play many more times against them before the end of the season. You usually know what to expect and you have be focused, mentally ready for this type of game. Of course, it depends on the time of the year, too. Playing against them in December is important and it is always a must-win game, but not as important as in April and May, when you fight for titles. Those are critical moments and there is more pressure.”

“With the energy I had from our fans, I could have played three games in a row!”

You posted career-best numbers – 18 rebounds and 41 PIR – against Panathinaikos. What allowed you to dominate against a team with very good big men?

“I just had a huge level of energy in that game. Like I said, I credit our fans for that. I must say that it might have been the best atmosphere in the three and a half years I have been with the team. I felt their support. That night, with the energy I had from our fans, I could have played three games in a row!”

How is your coach, David Blatt, helping you to improve this season?

“For sure, he is a great coach and gives confidence to each of his players. He knows basketball and is really good to us. He knows the tactics and I can only say good things about him. He helps his players, all of them, and when he sees that one of his players is down, he will boost his confidence immediately. He is really important to all of us and helps us a lot in each way, not just him, but all other assistant coaches. I am just really happy that I have them in my team.”

This is your sixth EuroLeague season at age 24. How important was it for you to have patience and keep working, knowing that your moment would arrive?

“Yes, I have played in the EuroLeague for many years. I had the luck to be in the best competition in Europe for six years, and it is important for me to progress every year. That is my goal, to play better and better and help my team every season. My dream is to win the EuroLeague one day. I hope that my dream will come true but it is difficult because there are many good teams in the EuroLeague and it is such a difficult competition.”

Vassilis Spanoulis is seen as a great scorer but he is also the EuroLeague’s all-time assist leader. How is it for a big man like him to play with him?

“Yes, I am honored to be his teammate. He is a basketball legend and one of the best players that ever played this game. It means a lot to me because he gives me advice and shows me how I need to play. He is a big competitor and a great winner. He shows you how your mentality should be and helps you a lot. I am just really happy to say that I had the opportunity to play with him. This is something I will tell people many years from now: Vassilis Spanoulis was my teammate.”

After a 3-4 start, Olympiacos won 7 of its last 9 games. What got better in the last couple of months?

“I think that in the beginning of the season, with a lot of new players and a new coach, too, everything was new to everybody. We needed some time to find our chemistry, to play like a team. I still think we can play better and get better as a team, but it’s true that we have been playing well lately, other than a terrible, terrible game against Darussafaka in Istanbul. That was maybe one of our worst games this season. If you don’t count that game, we have been playing great basketball lately.”

“I will tell people many years from now: Vassilis Spanoulis was my teammate.”

You also hit your first three-point shot this season, against Bayern in Munich. Do you plan to shoot more in the future?

“Well, right now, I am not thinking about it because my teammates are shooting really well from three-point range… but if they start missing, I will think about starting to shoot from three, too! Just kidding. There were a few seconds on the shot clock that night, I shot it and it went in. I was really happy about that, my first three-pointer in the EuroLeague! I can joke with my teammates a little bit about that, because I am 100% from three-point distance. So yes, my teammates are shooting well and I am sure they will continue doing their job!”

You go against two of the EuroLeague’s best shot blockers this week, Vincent Poirier of Baskonia and Edy Tavares of Madrid. How much are you looking forward to this challenge?

“First of all, these are going to be two very difficult games against two great teams that not only have good big men, but good guards, too. These will be tough games and we will need to get fully prepared, play focused and with a good mentality. We have to play aggressive, which is the only way we can win these games. If you start soft, without energy, you will have problems. Right now, I am only worrying about Baskonia. We will see about Madrid and Tavares later.”

A lot of Olympiacos players who have been together for many years. Is that one of your biggest weapons going forward?

“I think so, yes. Not only have we played together for a long time, we also have really experienced guys who know how to play at this time of the year. That is what is more important, more crucial for us. Every game is important in the competition, but the most important games will be played at the end of the season, and this is where our experience and playing together for so many years can help us out a lot.”

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