The ship of Virtus may have sailed a bit crookedly last week, but now everyone is back on board, and we do mean everyone. Climbing on deck with reinstated head coach Ettore Messina this week is the man in the middle of last season's Euroleague title run, center Rashard Griffith. What Kinder has been able to do so far, compiling the best Euroleague record since the start of the season, is even more remarkable because Griffith has missed eight games with a pulled calf muscle. He has played now in four Italian League games, pacing himself, but expects to be 100 percent for Wednesday's key game against Madrid. In a Euroleague.net interview the day before the game, Griffith talked about the challenges he and his team face now. "The big games, I want to play," Griffith said. "If I could skip all the little games, I would skip them. Put me in the big games. I love being out there for those."
First of all, how do you feel after missing a couple months?
"Two-and-a-half months, to be exact. I am feeling better. It was a weird injury. They called it a pulled muscle, but there was no pain involved after I first did it. I played on it in Fabriano one night. Then I went home to the States at Thanksgiving, came back, played a few games more. There was a little pain, but it was bearable. Then in practice one day, I pulled it again, bigger this time, and they told me it would take about three months to heal. There was always pain a day or two after it happened, but by the third or fourth day, nothing."
Had you ever missed so much time before in your career?
No, never. That was the tough part, sitting out, watching the team play, wanting to be able to. Now, the tough part is trying just get back into a rhythm. I've been practicing with team almost two weeks. I first game back for the Ural game, suited up, but didn't play in that one. Then I played the Italian League game against Scavolini. It felt good, and I knew I just needed to get my rhythm and timing back.
What about your team and how they played during your absence?
"I didn't travel with them, because I stayed in Bologna to work out, but I would have to say they did a very good job. Coach did and excellent job, my teammates did also, just playing, fighting, staying in the hunt, keeping us in contention. There were some games we were fighting it out just not to lose, like against Efes, down 10 late in the game, then rallied to win that. And in the final of Italian Cup, we were down the whole game, then came back and won that. It's been real good. They showed they care in their hearts about winning. And they won, so that was good enough for me."
Last week was a strange one, with the coach fired and then reinstated. How can that affect a team?
"Coach himself asked us how we thought it would affect us, and the truth is, I don't know what to think. I don't know why he was fired, and then he was rehired. I don't know what to think. I didn't get into it. We said we wanted Ettore back, but we still had a job to do, which was play ball, and that's what we did. We played two teams and then he was back. We had a meeting and said we wanted him back. The captain went to the president and told him. I knew that whatever happened, it was part of the business. But in the meantime, we just knew we had a job to do. And I think we did that well."
Are you anxious to get back on the floor in a Euroleague game?
"That's going to be good game, a tough one, Real Madrid at home in their place, with Tabak, Tarlac, Struelens. We may be more young and athletic, but that's a real good veteran team. I saw them play against Skipper in Bologna. I saw that Ural came to Madrid and won a big game. We just need to stay focused. Our last Italian League game, we played hard but not smart. We have to play smart in Madrid here. You can't give Djordjevic and Herreros and them guys open looks. They'll knock those shots down. But we all knew that. We know we've got to stay with them, not try to blow them out of the gym. We have to get the fourth quarter with a chance to win."
How much does the possibility of defending the Euroleague title at home in Bologna motivate your team?
"That's a great advantage for us. If anything, it should give us all the motivation in the world to play it in Bologna, in our gym. Now we're 2-0 in the second round, if we beat Madrid we'd go to 3-0 and that would give us a big advantage. That would leave us only one game away, at Ural Perm, but we could almost guarantee a Final Four berth if we take care of games at home after Madrid. But there are so many ifs, I always say just go win all the games and that leaves no doubt. It's a two-edge sword when you make it to the Final Four, though. You go and participate on your own floor with your own fans, if you lose then, you might as well not have made it."
From what you've seen of the other teams in the Top 16, who can make it to the Final Four?
"Well, it's weird. You've got almost all Italian teams in the first group, with Barcelona thrown in there. Then you see Barcelona beat Scavolini even though it was down by seven with a minute-and-a-half to go. Then you have all the Greek League in the third group. So you think Panathinaikos will come out on top, but they lose right away to Olympiakos. You can't tell who is strongest at this point in time. You've got Benetton and Skipper out there. Tau beats Maccabi by one point. That makes this round unpredictable. The only thing I disagree with is you can lose everything in one game in the Final Four. Remember, Tau beat us in the first game of the Finals last year. To me a series shows the better team, because in one game, a team can catch fire and then anything can happen."
Your ex-team, Maccabi, has its hands full with Tau, the finalist last season? Does that surprise you?
"Maccabi is a team like us, well tested, been through it. It would be great if it was us and Macc in the final game, the two teams that won European titles last year. But Tau's a good team. If you think about the teams that made it this far, you have us, Tau, Maccabi and Panathiniakos, the top teams from last year, basically. Then there are a lot of teams with history, like Real Madrid, Olympiakos. None of these teams surprise me when they win. Tau is a good team. We went five games with them last year. Tau gets a win in its next game, and it's got a big advantage over Maccabi. It doesn't surprise me the teams are here now, but there might be a surprise in the Final Four, especially with Group E. To me, that's kind of the weak group. The Greek group, that's a tossup. All three teams play each other so much, anything can happen."
Last season, you drew double-teams and passed to your perimeter guys all season. Do you expect that to be the case again now that your back?
"They are doing it already in Italy. When i get the ball, they're still doubling me and I am kicking it out to my players. At the beginning it was more of a confidence thing with me. Trying to work myself back into the system, I was passing anyway. But Coach said that I had to start keeping the defense honest. If I'm not shooting and the defense isn't doubling, that's hanging my shooters out to dry. Teams started doubling me as soon as I came back, but they were doing it when I took one dribble. Now that I've got my legs back and my confidence back., they will be coming sooner. So that really won't change."
What can people expect from you now?
"I think people can expect the same from me. I look at myself like a late bloomer for this time of season. A lot of the regular season is positioning. I do what is needed for my team and I to win, but when it comes to championship time, crunch time, I take more control of the games. I don't what to say it's making a statement, but I let people know what I can do. I've always been like that, since high school. The big games, I want to play. If I could skip all the little games, I'd skip them. Put me in the big games. I love being out there for those."