Third time's the charm
May 03, 2011
by DAVID BLU - TEL AVIV, ISRAEL
Barcelona, here we come! If I sound excited, I am. This is my third time but it never gets boring. I would even say it's the opposite. I am just as excited now as ever before to get started. In 2004, I guess I didn't understand the gravity of it and how much it meant. I had been to the Elite Eight as a college player, so the amount of media and hype around the two events was similar. The difference was that the Final Four is at the pro level, and that made it something special. I mean, I was 23, one year over from the United States, living in Israel for the first time. Before I got here, I didn't know who Nikola Vujcic was, who Anthony Parker was, who Sarunas Jasikevicius was. I was just a young guy, hungry to play, and I got that chance with some big, big players.
And then, when we won it, it really boosted my confidence. It made me understood that when you win the Euroleague, that's something that no one can ever take away from you. And you always have that bond with your teammates forever, whether you see them five, ten or however many years down the road. Of course, it didn't hurt that we played the final in our gym, on the rims we shot at all year, in the locker room we dressed in all year. It makes a difference playing in your own gym, but that doesn't explain us winning by 44 points in a final. The only thing that explains it happened weeks before, when Derrick Sharp made the shot that forced overtime against Zalgiris, saved our season and put us in the Final Four. After that shot, it was like we knew we were going to win the title. We were so together after that moment, it was a great feeling. We had three weeks to live off Derrick's shot. People still love watching that shot and still get emotional about it. We had to get past CSKA in the semifinal, and once we did that, there was no stopping us.
In 2008 in Madrid, we also made the final and this time had to face CSKA for the trophy. They scored six quick points to start the second half and that was the whole difference in the game. The rest of the game was basket for basket, good D for good D, back and forth. But that wasn't enough, because those few possessions made the difference. That’s why the Final Four is not as easy as our 2004 win might have made it seem. You have to completely focus, basically. I think the mental approach coming into a Final Four is more important than the physical aspect of it. At this point in a season, the physical part is pretty much a habit and a reflex. You are the work you put into it, physically, all season long. The question now is if mentally you can get over the last barrier, the Final Four. The difficulty is that you have to basically play perfect basketball if you want to win it all, as we learned in 2008.
Onto our semifinal opponent. We played Madrid last year in the Top 16. The first win, a crucial one, we got at our place. And then we won a close one in Madrid against them. Of course, that was last year, and they're a different team now. They've added some new pieces and changed coaches. But they are still Madrid, still a classic organization, so you know they will come with a whole lot of pride, just like the other three teams. It should be a good game, and it will sure be interesting to play against our former teammate, D'Or Fischer. He was always a great guy while he was here, and it's nice to see him get to the level of the Final Four. As our teammate last year, he fought with us and almost got us there, but we fell short. Now, I am happy for him and for us. It'll be nice to step on the court against him.
One of the differences in a Final Four can be experience. Real Madrid has Pablo Prigioni and Sergi Vidal who know about the Final Four. On our team, Tal Burstein, Derrick Sharp, Lior Eliyahu and I have been there before, he same with Sofo Schortsanitis the last couple years with Olympiacos. The thing with experience is, when you play the regular season, maybe you can get away with a mistake or two. Then in the Top 16 and the playoffs, it's more crucial not to make mistakes, but some happen. In the Final Four, however, it's a matter of simply not making any. And unless you've been in that situation before, you can't know how that is. Obviously, guys who haven't been there are going to prepare for what they think it's like. Then when they get there, it's a matter of performing. So they have a couple guys and we have a few, but for the most part, the guys on both teams are new to the Final Four.
So here we go. There are two Final Fours, in a sense. One you have to enjoy because it's such a great party, and the other you have to play with total focus to win. To me, when I am with the team - in the hotel, on the bus going to practice, at shoot-arounds, up in my room - am focused solely on basketball. Of course, it we have free time to go out, maybe I'll go to Las Ramblas for an hour or two and enjoy it. I also enjoy the media part and what the fans get from this event. It's a great time to see, here in Israel, the joy this is giving to the fans. The people are behind us and supporting us and they want to enjoy this moment. Like I said, I feel all that and it's an important part of the Final Four. But once I am on the bus and headed to practice, it's a question of full and complete focus the whole time with your team on the court. It's a question of concentration on every single possession all weekend. Let's see who's left standing at the end!