I remember when I signed for Lietuvos Rytas, I got a call from Matt Nielsen, who is now with Olympiacos, but had been here before me, the first Australian on the club or in Lithuania for all I know. He mentioned something about the car I would get being different, that it would have my name and something else on it, but I didn't quite know what he was getting on about. Now that we are on the brink of the biggest game of the season, the car Mattie spoke about is having an impact. You see, it's painted with the team name and the name of each player right on it, so when you drive around town in Vilnius, whether they see you clearly or not, people know it's you. It's kind of shocking, really, to know everyone can identify you, and I figure it's got to be a Euroleague first. When another of my mates, Joe Ingles of Barcelona, was here for a regular season game, he was asking me how I got around without being stopped all the time, knowing how crazy people here are about basketball. To be honest, it hadn't been a problem in that way, but in the last couple weeks, I've noticed a change on the streets. Now, I get a few waves from people everywhere I take the car, and I'm sure it's happening to the rest of my teammates. As you probably know, Lietuvos Rytas is suddenly in the Euroleague's fast lane, and all of Vilnius is waiting for our all-or-nothing game with Caja Laboral on Thursday. This is an incredible opportunity for our club. Never before in its history has Lietuvos Rytas reached the quarterfinal stage of the Euroleague. They've won a couple of Eurocups, yes, but both of those were on the road, so only some of the fans had a chance to be there. This, on the other hand, is a fantastic opportunity to do something special at home in front of all our fans. One thing is certain: they will be there on Thursday, 11,000 of them, driving us in the right direction.
We opened the Top 16 with a pretty bad loss at home to Panathinaikos. From the outside, we might have looked cooked already in the Top 16, but in that game, we actually played 27 good minutes, and after it, we felt quietly confident that we could still do something. Our coach, Aleksandar Trifunovic, added another dimension by giving the team motivation and self-belief in the build-up towards the game. He's not putting a heap of pressure on us, but keeps us motivated. When you tell a team it has to win, the opposite happens, the pressure sets in. Instead, he says "here's what you have to do to win" and guys are responding to that on the court with the minutes they are given.
The victory in Vitoria against Caja Laboral was amazing. We had just brought in D.J. Strawberry to back up Khalid El-Amin and he was coming to play his first Euroleague game. He was a great addition and began contributing right away, which helped a lot. We felt all game there that if we hung tough, we'd have our chance. And we did. It came down to one shot from Khalid, and when that went in, we all ran on the court celebrating. We had done it! We were all happy and relieved, because what that win did for us was give us the belief that we can do something in this competition. We followed that up the next week in Malaga, and it was almost the same game. Even though we lost in the end to Unicaja, that game gave us confidence, too, that we could beat them at home, as we did. The thought process continued to Athens. The game with Panathinaikos was not going to directly affect our playoff chances, but we didn't go in thinking there was no problem if we lost. We put pressure on ourselves to play a good game for all 40 minutes, something we haven't done all year. That was basically the first full game we played well. At the end, when we beat Panathinaikos, everyone else was amazed, but we weren't going crazy or anything. Since we had won on the road against Caja Laboral, we knew we could win in Athens, too. But we also knew we needed one more victory to reach the next phase. The job wasn't done. The win in Athens could still mean first place for us if Panathinaikos loses in Malaga, but that wasn't on our minds then. Winning in Athens was the final proof that we belonged. We beat Barcelona at home in the regular season, Caja Laboral and Panathinaikos on the road in the Top 16. We belong.
Now, Caja Laboral again. They've got the highest scoring team in the Euroleague this season, I think. Their point guard, Marcelinho Huertas, has been the weekly MVP twice in four games. They're very good inside with Stanko Barac, very good outside with everyone. Fernando San Emeterio just does everything. Mirza Teletovic is probably the best shooter in Europe. They've got a lot of weapons. We are discussing in practice all the details of what we have to do. One of the things we have focused on is taking the opponent's strength and turning that into a positive for us. You may look at it on paper and say the other squad is the better team. What we look at it what we can do better than them. We did a good job of it in Athens against Panathinaikos, and this week we'll have to do the same thing by countering the running game of Caja Laboral. It helps that we played them once already. I like seeing video of the first game in order to see the mistakes and counteract them. That was a big advantage when we played Panathinaikos.
For me, the key on Thursday will probably be taking good shots instead of forcing too many, hitting the open man, not driving all the time. Those are the things we've done that worked lately. I think we've benefitted from a true team effort. Different guys have been stepping up in certain games, but overall we've been consistent. Down the stretch, we've looked to El-Amin, Kenan Bajramovic and Martynas Gecevicius, and they've all stepped up when needed. Everyone has played good minutes and done his part. I think we've done a good job with a real team style. Of course this is an exciting time for all the guys on the ream. Some of us never played the Euroleague before, and others have never gone this far in the competition. Ironically enough, the only one who has been to a Final Four is Simas Jasaitis, and he did it when he played for Caja Laboral. Of course, no one is looking ahead beyond Thursday. We're all excited. This game is more important than anything. Let's just hope it doesn't come down to one shot. But if it does, I bet we'll make it - and it'll blow the roof off Siemens Arena.
It's been a helluva ride from where we started until now, a real roller coaster of a Euroleague season. To me, it's just been exciting and fun, the best competition I've ever played in. I am really enjoying it, it's already been a long road, but I want it to go further. Thursday is our chance to do that. Not too many people out there expected us to do this well. But that belief in ourselves is the reason we have this opportunity now. In the regular season, we were one game from being completely eliminated. And now we have a chance at the playoffs playing in front of our own fans. That's the moral of the story; don't stop believing!
BRAD NEWLEY - VILNIUS, LITHUANIA
Wednesday, March 02, 2011