It hasn’t really hit me yet that this will be my sixth Final Four. At the beginning of my career, I never would have thought that I would get to this point where I’ve been to six consecutive Final Fours. I think I’m one out of four players – me, Milos Teodosic, Victor Khryapa and Andrey Vorontsevich – to have accomplished this. It’s a really cool accomplishment to have been part of a club to reach the Final Four that many times.
It’s definitely been a tough season, especially because of the new format and with all of the traveling, a lot more games, some more games scheduled back-to-back, but this is what we all play for. This is what we want. This was our goal at the beginning of the season, to reach this point, to get to Istanbul, have an opportunity to go to the Final Four and defend our championship.
We are confident and positive going to Istanbul. We are the defending champions. We have, right now, what everybody wants. But there is also more pressure, because for us to defend the title, it will definitely not be easy. We realize that every time we play throughout the season, no matter who the opponent is, that we are going to get their best shot. So I think for us there is pressure, but it’s pressure that we want and it’s something that we all understand. We have a bunch of experienced players that have been on big teams and been in big situations during their careers, so we all understand this type of pressure and that it comes with the pressure of being a champion.
This is not my first Final Four as a defending champion; I went to the Final Four in 2013 in London with Olympiacos after we won the year before, but the circumstances were a little different. Even though we won the championship, I think people still considered Olympiacos to be underdogs. Now with CSKA, people consider us to be favorites. Both situations are difficult, it’s never easy to be a champion and defend your championship. That’s why there are so few examples in the EuroLeague and sports in general of teams winning multiple championships in a row. But we have very experienced players and a good opportunity to join the club of teams that have won consecutive championships.
This Final Four will be played at the same place where I went to my first Final Four – and won my first title – with Olympiacos. I have really special memories from that, especially the way that game went. That was probably one of the most memorable games in the history of the EuroLeague and maybe even in European basketball, period. It is definitely going to feel good to go back and feel some nostalgia in that arena and hopefully it will continue to be a good luck arena for me.
Now I will face my old team on the same court. A lot has changed in the five years since, but Olympiacos’s core players are still the same. Vassilis Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis, Kostas Papanikolaou, Vangelis Mantzaris. Those players were all there at that time and here, with CSKA there’s Teodosic, Khryapa, Kurbanov, Vorontsevich. So everyone’s aware of that championship game, but the past is the past and we are ready to move on to the present. And right now, the present calls for us to defend our title.
Olympiacos is a good team. They have a great core group of guys with a lot of experience. They have other guys, young hungry guys who play with a lot of heart and aggressiveness. I think for us, it’s more important how we come out and how we react in the game. We all understand what it takes to win, especially after last year, and we know what we have to do to win. We’ve all been in situations like this before, so for us it’s all about how composed we stay as a team, how well we play together, how we execute our game plan and how we match their toughness. Any final or any single-elimination game is always about who makes the little plays, who makes the small hustle plays, the plays that define winning or losing. Winning could come down to one possession or one play. I think we all know that the victory could come down to small details.
The most important player for Olympiacos is Vassilis Spanoulis. Everybody already knows that he is one of the great players in EuroLeague and European basketball history, not only for his play, but also for his leadership ability, for the way he pushes and the example that he sets on and off the court. He has done it time and time again throughout his career, stepping up in big moments, big situations. You can see it now, even at age 34, where people might think he would be winding down, he’s still carrying his team, still doing the things he has done throughout his career. We understand and we know – and I know for sure, because I saw it every day for two years – how big of an impact he can have on a game and how big of an impact he can have on a team.
I consider Billy a friend off the court and a person I have great admiration for and a great relationship with. We always talk when our teams play each other and we text each other once in a while, but right now we are focused on our own teams. When we see each other, we’ll say hello, but it’s all about each of us trying to accomplish his goal.
The other semifinal in Istanbul will be Real Madrid against Fenerbahce and as a fan I think it’s going to be a really good matchup. It’s a rematch from last season’s playoffs and both teams have played really well during the year. So I think it’s definitely going to be interesting. They have opposite playing styles; Madrid likes to run, play a hot pace in transition and Fenerbahce is more of a half court, more defensive oriented team, so it’s going to be a mixture and the team whose style takes precedence over the other is the team that will be closest to victory.
Thanks for reading and I hope you all have our backs next week in Istanbul. I promise we will do our best to keep the EuroLeague title in Moscow!