|The argument could be made that few Euroleague players carried as much responsibility on their shoulders this season as Armani Jeans Milano point guard Massimo Bulleri. As the major addition last summer to a club making its long-awaited return to the Euroleague, Bulleri has had the ball in his hands and all eyes on him as he tried to steer Milano through what has been a difficult regular season. Now, with one game left, Bulleri and Milano suddenly find themselves in control of their own destiny. If they win against Olympiacos at home in Milan on Thursday, their miraculous comeback from last place in Group B will be complete. And then, as he says in this Euroleague.net interview, Bulleri will be leading a very dangerous team into the Top 16. "If we win, I will have great confidence for our future," Bulleri told Euroleague.net. "To play without pressure can often make the difference, and I think we can take advantage of that."
Hi, Massimo. First, how good does it feel to be in control of your Top 16 chances, finally, in the last game of the regular season?
"I feel very good. We were full of doubts about our chances to reach the Top 16, but now they are very real, and the most important thing is that we will decide our destiny. We will play at home, facing a team already qualified and we hope to make a special gift to our fans."
You guys were in last place from Week 3 to Week 12. Did you ever think your chances to make the Top 16 were gone?
"No, we never really believed that our possibility to advance to the Top 16 was gone, but I cannot hide the fact that we thought about it. Those are things that cross your mind in the dark moments, but then the game versus Cibona sparked the flame and our hopes were reborn."
After coming to Milano as the starting point guard and team leader last summer, did you feel extra pressure or responsibility when the team was losing in the Euroleague?
"Yes, it really was this way. There were and there are big expectations for this season from the club, the fans and everyone around us, for both the domestic league and the Euroleague. I think that several losses by big differences that we suffered at home put us in big trouble, compromising our mental stability in the locker room. I'm thinking of the home loss with Prokom, and the tough lessons we had in Athens with Olympiacos and in Istanbul against Efes Pilsen."
As you say, the turnaround started when you beat Cibona, the team you can now eliminate, by 20 points. You talked after that game about building a new chemistry. What kind of chemistry change was needed?
"The words I said that night can't really be applied to the situation now, because we changed coaches a few days later. Now we are building a new team chemistry that is obviously different from the one we were building at that time. Now we're taking the first steps of a new project that we hope will lead us very far, and the victories are helping us."
The coaching change happened after the Cibona win, barely 48 hours before the next Euroleague game. How did you feel about the timing when it happened?
"This is a choice of the club, and I think the timing is not important, but rather the thought that was required to take the decision. I and my teammates were just observers or spectators watching the events happen. Nobody is happy when this kind of thing happens."
Of course, in Sasha Djordjevic, you have a coach who understands your position very well. What difference did his arrival make for you?
"The main difference is that now we try to push our game at a higher speed, using open-court solutions first and taking then what the defense allows us, doing our best to read the offensive situations. We try to use a high pace during the whole game. This is the system of play that I like and that I felt good playing in my seasons in Treviso under coach Mike D'Antoni and Ettore Messina."
How did this team keep its confidence knowing it had to beat Maccabi and Barcelona just to stay alive?
"I think that our team goes out all the time to win the match, apart from the qualification to the Top 16 or every other goal. Next Thursday would be the same even if we had lost to Barcelona. Our idea is to go out and win without looking first at the standings. This is what we always have to do."
All three victories - Cibona, Maccabi, Barcelona - began with big leads early in the game. It seems like you guys are walking on the floor with a different attitude. What changed?
"I don't think there is a particular reason: it just happened. There are things that you can't explain why they happen or stop happening. For instance, in our Euroleague home debut with Efes Pilsen, we took a double-figure margin early in the game and in the end we lost."
You walk on the floor again Thursday against Olympiacos knowing that a victory takes you into the Top 16. If that happens, how will you feel?
"I think that, if we win, I will have great confidence for our future. Obviously, I also will be happy for reaching the first goal of our club this year, the Top 16. Then it would mean that the new road we embarked on is the right one, and will give us great confidence for the rest of the season."
You have a lot of experience in the Euroleague. Looking ahead, if Milano can make it to the Top 16, is yours the kind of team that can be dangerous in the next round?
"The Top 16 is a unique competition, first of all because there are just six games, and a good start or an early home loss can change your course. It also depends on which teams you're drawn with and, as every season, there are upsets around every corner. There are teams who declared at the beginning the season that their goal is the Final Four, others who are happy to be in the Top 16. To play without pressure can often make the difference, and I think we can take advantage of that. We never talked about having the Final Four as a goal, but we will do our best to reach the best achievement possible."