Considering that he has been playing pro basketball since 1997 and has spent this whole decade winning titles, it's something of a surprise to realize that Matjaz Smodis of CSKA Moscow, Euroleague Basketball's MVP for February, has only recently turned 27 years old. From his first Euroleague title with Kinder Bologna in 2001 until last year's return to the podium with CSKA, Smodis has always been a scheme-breaking player: dragging big defenders away from the basket with his lethal long-distance shot or taking advantage of smaller defenders with his post-up prowess. Along the way, Smodis has developed into an all-purpose scorer made to order a team-oriented offense like CSKA's that relies on chemistry as much as talent to win. "Everyone here does things for the good of the team, and I think that helps a lot," Smodis told Euroleague.net. "Chemistry is something you have to work on every day, because you can lose it easily. Our chemistry gets better and sometimes it's like you know what the other guys are thinking."
Hi Matjaz. Congratulations on being chosen the MVP for February. CSKA is having another fantastic season, even better than last year at this time in terms of victories. How special has it been for you guys to go out there and defend the Euroleague trophy, your status as champions, week after week?
"I don’t see it as defending the title, but as trying to win it again. If you look at it as defending the title, I think it becomes harder. It's a new cup out there. No one is going to take away the one we have. They'll just give us a new one if we win again. So in that sense, it's about changing the mentality a bit. It helps to do that because this is hard. Everyone comes ready for the champs, to play as well as they can against us, and that's expected. The important thing is to go step by step, take every game as it comes, always being ready, not thinking ahead or to the Final Four yet. That's the key, to not jump forward, but just to go step by step and day by day, hoping to get another chance."
You have won a continental title before, with Kinder Bologna. Is the life of a champ during the next season really different in terms of competing with perhaps more of an air of confidence maybe based on winning the year before?
"Of course, there's a lot of confidence and winning surely helps that. This year lot has been a lot easier for everybody, since we know each other more, plus we have more confidence from the results last year. In that sense, it is easier, but like I said before, we can't get overconfident, which can be the downside. We've got to keep showing up every day at practice and being ready for every game. Everyone sees us as defending champs, but we have to see it the other way."
You personally look like you're having as much fun as ever playing this season. Is that true, and if so, is it due to winning it all last season?
"If I wasn't having fun playing, I wouldn't play no more. But it's true that this is my best season so far. I feel confident, my back is OK, and I've had only minor injuries this season. so yeah, I am having fun. I like it here and the confidence level is getting higher and higher. We feel that doing things the way we have been doing them might get us another big shot at the end. But for now, we're going step by step and enjoying every day."
We hear a lot of the chemistry and the group dynamic being part of CSKA's success. How did it develop and how much work goes into it on a regular basis? Can there be great defense like CSKA's without great team chemistry?
"The most important thing here is that there are no bad guys in the sense of people who put themselves in front of the team. Everyone here does things for the good of the team. I think that helps a lot. Chemistry is something you have to work on every day, because you can lose it easily. In a couple bad games, the chemistry's gone and little problems keep coming. So we work on it every day. Having a group of players who know that the higher thing is winning and work toward the chance to win more, putting everything else before themselves and for the team is surely helping a lot. Also the fact that we didn't change the team much from last year is a big plus. That way there are basically no surprises, nothing shocking can happen because of that. You know what's coming and how people will react. Our chemistry gets better and sometimes it's like you know what the other guys are thinking."
One of the biggest adjustments CSKA had to make last month was losing a regular starter, David Vanterpool, to injury and welcoming a new player, Oscar Torres, at the height of the season, really. When both are playing, how much stronger will CSKA get?
"For sure, losing David was a big loss for us. He's one of our prime leaders on the court. But the club did an excellent thing in picking up Oscar at the last minute. He's a great guy in the sense that he is adjusting well and not putting himself in front of the team. For sure, when Dave comes back we're going to be stronger. It's kind of like last year when we lost David Andersen and other guys stepped up. I think that Holden, Papaloukas, Ponkrashov and everyone are doing an excellent job, and getting an extra hand in Torres will prove to be a big pick up as we go along. He's going to get better and make it easier for everyone else. He's already helping us a lot so far."
You already have two Euroleague titles and reached another title game - for three different teams - but you've just turned 27. Do you feel like the prime of your career is just starting?
"Yes, definitely. I hope that things keep going the right way, the way they have been. I feel good, and I probably look like I am having fun because of that. I just hope that in the prime of my career, all that experience I've had will help."
Speaking of your two titles: is there any difference in your mind between the five-game playoff victory in 2001 and last year's Final Four triumph?
"It's a different thing for sure. Winning the playoffs means you can play one or two bad games and still win. The Final Four is another world entirely. You get one shot for one championship, and if you play a bad game at the wrong time, you're out. It's like CSKA went through two years ago, losing the only game they could not lose, against Tau in the semifinals. It's definitely more difficult with the Final Four system than with playoffs. I would also say that for me the sweeter one and the one I appreciate more is definitely last year's title. It was a lot harder to get, and maybe the fact that I played more this time than at Kinder, when I was a youngster and only came off the bench to help some."
You guys obviously have a chance to win rare back-to-back titles, but if you do that, to have also one of the best records ever at this level. Is the possibility of making history in that way - not only the best that year, but one of the best ever - a motivation for you?
"Well, of course, but thinking that way puts more pressure on us. So far, we have been able to play well under pressure and produce good results. Maybe we twist the mentality a bit and take pressure as a positive, not a negative. It's nice to set records when you win, but you have to remember that the important thing is to win, and to win at the right moment, and being ready for that moment by taking it step by step before. Taking every game like it's the most important and not jumping ahead in our minds has put is in a position now to talk about records, but records aren't the focus or the motivation. It's just something that came along with winning. No one was thinking about it, or is thinking about it now."
Besides being a player, you are a father of young kids, one of whom was in your arms with the trophy in Bologna in 2001. Are your kids old enough to have Euroleague Devotion yet?
"I would say they are a little young yet, but my younger son Luka is a big fan. He wants to watch it all, from the Euroleague to the NBA, anything that's basketball. And wants to shoot all the time he can. His older brother is more into football, and that's OK with me. Maybe the third one, who is on the way soon, will be the actual player. Who knows? But whatever they want to do is OK with me."