| Over more than a decade at the top levels of European basketball, there has never been any doubt that Igor Rakocevic of Tau Ceramica, named January MVP by Euroleague Basketball this week, is a born scorer of the type that comes along very rarely. This season, however, Rakocevic has out-done himself. His 20 points per game lead the Euroleague rankings by a wider margin than any full-season scoring leader this decade. They also mark his highest average scoring in European competition. At age 30, Rakocevic says that not only experience but accomplishment have given him a new outlook on basketball. "I needed in my career to win something big like the league title in Spain last year, and after reaching that with the team, it gave me tremendous tranquility and confidence," Rakocevic told Euroleague.net. "I have started enjoying basketball much more than before."
Igor, before talking basketball, this is a difficult moment at your club after the news that Tiago Splitter's teenage sister died of leukemia. How much does this affect the team?
"It affects the team a lot, really a lot. When we found out this morning, it was really devastating news for us, because always family is the most important thing. It's especially sad in the case of Tiago, who is one of the best guys I have ever known in my basketball career. It's incredibly hard for him, I know, and hard for our team, yes, but Tiago is most important now. We must give our best to help him go through this hard moment in the best possible way."
Now, congratulations on such a great month of January. Everyone who always knew you were a great scorer sees something extra in your performance this season. What is it?
"Last year, after we won the Spanish Supercup and the Spanish ACB League title, I got a big boost in confidence and a big boost in my tranquility. I needed in my career to win something big like the league title in Spain last year, and after reaching that with the team, it gave me tremendous tranquility and confidence, and I have started enjoying basketball much more than before. It was a spectacular moment for me to win the Spanish title. This year, I am playing better all around, improving in defense and rebounding. I also think that playing the last three years with the same guys is hugely important. We know each other better, it's easier than before to play together. It's logical after so much time, but it's always getting better. My teammates are really incredible. We really work together as a team and know lot of tricks between us that we use during games. It helps a lot. I think I owe a lot to Coach Ivanovic, too. From the first moment here, he gave me a lot of confidence and freedom, and I think I have managed to return that confidence to him by playing good. It's everything I mention. Each thing helps a little bit and when all of them come together in the right place, it makes playing easier. I feel now I am a much better player than before."
How was the motivation factor among you and your teammates in January to first win your regular season group and then start the Top 16 strong?
"Those were very big motivations. We are really pushing hard this season in the Euroleague because we have already achieved practically everything we can in Spain. Now, we want to make one more step in the Euroleague. The first objective is, of course, to reach the Final Four, and then to make it at least to the final game. We would be happy with one more step than we made the last two seasons. So now it looks good. We are motivated for every game and we know our goal. It is very clear what we want, even though we also know it will be hard to survive against so many good teams in Europe."
As great as you guys were playing all season, you still had that must-win game at Lottomatica in Rome, which started January with a huge overtime win. Was it good to be in that must-win situation?
"Yes, it was the key game of the first round in the Euroleague. We needed to win that game to be in first place for sure. We prepared very good for it and knew very clearly that it meant first place. What was funny, however, was that we had one of our worst three-point shooting performances in that game, but we did good in some other things and still won. We should have finished it earlier - we were up 10 points with 2 minutes left - but Roma is a good team and came back to tie. It wasn't easy, but we passed a good test in overtime."
In January's middle game, Tau had nothing to gain, but you took revenge against the only other team besides Roma that had beaten you, DKV Joventut, knocking them out of the Top 16. What was the motivation that night?
"There were some rumors that we read saying that it depended on our game which of the other two teams entered the Top 16. We just made sure to do our job professionally, to come out and play our best and see what happened. We came out, played a very good game and beat Joventut clearly in the second half. Like I said, we did our job professionally."
To open the Top 16 last week against Asseco Prokom, you scored 14 points in 7 minutes of a big win. Some people were thinking early in that game that you might look for a scoring record. Not you?
"No, because usually in the games where we lead by 20 or more in the first half, our coach wants to give more playing time to players who normally play less. Players like Pablo Prigioni, Tiago Splitter and me get substituted earlier and play less in those situations. Those games are very good to help teammates who need playing time for their confidence to have good games. Then, when the big games come later, they will be able to contribute and help the team more. When we are clearly going to win after the first half, we try to make sure the other players get their confidence, too."
How much of an effect has your new coach, Dusko Ivanovic, had on your strong season?
"He has for sure had a very good and significant effect on my game. Of course, he's a good coach, very honest and righteous in what he does. It doesn't matter if he likes you or not, where you are from or what he thinks about you off the court: if you do what you should on the court and do thing how he says to do them, you are going to play. It's very hard to practice for him; every practice is run at the maximum level, which is very hard. But it turns out to be very effective, too. A lot of our players this year are doing really good. The other big quality Coach Ivanovic has is that he pays a lot of attention to details. I have seen this kind of work before playing for coaches like Zeljko Obradovic, and it's true that the details are as important as anything. They are the difference between a good team and a great team."
How does a scorer keep scoring when whole defenses are focused on stopping him?
"It is really hard. It's very important for a shooting guard to understand that there are going to be some games when you are not going to make your shots. Once you understand that even if you miss shots, you can still have a great game doing other things, that's when you become a real shooting guard. It has happened to me a lot of times this year that in the first half, I score 2 or 4 points because my shot is missing. But I keep playing defense, rebounding and helping, and in the end, it always turns out good, it always comes back. That is the key. To be able to score you have to be mentally very strong. I think shooting guard is one of hardest positions to play on a team because you depend a lot on the point guard and on screens from the big guys. And the other team's defense might decide to help or not with your defender, to double-team you on pick-and-rolls. You have to recognize all of that. But you have to know that you don't have to enter every game and start scoring. You have to enter relaxed and play basketball and be very, very focused."
Despite all that, you rarely look stressed on the court. Why not?
"It's because, as I said, once you receive in your career everything you tried for, you get that kind of confidence and satisfaction, and it shows on your face. I am really happy now with how my career has turned out. I had some problems when I was younger in my family - my mother died when I was 18 and that hurt a lot - and also outside. I didn't enjoy sometimes to play basketball. All of that has changed in the last three or four years and now I am super happy with everything and enjoy playing more than ever."
In that case, at age 30, what do you consider the goals you have left?
"The only thing lacking my career now is the Euroleague championship and the Spanish Cup. I know that winning the Euroleague is a huge goal to have, but I hope that this season or another soon, I will reach it. This season, I will be happy to reach one of those goals. Of course, I would be happy to win any of the three - Euroleague, Spanish League or Spanish Cup - with Tau this season. Any one of them would make my career happier, but my goal is to add one more title this year, and hopefully one I haven't won before."
After being in the last two Final Fours with Tau, what have you learned about what it takes to win the Euroleague?
"I played two times in the Final Four so far, and I tell you, it gives you incredible experience. Those games are seriously something special Every detailed is covered. There's a lot of tactics. There's an incredible intensity to those games. Now, we have a lot more experience since a lot of players on our team have been to at least two Final Fours. Now, we know what's waiting for us if we enter the Final Four again. We had a little bad luck in the last two years to face in the semifinals the teams that became the champions. Although we came close to beating CSKA last year, we needed a little more quality to our game. I think it would have been easier to play the other teams in the semifinals. This year, if we make it, maybe things will come out different for us. In any case, we have a lot more experience now and if we get the chance again, we're going to respond better than last year or two years ago."