|He has accomplished so much already, it is hard to believe that Ramunas Siskauskas of CSKA Moscow has only played five full seasons in the Euroleague. He has been champion twice, in consecutive seasons with different teams. He was the Euroleague MVP once and was named an All-Euroleague selection in two other seasons. He missed a third title consecutively by millimeters on last season's final shot, but left no doubt that any coach would be wise to put the ball in his hands in that situation again. And at 31 years old, Siskauskas is still going strong as he and CSKA take a nine-game winning streak into the middle of the Top 16 and a first-place showdown against visiting Asseco Prokom Gdynia on Wednesday. In a season when CSKA was supposed to struggle - and did - the player known far and wide as "Siska" is not afraid to count his blessings, even while he strives for more of them. "When I was a kid, I just dreamed of being - I don't know - a professional basketball player," Siskauskas told Euroleague.net. "At this moment, it's still difficult to believe that in such a short time in the Euroleague, in just five season before this one, I've been able to win a lot of titles, trophies, everything...I don't know what more to want. I am very lucky. Of course, I did a lot of work, and I tried to reach more and more. But this is incredible, at this moment, to know all that came to me in these few years."
Ramunas, what's the mood around CSKA these days after starting the season tough and now riding a nine-game win streak?
"The mood is alright. We are getting ready for the toughest game of the season so far, on Wednesday against Prokom. Probably it's going to be the game for first place in our Top 16 group, but we are OK now and, like I said, we feel ready. The beginning of the season was very tough, but step-by-step we became more comfortable and now everything is in our hands. The group we are in is a good one, so we are waiting to play the games to see who wins. Everything depends now on us."
Are you surprised to find Asseco Prokom Gdynia as your opponent in such a big game?
"Prokom is a good team. They have good players. But no, during the regular season, I didn't expect them to be here now. They have shown really good basketball. They won by 20 points in Malaga, where everyone knows it is not easy to play. They are like some other teams that maybe have surprised people. Partizan, of course, has proven to be in good shape now. They beat Panathinaikos and Barcelona, and there is nothing to add. To beat those teams is very, very tough. Now they have good chances, playing Panathinaikos at home in Belgrade, which is one of the craziest places to play. Another team that surprises me is Maroussi, which also plays really good basketball. They just beat Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in the same week. It means what we always say: there are no easy games in the Top 16. Even those teams you thought were not, let's say, so strong, they have shown they are ready. And everyone has to be ready for them."
Is it interesting for players, like for fans, to see these new teams challenging for the playoffs?
"Of course, not knowing what to expect makes things interesting. That's good for the Euroleague and for all the teams. It's much better when there are not just three or four teams on top, and no one can beat them. This is more interesting."
Does it make you think a lot more about what could happen in a game like Wednesday's?
"I hope we are ready and I think we are ready. There is no relaxing now. In the regular season, Prokom was close in Athens against Panathinaikos. They are a really good team. So it doesn't matter that we are playing in Moscow. We have to be 100 percent ready for all 40 minutes."
After Ettore Messina and some players left, everyone expected this would be a different season for Moscow? Is it different? And did the players expect it, too?
"We didn't know what to think. One of the best coaches in the world left. Some players left. Nobody knew what to expect. Especially in the beginning, the first games in the Euroleague and the Russian League were very, very difficult and tough. We won our first Euroleague game in Maroussi with a fantastic shot by Khryapa, and then we lost two in a row. Also in the Russian League, the first four or five games were won by average of four or five points. They were tough and difficult moments for the team. But still we have very good players, a young and talented coach, and day by day, we came back to the same playing level as in the last years. We didn't change so much tactics, because this coach worked with Messina as an assistant, so he knew everything we did. Step by step we got in better shape and we got confidence after some wins against good teams. Now, we are not afraid now of anybody. We are ready to fight."
Were you and your teammates worried at any point?
"We can say we were a little bit worried. But we had a meeting, just among the players. We talked with each other, about what's wrong, about what we have to do. I think it helped a lot. After that, we got some wins and some confidence. We knew we could play and that we were a good team even with Messina or other players missing, like Matjaz Smodis. We knew that we could play much better than we were playing."
Record-wise, CSKA was no better than it is now, 10-2, in its first 12 games the last two seasons. Does this team have the same championship chances?
"It's a tough question. Nobody knows. I think even we cannot say how far we can go. But of course we will try. And all the games this season until now have shown that we are one of the favorites, maybe, to keep going. We can go far. We just need to continue to play how we are playing now. We've seen many games like Partizan over Panathinaikos and over Barcelona. This is basketball, and everyone knows how to play. Nobody knows when you can lose. But we are trying, and I think we have good chances to go to the playoffs, maybe even more."
What wasn't working at the beginning and how did you guys make it work?
"We know how to do it, but maybe in the beginning, with a new coach and new players, maybe everybody wanted to show their skills, that they can do this or that. We all wanted to show we are still a good team. But this doesn't always work in right way. We just had to remember what we did in recent years, how we played: first of all, to play good defense, to move the ball on offense. We always played like a team, and that's our strength. There is no one player who can win the game. In different games, different players can, yes, but not one in every game."
The team seems to feel confident with Viktor Khryapa at power forward. How important has Viktor been for your great run so far this season?
"He's very important to our team. He is one of the key players. He can give assists, plays very good defense, rebounds on both ends, passes, steals. It would be difficult without him now, very difficult. I think he's one of the best power forwards this year in the Euroleague. He does everything."
Tell us about the influence of head coach Evgeniy Pashutin. You guys knew him already. What has been his influence and strengths in turning the team around to win nine consecutive Euroleague games?
"First of all, I think that for him also it's a very tough and difficult season. It's only his second year as a head coach, after last year with St. Petersburg, only playing in the Russian League. To go from that to immediately coaching a Euroleague team is very difficult. He's young and he's learning. The main thing is that he wants to improve and continue to learn coaching. He's not afraid to recognize his mistakes and if something is not right, he says OK, maybe it's my fault. It's logical. He's young. I think he can be a good coach. It's tough to pinpoint his strengths because, as I said, we didn't change a lot tactically. We more or less play as before, although maybe we play less for the big guys. We don't have Erazem Lorbek and Smodis now. Sasha Kaun is young and not a pure post-up player. He's better at pick-and-roll. So we depend more on smaller guys. Coach Pashutin, just as every coach sees the players he has, sees this and tries to do more for us. It's only been half a year together with him. We'll see. But he's OK and talented as a coach."
When you walk on the court and see Trajan, J.R. and now Viktor with you - and they see you - how much does all that experience count?
"For sure, experience is very important. When things weren't going good in the beginning, we knew we could do much better. We've been through tough moments and tough situations before. I remember games like the year in the playoffs that we lost the first game out of three to Olympiacos at home. We've been in those situations and gotten through them. It's important to stay calm, to use your experience. Anyway, all teams have to go through tough times. It's very difficult to play the whole season on the top, top level. Bad moments are coming sooner or later. With this experience, with these players, with a lot of years together, we know how to get through those moments."
This is your sixth Euroleague season. You already won a Euroleague MVP award, lifted the Euroleague trophy with two different teams and almost won another at the buzzer. Did you expect anything like that when you joined the league with Benetton in 2004?
"Honestly, no. Not at that time. Even when I was a kid, I just dreamed of being - I don't know - a professional basketball player. At this moment, it's still difficult to believe that in such a short time in the Euroleague, in just five season before this one, I've been able to win a lot of titles, trophies, everything. For me it's not like a dream, but I don't know what more to want. I am very lucky. Of course, I did a lot of work, and I tried to reach more and more. But this is incredible, at this moment, to know all that came to me in these few years."