|He was a go-to star, leading teams like Lottomatica Roma and Armani Jeans Milano into the Top 16, from the moment he joined the Euroleague in 2006. This season, however, David Hawkins of Montepaschi Siena is taking a different approach in trying to go at least one step beyond and challenge for a Euroleague title. The 27-year-old guard's role is the same as ever - tenacious defense and aggressive offense - but now Hawkins is packing similar numbers into fewer minutes while feeding off the winning ways of his teammates. The result so far has been an undefeated domestic season in Italy, highlighted over the weekend by an Italian Cup title, a first for Hawkins. Now, going into the second half of the Top 16, he and Montepaschi face one crucial game after another in drum-tight Group F, starting with a road challenge against Real Madrid on Thursday that could prove decisive. It's another test that Hawkins, who puts up the third-most points and second-most assists and steals for Montepaschi, welcomes with open arms. "I don't think there are going to be any easy games or any blowouts now," Hawkins told Euroleague.net. "The last half of the round is going to be full of barnburning, nailbiting finishes. I know that, from us, fans are going to see our best, the team focused and coming out trying to reach our next goal."
Hello, David. First and foremost, congratulations on the big win against Real Madrid last week. Was that Montepaschi's biggest victory yet this season?
"It definitely was a real big win, because it was like our first must-win game so far. At this stage, it's very important to win at home. We've got to get at least one on the road, too. But to beat a team like Real Madrid puts us in a better position, no doubt, so it has to be our biggest win so far."
You've been playing Top 16 a few years now, what does a victory like that do for your team going forward?
"Only good things come from winning. A win like that always improves the environment, the ambience and the confidence around the team. We already knew we belonged at this level, but to beat another team we consider to be at the same level stamps it for us. And for people around who had doubts about us, it opens up their eyes. It's only one win though; now, we have to come back to do the same in Madrid."
Having now played all three opponents - Real Madrid, Maccabi and Efes Pilsen - what are your thoughts now on this group?
"I would have to say that once the Top 16 starts, it gets kind of serious. Everybody said our group was very tough, but I think that once you reach the Top 16, all groups are tough. That's being shown in the other groups, too. There is nothing set in stone at this stage. Some teams that might have thought they'd have a cakewalk have seen now that it's not that simple. So with the group we have, you have to come in knowing that anything can happen on any given night. So now we must work to protect our home court and get a road win also."
Can you describe your role this first season in Siena compared to having been needed as a main scorer or main defender for your two previous teams, Roma and Milano?
"It's just basically trying to bring in all the characteristics and things I did in the past, and apply them to the group. It's kind of easier for me now, because I am not the focal point of opposing defenses and also I don't have to be the focal point of our offense. It's less stress, less pressure, and that helps me focus. I try to do what I did before in 30 or 35 minutes and focus it for 20 minutes, and that makes it easier."
You have fit perfectly into coach Simone Pianigiani's offense. How has it been working with him?
"It's just basically a mutual respect there between me and him. Every year since I have been in Italy, I was playing against his team, in the playoffs as well as the regular season, so I know he's a good coach and I did my background on him before signing. Everybody had good things to say. He's a players' coach. The relationship is he lets me know what needs to be done, and I go try to do it. I asked when I got here about my role, and he said to bring energy, to bring defenses and to play free on offense, and it has pretty much worked out fine that way."
You also fit in great with a team that mostly has been together, dominating the Italian League, for a few years. Seen from the inside, what is the Siena difference?
"I just see a different type of mindset that everybody has, that winning mindset. It's always around, in practice, during games. It's about coming to win. There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to win every game. That's the mentality everybody has. When you play against Montepaschi, you might be up at halftime, thinking it's your team's night. Then they come out in the third quarter like a whole different team. Now I see that it's the way we adjust to different situations in different games. At the same time, there's a target on this team, because everybody tries to play their best against us. I know in previous years I brought my best game against Siena. This team has to be ready to take the challenge every game, knowing that it takes focus and concentration and hard work - and we put that in here. I see that first-hand now."
Terrell McIntyre, an all-Euroleague selection twice, comes off a tremendous game against Madrid. How important is it for you to have a point guard like him?
"I don't think I have ever had a point guard quite like him. He has probably been the most prototypical and truest point guard that I have played with. He's a leader - vocally, on offense, on defense, shooting, passing, everything. He makes the game so much easier, because he knows the pressure is on him and he not only takes that challenge, but overcomes it almost every game. I feel blessed to be able to play with him and play along with him and to learn how to play with a real point guard. Most of the time in my past, I wasn't the point guard, but I still had the ball in my hands, trying to make decisions. I'm not put in that situation too much here, because Terrell does that and I can play off him, which is great."
You're previous Top 16 experience included some tough luck: Trajan Langdon's buzzer-beater in Moscow when you were with Roma, or starting 2-0 last year in Milano then losing the last four games. What did all that tough luck team you about the Top 16?
"It pretty much let me know anything can happen and you have to finish. And I mean anything. In Moscow that year, nobody expected us to be close enough to lose by a buzzer-beater against CSKA in that game. That says anything can happen, and if we had made a free throw, we probably would have won. Last year, my team started 2-0 and then we got too anxious. Other teams stepped up their game and got serious, but we didn't match their intensity. You can start well and take two wins for what they are worth, but that's not enough to get the job done. You have to finish the job. Even if you win, you have to recognize mistakes, capitalize on them, keep building and win more."
What can fans expect the rest of the way in this Group F?
"I don't think there are going to be any easy games or any blowouts now. The last half of the round is going to be full of barn-burning, nail-biting finishes. I know that from us fans are going to see our best, the team focused and coming out trying to reach our next goal."
This is your fourth Euroleague season and your teams always made it to the Top 16, but never beyond that. What would it mean to reach the playoffs or advance to the Final Four with the chance to win the title?
"Every year I have finished not being content. My goal is to finish as high as I can in the Euroleague and win the Italian championships. Those would be next steps in my career, something I never reach before. But it's not just to reach the next round. We want to make it all the way, but step by step. First, we've got to get these next few games, make it to the next round, and go from there."