|From a record-breaking home loss in his Euroleague debut in the season's very first game, Jamont Gordon and Cibona Zagreb have made the longest of comebacks to the brink of the playoffs. That road started with a two-point victory in the regular season's last game to reach the Top 16. Now, despite a 1-4 record in Top 16 Group H, Cibona can still survive a three-way tie with a road victory at Caja Laboral on Thursday if Olympiacos also stays undefeated on the road against Khimki Moscow Region. If successful, Cibona's comeback will have a lot to with Gordon, who seems to grow in stature with each passing game. The 22-year-old point guard is the Top 16's leading scorer with 21.4 points per game while ranking ninth in rebounds and 10th in assists. He and his teammates have come a long way from October 21, when they lost 40-85 to open the season against Montepaschi, but Gordon - for one - says that bad experience was a big lesson. "One thing that changed was me. I look at myself as the point guard and the team's leader on the floor, and I think I could have done something better to help my team," Gordon told Euroleague.net. "That was very embarrassing for me and I took it as a challenge not to let anything like that happen again. We just kept working hard every day from there and it's paying off now."
Jamont, against all odds Cibona this week can make the playoffs despite winning just one Top 16 game so far. How pumped are you and your teammates to have this chance?
"I know that they haven't made the playoffs recently, so that's something we want to accomplish. And I think we can go win this game, too. We played Caja Laboral at home the last time and lost by three points, but we are playing better lately. It's a good chance and we deserve the chance. We worked hard every day and lost some close games, so we deserve this one last shot. Now we've just got to come out, play hard and get it."
How important has believing in yourselves been for this team after reaching the Top 16 by two points and now staying alive after a 0-4 start in the Top 16?
"It has been very important for us. We know that nobody is going to give us anything for free. So just believing in ourselves was big for this team. We worked hard every game in practice and all of us just took our game up an extra notch. People didn't expect us to win, but we have talent on this team, so all we needed to go with it was confidence."
Your numbers have skyrocketed in the Top 16. Was it a matter of getting used to the competition for a few months?
"I definitely had to get used to the talent level and to all the very good teams. And I also worked hard on my game in practice. Another thing is that a lot of the guys I go against, and playing against big teams, that's all motivation for me. If he's a good player, I want to see what he's got. I take that as a challenge, and that helps me out a lot."
Your one-handed dunks off the dribble - not to mention how you celebrate them - are becoming a trademark. How did you perfect them?
"The one-handed dunk has always been my thing since my high school days. Guys always kind of pressure me when I have the ball - I don't know why - but they always give me my left hand, which is my strong side. So I just try to get over that side, sky and dunk. The celebration came one day that I was joking with our guys here at Cibona. I saw the fans liked it too, so I kept it up."
One thing people are noticing, besides your dunks, is your age, 22, after two seasons already in Europe. How did you make it here so young?
"I left college a year early, entered the NBA draft, didn't get drafted and ended up in Bologna last year. I could have gone back to school, but I felt that I wanted to take on my professional career. I got a good deal and came to Europe, and I think I've adjusted well. Last year was tough, learning the game here, but my coach now lets me play. He knows I'll make mistakes, but he believes in me, and I believe in myself and what I can do, so both those things help a lot."
Cibona has come a long way since opening the season with the worst home loss ever in the Euroleague, 40-85 against Montepaschi back in October. What changed to help you guys get over something like that?
"One thing that changed was me. I look at myself as the point guard and the team's leader on the floor, and I think I could have done something better to help my team not get beat that bad. It was very embarrassing and motivated us to all work hard. It was worse than I ever got beat in my whole career and going all the way back to school. That was very embarrassing for me and I took it as a challenge not to let anything like that happen again. We just kept working hard every day from there and it's paying off now."
Do you guys look at playing Caja Laboral now as a chance to take back one of the close games that you could have won earlier, maybe with the extra experience gained now?
"We really did let the first game against them slip away from us. I think winning those kinds of close games comes from experience. We have a lot of young, not-too-experienced guys, and that's what caused us to lose those close games sometimes. We are practicing those situations, such as running sets better. I take it as a challenge to get everyone in the right place on the court and work at getting good shots. If most of our problem was being young, we want the losing experience to motivate us now to make those plays down the stretch."
Going into such a key game, what significance will it have for you to face your point guard partner from Fortitudo a year ago, Marcelinho Huertas of Caja Laboral?
"It's going to be fun to go up against him. We did it every day in practice last year, me guarding him, him guarding me. He's a smart and crafty player, but I know all about him. I know his moves and know what to expect. I am looking forward to a good challenge to go against him."
You and Marko Tomas are the best scoring duo of the Top 16, but Bojan Bogdanovic was last week's MVP. How important will it be to have an extra big performer step up like that against Caja Laboral in this do-or-die game?
"It's definitely going to be the key. If the other guys do that, it makes my and Marko's jobs a lot easier. I try to get them the ball, get them pumped up and involved early, because I want to let them know we can do this. If they step up like last week, I know we can win."
What would it mean to you, as a Euroleague rookie, knowing your contribution so far, to help pull off a win and reach the playoffs this week?
"It would mean a lot, because it would be a great accomplishment for us. I want to go as far as we can. Most of all, I'm very excited about playing on Thursday. I want to win and my teammates do, too. We're looking forward to this chance. We're ready to play."