|No one can have quite as wide a perspective on the Final Four as does CSKA Moscow head coach Evgeny Pashutin. He has made the continent's marquee event as a player, a brother, an assistant coach and, now, in his rookie Euroleague season on the bench. In 2003, Pashutin's last season as a player, he helped CSKA reach the Final Four alongside brother Zakhar and his current players J.R. Holden and Viktor Khryapa. Pashutin retired to become a CSKA assistant coach, first under Dusan Ivkovic and later Ettore Messina, helping the club win Euroleague titles in 2006 and 2008. He also guided CSKA's junior team to the International Junior Tournament title in Tel Aviv in 2004. After his successful head coaching debut last season with Spartak St. Petersburg, CSKA tabbed Pashutin for its bench, and he has rewarded that confidence by leading the team back to the Final Four. Pashutin helped CSKA bounce back from a slow start by getting young players involved and turning CSKA into a versatile, fun-to-watch team that mixes experience and up-and-coming talent. Pashutin knows that having been there and lifted the trophy in the past may be critical for CSKA at the 2010 Final Four. "We know how to play these games and how to give our best under pressure," Pashutin told Euroleague.net. "In deciding games like a semifinal, experience is very important. It doesn't guarantee anything, but experience definitely helps."
Hello, coach. It is your first season coaching CSKA and you took the team to its eighth consecutive Final Four. Did you feel any pressure to keep that streak going?
"This is a very important season for us. CSKA is one of the best clubs in Europe. Like you said, we are in our eighth consecutive Final Four, so becoming CSKA's head coach already gives you big pressure from the very beginning. CSKA only has one target - to win all competitions in which our club participates. The target this Euroleague season has not been different - to go out there and fight to win, do all we can to win. So yes, I felt pressure, but not because of that Final Four streak. CSKA is a great club and this is what you expect."
CSKA had a slow start, almost 0-3 except for that miracle shot to win the opener. Was that just a necessary adjustment period for everyone before the team could start playing its best basketball?
"It was big a long way for us from the beginning of the season until now. But yes, we needed an adjustment period. We needed some time to find the balance and define our roles in the team. We have a very strong perimeter and Sasha Kaun was injured early in the season. Matjaz Smodis was not able to play either, so all we had inside was a young center like Dimitri Sokolov and Viktor Khryapa. It was very tough for us to play under the baskets. We fought for every rebound, but we were being outplayed on the boards. When Kaun came back, he was a big, big addition for us and we started to play better. He rebounded very well at both ends this season and has been playing the pick-and-roll really well, too. The rest of the team trusts him more and he has given us balance between the frontline and the perimeter."
At the time, when things weren't going well, did it occur to you that your predecessor, Ettore Messina, had a similarly tough start when he came on the job his first season, which of course ended in a title? Did that coincidence make you feel any better at the time?
"Well, we can definitely compare. I'd like to say that Ettore Messina is a great coach, one of the best in Europe, and our teacher. I want to wish him the best of luck. It could be a similar situation because this season, just as in 2006, few people believed in us from the very beginning… And we made it to Paris. Of course the Euroleague Final Four will be a completely different tournament. We have to prepare to play against Barcelona, show good balance and play our best defense. But I agree with you, the scenario is similar to 2006 and I have thought about it, yes."
How did the presence of so many veterans - Holden, Langdon, Siskauskas, Khryapa, Planinic, etc - influence your decisions along the way? What did having them allow you to do that you might not have without their experience?
"We are always in process of trying to find the best way to make the most out of this team, to help them to show their talent on the court. Of course, this team is built for them because experience counts a lot, especially in this part of the season."
One key to CSKA's success after that slow start was using Viktor Khryapa at power forward to solve the problem of Matjaz Smodis being injured. He opened the court, more than tripled his assists average and was the key player in your defense. Was that one of your best decisions this year?
"Yes, of course, but I wouldn't like to talk about myself because you have to give Viktor credit for this great season. My feeling is that having Khryapa at power forward would allow us to make the most out of his jumping ability, quick first step and shooting skills. Being a power forward, it is not easy to play against him because he is much faster than everyone else. At the same time, he play defense under the basket. You are absolutely right, he has been a key player for us. I hope that he shows his best games at the Final Four and the Russian League playoffs."
Later in the season, you got big games out of young players like Andrey Vorontsevich and Sasha Kaun. How much did you need them to step up in order for the team to keep getting better?
"Both players have stepped up this season, worked hard and have become very important to this team. Of course, our circumstances have helped them to get better. For instance, Sasha is getting more playing time and more options in offense now than in the beginning of the season. Sasha has helped us a lot with rebounds, setting screens for our shooters and helping the team in many, many ways. As for Vorontsevich, he is a very talented guy and it is not easy to come off the bench and help us the way he has. He showed how much he has developed in important games like against Caja Laboral in Moscow. He is a pure '4' but can play at '5' and do a very good defensive job. He can shoot from outside and we expect him to become to become a high-level Euroleague player and give a constant contribution. This season should be just one step forward for him, as he has a great future."
What is the situation with Matjaz Smodis now? Does his return make the team complete and let you arrive in the best shape to Paris?
"Yes, I think so. Matjaz played against BC Khimki last weekend and rejoined team practices, too. We are trying to help Matjaz as much as we can, because it is not easy to be back after being sidelined for so many months. He was given permission to be back with the team, and that is important because he is a great player, a great guy and a big part of CSKA's success. I am sure that the entire team will do its best to bring him back as soon as possible."
Barcelona in the semifinals: what problems does that team represent for CSKA and what can you do to solve those problems?
"Well, I won't give tactical answers because I am sure they will read this interview! [laughing] It is going to be a big fight and we need to play our best defense and control the game tempo. It is very, very tough to play against Barcelona if you don't control the game tempo. We will work hard and be ready for the game."
Seven CSKA players have been Euroleague champions already. Barcelona has 10 players with Final Four experience, but only Juan Carlos Navarro lifted the trophy. Is your experience an important factor in this semifinal?
"I think so, definitely. We know how to play these games and how to give our best under pressure. In deciding games like a semifinal, experience is very important. We have been in this situation before and kept control of the game. You have to fight for the win. It doesn't guarantee anything, but experience definitely helps."
You already were in the 2003 Final Four - your last season as a player and CSKA's first in its current streak. You have been Euroleague champion as assistant coach. How big would it be for you to lift the trophy in your first season as CSKA's head coach?
"It is a great question - but I don't even want to think about it. We have one target - the semifinal against Barcelona. If we start thinking about anything more, it won't be a good thing. We will only focus on that game, as well as in the Russian League. If we manage to beat Barcelona, we can talk about it a bit more. I'm sorry to answer this way, but all that matters now is the game against Barcelona."