|A natural-born scorer who embraces that responsibility, shooting guard Keith Langford leads Khimki Moscow Region into Vitoria, Spain on Thursday for a Group A showdown against Caja Laboral in which both teams will be fixated on the same prize: the Top 16. A Khimki victory would push the visitors further toward the next round, just as it would further imperil a decade-long Top 16 run by Caja Laboral, loser of five straight games. One thing is for sure, all eyes in Vitoria will be on Langford, who since joining Khimki last season has scored in double digits in 24 out of 28 Euroleague games. He is currently second among Euroleague scorers with an average of 16.1 points despite being the defensive focus of every opponent, as he will be more than ever on Thursday. "Last year, I was more of a surprise to people, but this year it has been tough," Langford told Euroleague.net. "It forces me put more time in at the gym after practice, work on different shots and moves that I'm not so comfortable with, because teams are forcing me to the right, clogging the paint, trapping. It's definitely a difficult situation. But I want to take on that challenge, and my coaches and teammates do a great job with the game plan to take some of the pressure off."
Hello, Keith. First, you play a critical showdown against Caja Laboral on the road this week. What's the teams mood a day before heading to Vitoria?
"We got some momentum going the last couple weeks with a pretty good game in the last round of the Euroleague and then another good game in the Russian League. Those gave us a little more rhythm, a little pep in our step going on the road this week. So we're just getting a little confidence from our last couple of games, and everybody knows that both us and Caja Laboral are making a big push now for the Top 16. It's going to be fun, because both teams are going to go at it hard."
Khimki was able to win a Top 16 game in Vitoria last season. Will the memory of that win help you prepare for this game?
"It definitely helps, but things are a bit, too. Kelly McCarty was a big part of the win for us there, because he scored a lot in that game, and he's not with us now. But both sides have key guys who are not with the same teams now, so there are new players and new roles for some others. In that sense, it'll be a totally different matchup, too."
Considering that Caja Laboral still made the playoffs by a few points over Khimki last year, is there any revenge factor for Thursday?
"Not at all. I can remember last year beating Olympiacos in the last Top 16 game and then going into our locker room to see people upset because Caja Laboral had beaten us on points. But they did what they were supposed to do, and if we had been in their position, we would have done the same. This year, however, we are in a position to control our destiny, and in sports that's what you always want. If you win, you're OK, but if you lose, other people control your destiny."
Khimki is still seeking its first Euroleague road win. With back-to-back games away against Caja Laboral and Maccabi, what approach is needed?
"Our approach should just be to finish games. This year, we've done really well by starting games strong with the exception of the Maccabi game. I think that if we just finish the last five minutes of the games better - home and away games, Euroleague and non-Euroleague games - it will be a big factor for us. That one improvement alone would probably put us in a much better position."
Did the experience of winning your way into the Euroleague through the Qualfying Rounds this season help the team?
"I can say that with a lot of guys having had to come straight from their national teams into some serious pre-season games was difficult, because some were tired and really needed a break. But for me personally, it was fun to be able to establish a rhythm early in the season and hit the ground running earlier than usual, as I said, in some important games. Reaching the Euroleague was something we really wanted to accomplish. No disrespect to the Eurocup, but the way this team was built was to compete in the Euroleague, and that was our focus from day one."
Fast forward to last month: was there any psychological effect to losing a heartbreaker at home to Maccabi on the buzzer?
"Yeah, I think there was, but at this point we should be over it. The next couple of games after that one, if you look at our performance inside and outside the Euroleague, we were subpar. But I think that's a general thing in sports. All athletes are mental creatures, too, and it's just about how fast you can bounce back from the shock of losing a game like that. We didn't do it immediately, but we kept moving forward and now we're in a position to control our destiny."
Few guys are relied upon anymore to be their team's leading scorer, almost every night. How do you deal with being a marked man by the opponent's defense?
"It's tough. Last year, I was more of a surprise to people, but this year it has been tough. It forces me put more time in at the gym after practice, work on different shots and moves that I'm not so comfortable with, because teams are forcing me to the right, clogging the paint, trapping. It's definitely a difficult situation. But I want to take on that challenge, and my coaches and teammates do a great job with the game plan to take some of the pressure off."
Speaking of your coach, what kind of influence is Sergio Scariolo having on your game and your career so far?
"He's the most demanding coach I have had to this point in my career, and that's good. Admittedly so, I'm a guy who if someone is pushing and pressing me to be the best I can be, that works for me. I prefer someone who gets on me to someone who lets me relax. And Sergio does not let me relax. I can have a great game, with lots of points, a high index rating, and the next day he'll show me on the game video how I failed on a defensive assignment. That helps me with the small things that it takes to be better. I give him a lot of thanks for bringing me here and pushing me to the forefront of what I can be as a player."
You came to the Euroleague just last season, but adjusted very quickly. How do you like playing in this competition?
"I have always been a guy who played to the level of the competition. The higher the competition, the higher I performed. And sometimes at a lower level of competition, I tend to relax. That's another thing that Sergio has helped me work on. In the Euroleague, whether I have a good or bad game, I am always psyched to play, always full of adrenaline. Playing against the best on the continent, you have to be at your best, or else you get embarrassed."
What would make this a great season for you and for Khimki?
"I just think that the thing in Europe sometimes, from my experience, is that due to history, people automatically assume who's going to the Final Four or who's going to the Top 16 or who's going to finish as champion of this league or that. Khimki and I have an opportunity to make all the journalists, fans, coaches and whoever feel like that to change their assumptions by changing what history usually does, which is repeat itself. We have an opportunity to do something like Partizan did last year, and that makes things more interesting. I just want the success of our team last year and this year to continue and bring recognition to a great organization and myself as an individual as consistent powers in the Euroleague."