|As a former Euroleague champion in his 11th season in the competition, point guard Nikos Zisis of Montepaschi Siena has collected a rare amount of experience for a 27-year-old. Right now, Zisis is calling on everything he has learned to lead Siena through some troubled waters after the team's starter at his position, Bo McCalebb, was injured right before the start of the Top 16. Zisis came a centimeter away on a three-pointer at the buzzer from giving Siena what would have been a huge road win at Efes Pilsen last week. Now, the going gets tougher as Real Madrid comes to town on Wednesday in what is almost a must-win game for a Siena team that changed its playing system after McCalebb's injury. Zisis made a brave decision four years ago, leaving a starter's job to become a backup at CSKA, where he won the Euroleague title. Now, he's been thrust back in charge, and he's confident of being ready to do what Siena needs. "What's most important is to win and to win titles," Zisis told Euroleague.net. "Having a good scoring average is OK, but the taste of winning big games and titles, that satisfaction is more amazing. Hopefully I will keep doing that."
Nikos, in your 11th Euroleague season, does this one prove more than most that anything is possible in the Euroleague?
"Yeah, for sure. Of all these years that I have been playing in the Euroleague, this regular season more than any, there has been no team that has stood out as an absolute favorite. Other years, there are teams that are really dominant and teams that you have to believe are going to at least be in the Final Four, favorites to make it even to the final. For sure some teams are great now, but especially this season, I think, no one has showed so much consistency and quality to be the big favorite over the others. Of course, that makes it more fun for the fans, since there are more interesting games. And that makes the Top 16 even better, because now is the time for teams to show they are one level above and keep moving on."
This season shows how suddenly things can change, too. How was the team psychology affected by Bo McCalebb, the team's top player until now, getting injured?
"For sure, Bo was playing fantastic this season, and was the main reason for our success. It's unfortunate for us, just as it has been unfortunate for other teams struggling with injuries all season. Maybe we are a little unluckier because your top player going down at the key part of the season is a disadvantage. But after the first couple days, you have to keep going, forget what happened and be ready for the next game. This is pro sports and you've got to get ready to play. For sure with Bo's absence, we can't have all the same things he gave the team. But we need to find the chemistry to keep winning."
Your coach, Simone Pianigiani, said the team's whole system was changed before last week's Top 16 opener against Efes Pilsen in Istanbul. Was there enough time for that?
"We basically had less than a week after his injury, because we had two days off right after it to rest. It's not that we completely changed, but we definitely needed practices to adjust. For sure we wanted to change some things, but the main parts of what we do remained. And we had a new player coming in, Marko Jaric, who had to adjust to us, just like we had to adjust to him. That takes time, and keeps happening. But with all that, we were close to stealing the win against Efes in Istanbul. So we'll go from there. Now, we have to show that at home we are ready to play and beat everybody."
You hadn't played 34 minutes since you were with Benetton four years ago. What was it like to take that responsibility again?
"For me, it's fine. For sure, it's a difficult role to play 15 minutes or 30 minutes, but I have the experience and I know what it takes. And it's fun to play these games. Unfortunately, the most important thing is to win, and we didn't do that in Istanbul. Hopefully, the next game will be a win for us and I can guide the team to it by taking a key part of the responsibility."
Your three-pointer in the last quarter gave Siena a chance to beat Efes. Then you tried again on the buzzer but missed. Were you crushed?
"Honestly, yes. At that moment, I thought it was going in. And I had the same shot in Top 16 against Efes six or seven years ago, and it went in . Honestly, I believed in the shot. I was aware of the time, I counted the steps and I tried to score, but it just missed."
You will still young and had been a fulltime starter for two teams when you decided to take a backup role at CSKA. What went into that decision for you?
"Sometimes this happens in sports. I wanted to go to the next level. After two good years at Benetton, to be called by CSKA was an honor for me. And I don't regret anything. I know that with more playing time, the more you can show your skills, but at the end of the day, I played with great players, I won and I learned a lot. I have no regrets. It's not as though I am 32 or 33 and at the end of my career. I still feel I can perform at a high level on the court. Of course, being on teams with big expectations always means having good players and competitiveness. What's most important is to win and to win titles. Having a good scoring average is OK, but the taste of winning big games and titles, that satisfaction is more amazing. Hopefully I will keep doing that."
Now, what does experience tell you about this situation, trying to help save Siena in the Top 16?
"The most important thing is not to get panicked and feel incredible pressure. You need to play the game, practice well, prepare every game well individually. You try to concentrate on what your coaches ask from you and from the team in general. And you go from there. We all know what Bo gave to our team, but you cannot dwell on this until he comes back. A lot of teams have succeeded with one main player out. Hopefully, we will keep advancing and have him back for bigger games in the playoffs. You need to find motivation always, to be focused and ready for big challenges. This is one of them, the Top 16, and we have more coming up in the Italian Cup. It's pressure but it's fun, too. It's fun to play these big games."
Fun, but considering the group you have, also tough, right?
"We knew after the draw that the three teams in our group play great at home. We had a chance last week to win at Efes, and with a little better game, we could have won. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Now, we have to play five finals, starting Wednesday at home, where from experience we know that you're forbidden to lose in the Top 16. It will be exciting to play against Real Madrid. They are in good shape now, playing very well lately, and have a lot of great players. We will prepare, listen carefully to the game plan from our coaches, and be ready. For sure, I think we will be. We are also playing in Siena and the fans are excited about seeing a big Top 16 game. It's a big challenge and a big motivation for us to play well for them after a great regular season. Now, after losing last week, we may be a bit forgotten, but we have to show and play our hearts out in this game, 40 minutes, every single play."
Is there a lesson in CSKA getting eliminated early for other big teams in the Euroleague?
"It just shows the level of the competition. For sure, if the competition started over today, it would seem impossible for it to happen again to CSKA, but it happened. I think there were a lot of factors. I think that with 10 weeks in a row of Euroleague games for the first time, they had no break to practice more and get back on track. Everything seemed to happen to them right away. They had to adjust to a new coach - and a great one, in my opinion - and it seemed that they got psychologically down and in the end didn't have the time to turn it around. They also paid the price for a tough group, with Panathinaikos, a surprising Olimpija and Efes, but also Milano beating them in the very first game on the road. But mostly I think it shows that the level of the Euroleague is so big that you have to be ready for anything."