| After a decade away from Euroleague courts, big man Rasho Nesterovic of Olympiacos returned this season with memories of his previous continental title and a conviction to try for more. Nesterovic did his part in helping the Reds in the right direction by leading the team to first place in its Top 16 group, and thereby earning the Sportingbet MVP of the Month award for February. Now, as the best-of-five Playoffs begin on March 22 with Olympiacos hosting Montepaschi Siena, the 34-year-old center from Slovenia will rely on experience to guide him. "The biggest thing experience tells me is to start the game at the other end, on defense," Nesterovic told Euroleague.net. "When the game comes, I go out trying to do whatever is possible to do. I don't think too much about scoring or offense. I just think in terms of helping the team and letting the game slowly open up for you. I try never to come into the game under stress or feeling pressure to score. I don't have to. I just play the game, focus on defense, rebounds, steals or whatever first. The offense is going to happen anyway. We have so many talented scorers, especially our guards, on offense. If I just follow them I know I'll get the ball in the right spot when I'm in good shape to score."
Congratulations on being named Sportingbet MVP of the Month. How does it feel to be chosen for this award?
"It's an honor, yes, but this is team sports. All these awards should be mostly because of team play. It's not just you doing something special. If you win it's because your teammates use you in the right way, you've found a good spot on the team and they make it easier for you. So this kind of award is for all the team. I'd like to thank my teammates, because without them it would not be possible."
Among the three games of the Top 16's second half, your 16 points helped beat Power Electronics Valencia away and everyone was talking about your three consecutive tip-ins in the fourth quarter. What do you remember about those plays?
"That's exactly what I was just saying. When we have Spanoulis and Papaloukas and Teodosic penetrating and the other team's big man has to help, it makes it a much easier job for you to get the ball if they miss. The big man who went with them can't box out, so you just have to follow up the play. That's what happened in that game. They missed and I was there to make the follow-up. Valencia's big guys, Lishchuk and Javtokas, are very athletic, so they were able to challenge our guys and make them take tough shots. But when they switched to guard them, that left us open for the offensive rebounds. I was able to put a few in and help us get the result."
In the first Top 16 game, against Fenerbahce Ulker, when you scored just 2 points, but in the second, a victory in Istanbul, you dominated. What was different against the same team a month later?
"In the first game with them, Fenerbahce just came ready and played very good defense in the paint. There was not much space down there and we didn't adjust well to that. For the second game, we got ready knowing that they would want to do the same thing. So the first game, they surprised us, and that's probably the biggest difference. After that loss, we had to realize that we had lost one game only, and with a lot of time left in the Top 16, it didn't have to change anything. We had time to get together and start to play better. We knew we would have to go to Istanbul and win if we wanted to finish in the first position in the group. Fortunately, in the end, we won by more points and secured the first spot before the last Top 16 game."
You finished the Top 16 scoring in a different way, hitting a lot of jumpers for a season-high 20 points against Zalgiris. Do you plan to be more aggressive with the jumper going forward?
"Could be, yes. That night it was just because we have such good creators in Milos, Theo and Billy. They are so, so good running the pick-and-roll. If you just find an open spot where you are comfortable, you can be sure they'll pass you the ball at the right time. So I was trying to find those open spots against Zalgiris. They had their big guy, Marjanovic, filling up the middle, so I had to figure out something else. My shots were falling that night, which doesn't always happen. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. That night they did."
After blocking just 4 shots in the season's first 11 games, you have 13 in the last five games. What changed?
"It's probably just team defense and how you feel and how you position yourself. From my experience, I think that blocking shots is a question of your position before you actually block the shot. So I would say that it's just good team defense that lets you get in a good position to do something like go for the block."
Looking ahead, you face Montepaschi Siena in the Quarterfinal Playoffs in another two weeks. What can you tell us about that team?
"It's a tough team, definitely a tough opponent. They've shown very good basketball so far, good team basketball especially. You know, this is the playoffs and the best eight teams in the Euroleague and the one thing you can't do is expect any easy games. We are confident and waiting to prove ourselves, and so are they. We just have to bring our best and go game by game and not think ahead. We've got to try to win them one at a time, and that'll be tough."
Rasho, you are probably the best person to compare the Euroleague you left in 1999 and the one you found in 2010. What differences have you seen?
"I think it's a big difference now. European basketball has gotten much closer to the NBA, especially with the 24-second clock. Now, a lot of teams play much faster. In 1999, there were still 30-second offenses and the game was much slower. I remember that when I won with Kinder in the final in 1998 against AEK, the score was 58-44. Now, teams score 70 or 80 points in 40 minutes easily. It's much faster and closer to the NBA, and that's the biggest difference now."
How much do remember winning the Final Four in Barcelona from 1998 these days, particularly since your goal is to return there with Olympiacos in May?
"You always have nice memories when you win. For me it was my second Final Four, but my first true one. The year before I had played only one or two Euroleague games with Olimpija before the Final Four. So I still think of Barcelona as my first true Final Four, as a real part of the team, and winning it gave me great memories. Hopefully, we can do the same in Barcelona this year."
The year before with Olimpija, you played and lost the semifinal against Olympiacos and head coach Dusan Ivkovic. You remember that one, too?
"They were favored to win and they did it, with a great team: Rivers, Tarlac, Tomic and the others. We played a pretty good game and it was not easy for them to win. But what I think I remember most is their fans, who were just unbelievable in Rome. I think that 90 percent of the arena was red and white. It made a big impression on me and on everybody. Unbelievable, like I said. I just hope now we can continue to play better and better and they support us like that. I think we'll need them more than ever when the playoffs start."
Actually, since you played in the 1997, 1998 and 1999 Final Fours, you are trying for your fourth in a row this year. What do you think about Theo Papaloukas sharing the record of eight and going for his ninth?
"That's amazing. And it's good to have somebody on your team that has such experience. Hopefully we're going to make it, first, then think about winning it. But it definitely gives you confidence to be playing with the guy who has the most Final Fours in a row."
This is your 15th year in pro basketball. How much do you wish to celebrate that anniversary by making a Final Four again?
"It would be great to go there, and even better to win. That's what you play for. I never count the years anymore. I know I am old, and I try not to count now, so I wasn't thinking of this as my 15th pro season. But I would be happy to celebrate something, 15 years or not, with a title."
How do you apply all your experience on a game-to-game basis?
"I just probably try to approach games different. When the game comes, I go out trying to do whatever is possible to do. I don't think too much about scoring or offense. I just think in terms of helping the team and letting the game slowly open up for you. I try never to come into the game under stress or feeling pressure to score. I don't have to. I just play the game, focus on defense, rebounds, steals or whatever first. The offense is going to happen anyway. We have so many talented scorers, especially our guards, on offense. If I just follow them I know I'll get the ball in the right spot when I'm in good shape to score. But the biggest thing experience tells me is to start the game at the other end, on defense."