| Talk about coming full circle. In 2004, David Blatt left Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv on a coaching journey that took him through four countries while he collected four national or international trophies and medals. Almost seven years later, Blatt is back and leading Maccabi into the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four next week in Barcelona. Blatt rose to prominence winning a pair of Final Fours crowns as an assistant coach at Maccabi and sitting at the head of the team's bench at the 2002 Final Four. In that, his only previous Final Four as a head coach, Blatt and Maccabi lost in the semifinals. This time, fortified with the experience of his successful years in Russia, Italy, Turkey and Greece, Blatt says his team will be ready to return Maccabi to a place of honor atop the Turkish Airlines Euroleague. "It's a process of building up to the Final Four and peaking at the right moment," Blatt told Euroleague.net. "That's the key: having confidence, having a plan, and having players who are ready to put on a peak performance at the proper time."
David, congratulations on a great season so far. Even when you left six years ago, did you always expect to return to Maccabi?
"I did expect to come back, honestly. I had my mind set on doing some other things in my basketball career. And I am really, really glad that I took the time and had the courage to make the sort of moves I made to get the experiences that I had. They helped me as a person, helped me as a coach and helped my family. At the same time, if I was going to come back to Israel to coach, I always believed it would be for Maccabi and to compete to reach the Final Four. So I am happy it all worked out that way."
When you re-joined the club last summer, what were the building blocks you wanted to put in place?
"We had some very specific goals in the summer, a vision for what we wanted to do not only this season but for the future, as well. It started with a desire to bring back great talent from Israel to help us reestablish Maccabi as a team with strong local ties. We succeeded in bringing back Lior Eliyahu and Tal Burstein, and to keep David Blu, Guy Pnini, Yaniv Green and Derrick Sharp. Second, we wanted to bring in a target player, something Maccabi had been missing the last few years, a force at center to help us establish our game at both ends of the floor. We brought in Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who has had a tremendous impact, and we also signed Richard Hendrix, who has been a great addition to the team. Third, we wanted to sort of reestablish our ties on and off the court with our crowd, something that was sort of lost in the last few years as far as the team not connecting as much with the fans. We think that without questions we have succeeded in doing that. Finally, I wanted to come with a particular style of play that allows us to take advantage of the players we have and do things a little different. Throughout the year, we were able to play good, up-tempo basketball and, on the defensive end, press and trap and disrupt the other team. That defense, ironically, allowed us to become the best offensive team in the Euroleague in almost every category, even though our strength was defense. If there's one other thing that we thought about it was to build a basis for the future. We didn't want to be a one-and-done team this year. We wanted to build something to last. Maccabi changed too many players in recent years and didn't have the continuity needed to be a successful club. Next year, of course, we'll have to show that continuity."
Obviously Doron Perkins was a key ingredient to those plans. Does not having him change the way Maccabi needs to approach the Final Four?
"I think it already has changed us. Unfortunately, it had to, because Doron was such a big part of what we were doing defensively. I have highest respect for Dimitris Diamantidis and I think he's one of the great Euroleague players of all time. But in my mind, seeing the impact that Doron had as a defensive player and what he did for our team, I felt he was the defensive player of the year. He was a guy we could use to erase the other team's best player, and in addition he keyed our pressing defense. He was everywhere at once. I really felt, with all respect to Dimitris Diamantidis, that Doron was the defensive player of the year with the impact he had for us. We have missed him already, and will continue to miss him, but we have to continue making adjustments to play and win without him, as we did after losing him midway through the playoffs."
You mentioned another key to those plans, Sofoklis Schortsanitis. How did you make him a pillar of this team?
"One thing people may not understand about Sofo's game is that he's a very, very smart play. He has a very high basketball IQ. The different things we do require some real thinking on the part of all players and particularly on the part of our centers. Sofo has done thing defensively this year that I think he was never asked to do in the past, and he's done them extremely well. Like I said, in addition to his physical talent, he's a highly intelligent player."
Did you feel unlucky to draw Barcelona in the Top 16, or after, lucky to miss Panathinaikos in the playoffs?
"I don't believe in luck. I think luck is when preparation meets opportunity. As far as draws are concerned, you can't pay too much attention to them. At the same time you can say we were unlucky to draw Barcelona in the Top 16, that meant that we wouldn't see them in the playoffs, the knockout round, which would have been more dangerous."
Madrid vs. Maccabi is a classic matchup in basketball history. What does that history add to this semifinal for you?
"First of all, it's just great for the sport of basketball when you see a matchup with the history and tradition behind it that this one has. Then again, I think all the potential matchups at this Final Four will be great, because all the teams are of a very high quality, and I thought that the playoffs they won to get there were just amazing. The Euroleague playoffs this year were so interesting, so exciting, so dynamic and competitive, all on a very high level of basketball. I really think that it's going to be a treat for fans in Barcelona to see both semifinals, our great rivalry with Madrid, as well as the Siena-Panathinaikos game."
What is your take on Real Madrid and how they are arriving to the Final Four?
"Madrid had a very interesting path to get here. This summer, their team was obviously built to make the Final Four, with a deep, talented and great roster. They invested a great deal to bring in the highest level of players. They went through some difficulties early, which is natural at times when you put big stars together. But they overcame adversity and they will be a formidable opponent for us. I know that on paper they might be stronger than us, but our results were no less good as theirs over the course of the year. If fact, we were maybe more consistent. But I see them right now as an opponent that is as formidable as any."
Unlike Madrid, you will have at least three Euroleague champions in your roster. How much of a factor can that experience be in the semifinal?
"Experience is one of the main factors in a Final Four. I am glad we have guys who have been to Final Fours and have had the experience of winning them. At the end of the day, though, the four teams going to Barcelona all have such great players and experience at the highest levels. I don't think that at this particular Final Four there is going to be any great advantage due to experience for any team."
Going from assistant to a Final Four head coach is something you've done and Lele Molin of Real Madrid is doing. How much does assistant coaching prepare you to run the show at the Final Four?
"First of all, being an assistant always helps, but it's always different as a head coach. Lele hasn't been a head coach for most of his career, it's true, but he has more experience at the highest levels of competition than most head coaches out there. What's more, besides being an excellent coach, he's a guy who knows how to carry himself and handle himself on and off the court, so I don't think he'll have any big problems next week."
In your only previous Final Four experience as a head coach, you lost in the semifinals. Has that been any kind of thorn you want to get out of your side?
"No, because I was a very active and influential assistant with Pini Gershon at Maccabi, and we had a great working relationship, so I felt that I had a good part in the success of the teams we coached together. The fact that in my first year as head coach with Maccabi we didn't win at the Final Four doesn't stick in my stomach, then. I won enough titles in enough places to know what I am capable of. I know that at the end of the day only one team can win, and if it's not yours, it doesn't mean you are lacking or not as good in some way."
What does all your experience tell you is most important at a Final Four in the very moment when your team walks on the floor?
"I think it's a process of building up to the Final Four and peaking at the right moment. You want your team coming there at its peak. That's the key: having confidence, having a plan, and having players who are ready to put on a peak performance at the proper time."