| It’s been a dream return to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague this season for CSKA Moscow head coach Jonas Kazlauskas. After five years away from Europe’s premier competition – several of which were spent overseas – Kazlauskas came back and hit the ground running. CSKA started the season with 13 straight wins and dominated with an exciting, high-scoring attack that overwhelmed opponents and impressed fans across Europe. Despite having just two players take part in every Euroleague game, Kazlauskas created a juggernaut by getting contributions from all over his roster. Indeed, 13 different CSKA players have scored in double figures this season. Maximizing the contribution of every player has been the winning formula for Kazlauskas as he and CSKA head to Istanbul with plans to complete their stellar season with a Turkish Airlines Euroleague crown. Kazlauskas has been this way before, winning the Euroleague title in 1999, his only other Final Four, with a Zalgiris Kaunas team that overwhelmed favorites with supremely efficient offense. This CSKA team, Kazlauskas says, has the know-how on both ends of the court. "The good thing about our season until now is that we are playing as a team, on defense and offense," Kazlauskas told Euroleague.net. "Yes, we have a lot of excellent players but we wouldn't have done so well if we didn't play together. It has helped us to play better."
Congratulations on reaching the Final Four! What is the atmosphere like within the team as you look ahead to Istanbul?
"Thank you. There is a good atmosphere in our team; we are really happy to be back at the Final Four. CSKA got used to making it to the Final Four, but couldn't do it last season, so it is good to be back. We are working very hard and doing everything we can to do our best against a great opponent like Panathinaikos. So the atmosphere... is a working one!"
Your team features the top two players in the Euroleague statistically in Andrei Kirilenko and Nenad Krstic plus two former Euroleague MVPs in Milos Teodosic and Ramunas Siskauskas. What has been the key in getting so many great players to play so well together?
"Well, on one hand, if you have so many good players, it may look very simple. The good thing about our season until now is that we have played as a team, on defense and offense. Yes, we have a lot of excellent players, but we wouldn't have done so well if we didn't play together. It has helped us to play better."
Which CSKA players have improved the most since the start of the season?
"We have improved a lot, individually and as a team. For instance, Milos Teodosic, who is in much better shape now than he was in the beginning of the season. We are happy about that. Alexey Shved has improved and gotten better. Even our veterans like Ramunas Siskauskas, Andrei Kirilenko and Ramunas Siskauskas are playing now better than they did before. Nenad Krstic is a new player in our team and now he understands the way his teammates play. We are enjoying playing together, as a team, and getting better."
This was your first season back in the Euroleague after five years away. How do you think the Euroleague has changed over that period of time?
"You know, generally, I have to say that European basketball changed a lot. I remember the time when teams from the NBA or even college teams played against the best European teams - clubs but also national teams and got easy wins. Nowadays, especially in the last five years, the best European clubs can compete against NBA teams. The basketball level improved a lot in Europe, and one of the reasons is because of the Euroleague, the best league in Europe, that features the best clubs. Everybody wants to play here and be part of the Euroleague. European basketball keeps improving fast."
You spent several years overseas coaching the Chinese national team. How did that experience influence you personally and your coaching philosophy?
"Coaching the Chinese national team was a big deal for me and a great experience. China is the biggest country in the world. Sometimes I used to think about it and I had 1.3 billion people watching what I did, and that's not easy. Basketball is China is very popular, too. When you coach their national team, everybody respects you and a lot of people recognize you on the street, so I have to say the experience influenced me a lot. I had a very good time there and I think I became a better coach, too. We managed to be among the best eight teams in the world at the 2008 Olympics. During that time we beat great teams like Germany and Slovenia – and lost against Spain in overtime."
Looking ahead to the semifinal game against Panathinaikos, what do you think has changed about that team since you last met them in the regular season?
"Both teams have changed a lot; it will be a totally different game. Most of the Panathinaikos players and coaches have been together for a long time. They have been to the Final Four several times together and won titles, too. They know how to play these games and how to handle pressure. It is a great team with a great coach. I don't expect Panathinaikos to be an easy opponent, of course not."
From your experience coaching against Zeljko Obradovic, do you expect him to have some sort of surprise planned for the semifinal?
"Oh, no question about it, I am sure he will have something prepared. I have played against him in decisive games and I am sure there will be some surprises."
You of course know Greek basketball well after spending two summers coaching the Greek national team. In fact, your squad at the 2010 World Championships featured six current Panathinaikos players. Does that give you some kind of advantage going into the semifinal against Panathinaikos?
"For sure, it is always easier to prepare a game like this, at the highest level, if you know your opponents and like you said, you have worked with them, it is an advantage. But again, Panathinaikos is really strong and plays as a team. Their main players have been together for many, many years, working with the same coach. If you look at Panathinaikos, they never change half of the team, but just two or three players in a summer, but not more. The core of that team is always the same, and this is an advantage for them."
Another Panathinaikos player you have worked with is Sarunas Jasikevicius, whom you coached to an Olympic medal with the Lithuanian national team. What does his leadership and experience mean to Panathinaikos in such a big setting as the Final Four?
"Jasikevicius is a player for big games, he has proved that many times. Moreover, he is in great shape. He helped Panathinaikos a lot in the playoffs. He helped Barcelona, Maccabi and Panathinaikos to win the Euroleague title in the past. He is a great player, especially in big games! I don't expect it to be different this time; he will help Panathinaikos a lot."
When you took over the CSKA head coaching job last season, did you believe then that the team could be challenging again for a Euroleague title so soon?
"When you coach an elite team, you always have to set big goals. When you are a coach, you always want to win everything, too. I came to CSKA and spoke to our president and the people in the club, and we were all on the same page. CSKA is an ambitious team and from the very beginning, I knew what the goal would be and where we were going."