Kostas Papanikolaou, Olympiacos Piraeus
May 2, 2012
| Small forward Kostas Papanikolaou is a central piece of the young core of players that has led Olympiacos Piraeus back to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four this season. In his third Euroleague season – and second as a starter – the 21-year-old Papanikolaou has gradually seen a rise in his minutes played and production, but his importance to the Reds cannot always be measured by numbers. Papanikolaou's versatility and team-oriented game is what makes him such a dangerous weapon, one who can impact games with his defense, outside shooting, rebounding and basketball IQ. And it's no coincidence that when he plays well, Olympiacos wins; the team is 6-0 this season when his performance index rating reaches double figures. All the intangibles that Papanikolaou gives the Reds, but especially defense, as he says in this Euroleague.net interview, will be of utmost importance when his team takes the court on May 11 in a semifinal showdown against FC Barcelona Regal hoping to finish Final Four weekend with a trophy. "We must keep playing the same strong defense that we played against Siena," Papanikolaou told Euroleague.net. "Through our defense, we created an open court to run and everything started working better for us. So I think the key is that our defense works well."
Congratulations on reaching the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four! What is it like in Athens now with two local teams headed to the Final Four?
"Actually, it is something very important for the country because of our situation; to have two teams in the Final Four is big. It's something to at least give Greece some credit."
Olympiacos was the only team without home-court advantage entering the playoffs to reach the Final Four. Are you guys using that "underdog" label to motivate yourselves?
"From the beginning of the season, we have been hearing that this season this team wouldn't be able to do much in the Euroleague. I think the scouts underestimated us. We believed in ourselves, we worked hard and we made it to the playoffs. We played against Montepaschi Siena, who we knew is a very tough team with experience. We knew we would have to play our best to beat them. And we did; we played tough defense and it was a great result for us."
Looking ahead to the semifinals, at small forward you will face Barcelona veteran Pete Mickeal. What are your thoughts on that matchup?
"Pete Mickeal is a good player and I know it is not going to be easy for me to stop him. Him or anybody else with FC Barcelona Regal. They have a great team with lots of experience; they have Navarro, they have Huertas, Mickeal... a lot of players. I don't want to start thinking right now about what I have to do, because that could stress me out. Right now the focus is on the Greek League playoffs and then, when the time comes, I will focus on Mickeal and Barcelona, that's for sure."
Barcelona’s defense is on pace to set the Euroleague record for fewest points scored. How will Olympiacos prepare to score against it?
"I think Barcelona is a great team because of this, because they play defense. And defense makes a difference. I don't think we have to change so much in our offense. We must keep playing the same strong defense that we played against Siena. Through our defense, we created an open court to run and everything started working better for us. So I think the key is that our defense works well."
Coach Ivkovic is the oldest active coach in the Euroleague. What has it been like playing for such an experienced coach?
"What can I say about coach? Everybody knows him. Everybody knows that he is a great coach with great experience. Coming to the court with this man on our side is a lesson every time for every one of us. We have a lot of young guys on this team and we learn not only to become better basketball players, but also to become better people. It's great to have him. I feel blessed to have this opportunity to play for him."
Is there a generation gap between the coach and the youngest players of the team? How is the communication?
"No, no, no. Actually it is a great situation because in addition to the younger players, we also have more veteran players like Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis, who also chip in and bring their Euroleague experience into the mix and we youngsters bring in our energy. This glues the team together and we always work towards the same goal. It's a great situation and team to be a part of."
With so much turnover on the roster between last season and this one, what was it like coming together at the start of the season?
"It was, for sure, not easy because of all those changes. All our big guys from last season left the team and we practically had to make a brand new start. It was tough and we lost the first game against Gescrap BB because we were simply not ready for a Euroleague game against such a tough team. But after that we found our way through hard work. Game by game we started playing better."
Your best scoring night of the season came in your previous visit to Sinan Erdem Arena, when you netted 16 in a road win over Anadolu Efes. Did you believe after that game that you would be returning to Istanbul for the Final Four?
"To tell you the truth, nobody was thinking about the Final Four. From the beginning of the season until the very last game of our playoff series. Everybody was concentrated on each game and doing the work for each game. When we finally arrived to Game 4 of the playoffs, we all realized that the Final Four chance was within our reach. Fortunately, that happened."
How much did you like playing at the Final Four venue?
"It is a great arena. It is beautiful, big. Like you said I had my best game there, so I am hoping that my performance stays at that level when I play there in the Final Four."
You of course know both CSKA Moscow and Panathinaikos well from playing each of them this season. What do you expect from the other semifinal?
"CSKA Moscow has probably the strongest team. I don’t think we have seen anything like this in the last 10 years and probably won't for a while. It's complete at every position and sometimes the reserves for a given position are even better than the starters! So it's a tough team to play against. Panathinaikos also has experience; they are the defending champs. They also have Mr. Obradovic, a great coach who is very smart and know how to play these games."
What would it mean to you to return home to Greece holding the Euroleague trophy?
"It would be crazy. A dream come true. It's one of my dreams that I would like to become reality. On top of that this team, in which nobody believed at the beginning of the season, doing something like that and bringing back the trophy, would be amazing and a true accomplishment for us."