|Less than a month before his 26th birthday, 2.17-meter center Ante Tomic is playing the best basketball of his Euroleague career just when FC Barcelona Regal needs it most. Despite team leader Juan Carlos Navarro nursing injury problems, Barcelona has a 3-1 record in the Top 16 as it travels to face undefeated group leader Caja Laboral on Thursday. One big reason that Barcelona keeps going strong is Tomic, who has the third-best performance index rating among all Turkish Airlines Euroleague players in the Top 16. He currently ranks among the top 10 players of this round in scoring (14.5 ppg), rebounds (8.3 rpg), two-point shooting percentage (72.2%) and blocks (1.5 bpg). He even raised his free throw accuracy from 46% in the regular season to 75% in the Top 16, dished a personal high of 5 assists and posted the first two double-doubles of his four-year Euroleague career. Far from being satisfied, Tomic is conscious that he and Barcelona have a lot more work to do and that nothing will come easy, as he says in this Euroleague.net interview. "We have to remember that the Top 16 groups this year are very, very hard," Tomic said. "There are lots of teams and lots of games, so it's really tough. With more games and more different opponents, we just want to get as many wins as possible to qualify for the playoffs because our goal is to get to the Final Four."
Hello, Ante. After winning the regular season group winners, you've started 3-1 in the Top 16. In the Euroleague, is Barcelona on the right track and playing how you guys really want to play?
"Yes, we are playing much better in the Euroleague than in our domestic league. I don't know what is the cause of that, but we can say that we're on a good path to hopefully reach the Final Four, which is what everyone wants. Of course, we have to remember that the Top 16 groups this year are very, very hard. There are lots of teams and lots of games, so it's really tough. With more games and more different opponents, we just want to get as many wins as possible to qualify for the playoffs because our goal is to get to the Final Four."
You had a good regular season, but your numbers have been getting better since the Top 16 started. Did you feel like you had to step up more in this new phase?
"I always try to play my game as well as I can, but yes, I have been playing better at the beginning of the Top 16 than in the regular season. The most important thing, though, is to win, not who plays better. At the moment, I am playing good and I'm happy that I am helping the team to win."
You are blocking shots more than ever before in your Euroleague career. How did that become such a big part of your game now?
"I don't know the reason, honestly. A lot of people say that I'm not that good of a defensive player. I am trying to improve that part of my game by helping my teammates on defense, blocking shots and playing better against pick-and-rolls. In both competitions this year, I have a lot more blocks than before. I just need to keep it up."
Same with assists and rebounds. You are doing more of everything in the same playing time more or less this season. Is it a sign of maturity?
"Probably maturity has something to do with it. It's also a matter of playing on a new team, with a different system and different rules. Maybe I am getting a few more minutes, too, and you can do more in all these things, rebounding offensively and defensively, as well as assists. And at the same time try to do your best scoring points when you get the opportunity."
How much fun are you having playing with this Barcelona team?
"I am really enjoying playing for this team. I am playing with and against the best players in Europe. I think our team is a real Euroleague team and we have a good chance to reach the Final Four. So far this year, we've had our ups and downs, but in the Euroleague we've had some good games. That makes it fun to play with these guys. They are very professional and great people on and off the court, too."
Barcelona plays Caja Laboral this week, a team that has been undefeated for two months in the Euroleague and Spanish League. Which will be the keys to stopping Caja Laboral in Vitoria?
"They have 18 wins in a row, which is a big number and shows they are a great team, especially since Zan Tabak came there as the coach. They changed some things in their plays and their rules on defense since we played them early in the season in the Spanish League, so this will be a different game. I think we have an opportunity to stop their run of 18 wins in a row, but we'll need to play really good, to run a lot and control the defensive rebounds."
You have played against Maciej Lampe and Tibor Pleiss in the past. How dangerous are these two players in their matchup against you and Nate Jawai?
"Both of them have their qualities, offensively and defensively. Lampe is a complete player, both ways. He's a really good shooter and a strong guy in the post. Pleiss is much better on defense, with lots of blocks and rebounds. He's a big guy, too, which makes it hard to play against him in the low post. But we need to play good as a team to win there. One player won't decide it. They have pretty good players everywhere in the front court, with Nemanja Bjelica playing great now, too. It will be difficult for us, but it will be difficult for them, too."
Juan Carlos Navarro has been in and out of the lineup with injuries, but the team has proven it can win without him. What's it like to play with a legend like him after having played against him before?
"I played against him for two or three years, and in every game, he showed something different. Now I am playing with him, and it's unbelievable. With him on the team, we have so many options on offense because the other team's defense concentrates so much on him. He can score whenever he wants, I think, but he tries to help the team. That's so important. Yes, he's had trouble with injuries this year, but we hope that he'll be ready for the big stuff now. We are fighting to get through the Top 16, and soon we'll start fighting for trophies in the Copa del Rey, the Euroleague and the ACB. We just hope that he'll be healthy, because that can help us a lot."
Coach Xavi Pascual has a reputation as a player's coach. What do you like about the coach and how does he interact with players?
"Every coach does something new and every coach is different about team rules, the way of leading practices and coaching games. I really enjoy playing for Xavi because I know what I need to do on the court for him. He explains everything in conversations with all the players and he supports us all. It's all done trying to help us in the games. He gives us a lot of his time to improve our game and in the end, to win."
You had a taste of the Final Four in 2011 with Real Madrid, but couldn't win a game there. How important is it for you to go back to a Final Four and eventually win the Euroleague title?
"It's a big desire of mine to get back to the Final Four. My first one with Real Madrid was a great experience. At the start of the season, no one gave us even zero chances to make it to that Final Four in Barcelona. We surprised everyone and played very well. At the Final Four, we just didn't have maybe the strength and the luck we needed. So now, of course, I want to go back, just like everyone in Europe. To try to win the Final Four is my desire and that of everyone on the team."