| A second straight dominant season for both CSKA Moscow and star center Nenad Krstic has both player and club poised to give it all for Turkish Airlines Euroleague glory. After losing a thrilling championship game a year ago, Krstic and CSKA look forward to a rematch with a reigning champion Olympiacos Piraeus at the upcoming Final Four in London. Krstic has been a monster inside over the past two seasons. Even coming off the bench, as has mostly been the case this season, he piled up 13.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, and leads all 2012-13 Euroleague players with a 17.9 performance index rating. Still, all Krstic has on mind is the ultimate goal, the Euroleague title, which he almost feels like was taken away from him last year in Istanbul. “For me, that loss against Olympiacos was the toughest loss on the club level in my entire career,” Krstic told Euroleague.net. “We should have won, but that’s how the Final Four works. It depends on teams’ good or bad days, and I see this as an opportunity to get back at Olympiacos for last year’s defeat.”
Nenad, congratulations on making it to London for your second Final Four in your second season with CSKA. How is this season and this success different from last season?
“It is quite different. Last season we were dominant, winning games by 30 or more points and many looked at us as the main favorites to win Euroleague. This year, our roster is not as strong, we have six or seven new players and a new coach. It was much more difficult in the beginning of this season, as we were getting used to one another, and used to a new coach and his philosophy. Unlike last season, we had some unexpected defeats, even on our home court, and it was a little tougher to get to the Final Four this season. However, now I think we have a good chance to go all the way.”
How important was it for you and your teammates to return to the Final Four after what happened last year?
“It was really important to return to the Final Four this year. But, not only because of the last season and because of how we lost that final last year, but also because it is CSKA’s ambition to always reach the Final Four. It is the same with me personally, when I was returning to Europe, I was looking for a club with such ambitions. I think CSKA will have Final Four ambitions for years to come, because that’s the type of club it is, the kind of club that sets the highest possible goals.”
CSKA finished the Top 16 with six straight wins and then eliminated Caja Laboral in four playoff games. How does such a good run of form help you ahead of the Final Four?
“Before we had a run of victories in the Top 16, we started the Top 16 in a less impressive fashion. We lost to Unicaja at home, and away at Anadolu Efes and Real Madrid, and those defeats almost left us without a home-court advantage in the playoffs, which was our goal. But, in the meantime, we became more of a team. It did not happen overnight, but we started to believe in ourselves, to believe in one another, and in what we do in practice. Those losses got us closer together, and our chemistry on and off the court became much better. Maybe that overtime loss in Madrid is where we realized we are able to play away games against the best, and Real Madrid was undefeated in the Top 16 at that point. It gave us hope that, if we believe in ourselves and continue to work hard, we can win some important away games. And that is what we proved later on.”
At what stage of the season does a team really start thinking about the possibility of getting to the Final Four? Does that start at the beginning, or come only at the very end of the season?
“With us, it started in the Top 16. During the regular season, even though you are one of the favorites, you just go one game at the time and try to do best you can. But once in the Top 16, whether you are willing to admit it or not, you start with calculations who you play, what are your chances, and you think about getting to the playoffs and to the Final Four. You do think about it, even though there is not much time between the games, and you need to stay focused because week in and week out you play important games in the Top 16.”
Your semifinal opponent is Olympiacos in a rematch of the thrilling championship game from last season. Do you want to forget last season's final or use what happened as motivation?
“It is normal that we, who played last season’s final, have that in the back of our minds. For me, that loss against Olympiacos was the toughest loss on the club level in my entire career. Now, it is just a matter of how you channel it. Whether it becomes an additional motivation, or it transforms into a fear that something similar could repeat. I am trying to make it a motivation, to show everybody it was just a bad day and that our place was on the podium last year. We should have won, but that’s how the Final Four works. It depends on teams’ good or bad days, and I see this as an opportunity to get back at Olympiacos for last year’s defeat.”
Do you expect a low-scoring, defensive-minded semifinal like last year’s game with Olympiacos in Istanbul, or are we going to see CSKA’s second-best scoring offense at work?
“For sure it will be a nervous beginning to the game because of the high stakes. It will be a tough game, and it is hard to guess, but both teams will definitely try to play hard defense, and make it a low-scoring game. We did not play each other this season, so for us it will be a clash with a new team. Regardless, it is hard to play elimination games such as this one where you don’t get a second chance.”
People say Olympiacos goes as far as Vassilis Spanoulis takes them. Do you look at stopping Spanoulis as the key against the Reds?
“It is one of the keys to the game, but I would not agree that after stopping Spanoulis, Olympiacos would not have capabilities to continue playing good. We all witnessed last year when some other players made a run in the game against us. When we had that big lead in the championship game, Printezis and Papanikolaou hit three-pointers, and only later in the game Spanoulis joined them. He is for sure their leader, and it will be a huge for us if we were to stop him, but it is not the only key to the game. Olympiacos can still surprise you without Spanoulis playing well.”
What do you see as your advantages in the matchup with Olympiacos? You and your teammates in the frontcourt are CSKA’s big strength again this season. That must be something you would want to continue to do in London?
“They have undersized players in Hines and Powell who play well in the paint, and in the pick and pop, especially Powell who can hit jumpers. If it was a playoff series maybe our size would be more of an advantage, but it is one game and Olympiacos can surely get ready and be prepared for our frontline. I see our advantage in team play. We showed that when we play as a team, sharing the ball with lots of assists, and help on defense, we can beat anybody. That’s where we have to look for our advantage, even though it is not going to be easy to present all that in a game with such high stakes. But if we do play like that, our chances will grow.”
CSKA has made 10 Final Fours in 11 years but lost three finals by a total of 5 points in 2007, 2009 and 2012. Does that put any sort of additional pressure on the team this time around?
“Possibly, yes. Personally, I do not feel such pressure, but a club with such tradition and history like CSKA has, it definitely feels like it is time to win Euroleague again. After winning the title in 2008, CSKA has lost couple of finals decided on the final possession. Even earlier this century, there were some painful defeats for our club. If there is such thing as karma, maybe it is time for all of that to come back to us. I hope this is the year.”
You made the All-Euroleague First Team a year ago and this season led the league in performance rating. On top of all those individual accolades, what would winning a Euroleague title mean to you?
“Winning a Euroleague title would mean much more than any individual honor. I’m about to turn 30, and I feel I’m getting to that stage of my career where I want to leave something behind, some kind of legacy. My experience from last year proves how I feel, because after we lost the title in the last second, I didn’t even remember I was named in the All-Euroleague First Team. That is how hard and difficult it was for me. And it would have been totally opposite if we had won, then making it to the All-Euroleague First Team would have made the season complete.”