|In one of the best continental finals ever witnessed, Olympiacos Piraeus successfully defended the Turkish Airlines Euroleague title by downing Real Madrid 100-88 in the final at The O2 in London, the United Kingdom. Olympiacos trailed by 17 at the end of the first quarter and its superstar, Euroleague MVP Vassilis Spanoulis, was scoreless at halftime, accumulating a performance index rating of -10. Spanoulis bounced back like few players in history at this level, hitting 3 consecutive three-pointers right after the break to complete his team's comeback. He would add another pair of triples, including one from midway to halfcourt, to seal the outcome in the next-to-last minute. Spanoulis had all of his game-high 22 points in the second half to earn his third Final Four MVP trophy: he joined Toni Kukoc as the only player so honored three times. Spanoulis has never lost a Final Four game on his way to three Euroleague titles and he has led Olympiacos to new heights. Of course, Spanoulis gives a lot of credit to his teammates and how they managed to stay together through a difficult season, as he told us in this Euroleague.net interview. "Everybody accepts and is happy with their roles; that's the secret to our success," Spanoulis said. "We try to go out, speak to each other and have fought many times, too. It is normal in a family to fight. This shows we are family. We don't say anything behind our backs, but straight and honest."
Vassilis, congratulations on your third Euroleague title. No team had repeated as Euroleague champion since 2005. Does it makes this title even more special?
"For sure. It has been an unbelievable year for us. Not everything was as easy and good as it seemed in the end. We went through a very difficult season, with a lot of ups and downs. What made it different from last season is that everybody knew and prepared the games against us as the Euroleague champions. Everybody wanted to beat us. This made everything more difficult. We went through a lot of tough situations and were with our backs against the wall more than three times this season, but managed to make it to the Final Four and dominate."
Olympiacos used great defense to beat CSKA in the semifinal and great offense to defeat Madrid in the final. How did you manage to be so competitive in so different environments?
"It is all about character. This team has a lot of character; every time we are with our back against the wall in a crucial game, we are able to compete. It doesn't matter the game rhythm. We can win scoring 60 points or 100, like we did in the final against Madrid. We have the character and talent to do it."
Despite being reigning champs, Olympiacos arrived to the Final Four as an underdog. Did you feel that your team deserved more credit after the work you did in the last two years?
"You know, we were a bit downgraded probably because we didn't play with a lot of consistency during the season. We got big wins but maybe teams like Madrid, Barcelona and CSKA were more consistent than us during the season. We had character and won all the big games to go to the Final Four. Once in London, we proved that we are the best team, dominating both games."
What was the game plan against CSKA? We noticed you were really focused on denying Krstic the chance to play in the low post. Was it one of the keys to that win?
"Yes. Teodosic, Krstic and Khryapa are their main offensive weapons, plus Weems. We tried to make Teodosic feel uncomfortable with a lot of traps and managed to take Krstic outside the paint. We controlled the rebounds and the game tempo. We had an excellent defensive game."
Did you prepare for Real Madrid or watch video before you travelled - or did you improvise a game plan in 48 hours after the win?
"Our coaching staff had already prepared to play against all teams in the Final Four. If we won, we didn't know who we would play against. We prepared to play against any of the teams, focusing on CSKA, and of course did extra work before the final. We worked around the game they played against Barcelona. Our coaching staff did a great job."
You were scoreless at halftime and finished the game with 22 points. What did you and your team change after the break?
"Madrid's defensive plan was mostly based on stopping me, to put down my execution and influence in the team. They did a good job in the first half but I concentrated after that, trying to put pictures in my mind, trying to see how they played against me in the first half and what I had to improve to help my team, because they would need me in the second half. Fortunately for me, I found the way to do that."
Olympiacos has several second-half comebacks during the season, including a 15-point rally to beat Efes in Game 5 of the playoffs. Did that help you to stay mentally strong when you were down by 17 in the first quarter of the final?
"Absolutely! We rallied a lot of times this season, in crucial games. This team showed character and stayed together in good and bad moments. A bad start didn't take us down. We played step by step and believed in each other. Like I said, this team has a winning character. We have proved it a lot of times and that cannot be luck, it is just character and winning spirit."
All basketball experts credit Olympiacos for playing together. How did you manage to become a basketball family? Did you work hard off the court for that, too?
"I would say we have to work more off the court; it is very important! You need great chemistry to be as close as we are. It doesn't matter how good your players are, if you are not a team, don't have good chemistry and everybody doesn't accept their roles, it is very difficult to succeed. Olympiacos is doing all the things I mentioned. Everybody accepts and is happy with their roles; that's the secret to our success. We talk a lot not only on the floor, but in airports and during trips. We try to go out, speak to each other and have fought many times, too. It is normal in a family to fight. This shows we are family. We don't say anything behind our backs, but straight and honest."
What does it mean for you to have three Final Four MVPs, tying Toni Kukoc in the all-time standings. How much of an honor is that for you?
"Of course, it is a great honor for me, I am really proud of it, but none of this would have happened if I didn't have such great teammates. Our coaching staff put me in the right position, right where I like to play. In the end, the most important thing is winning. If you win, everybody gets credit. Like I said, my teammates believed in me and did an unbelievable job."
Six Final Four games, six wins. What's the secret? What does a player need to be so successful in an event with so much pressure?
"The most important thing is enjoying basketball and playing for the team. If you put extra pressure on yourself, you cannot have the same performance that you can have if you enjoy yourself. I feel blessed and try to enjoy every moment on the floor. I try to focus on the right things, not putting the wrong thoughts on my mind. It is not easy, but my teammates and coaches helped me a lot."
Georgios Bartzokas is the first Greek coach to win the Euroleague. How much credit does he deserve for this win and how much do you like him as a coach?
"I give him a lot of credit. He deserves it! He came to our team in a very difficult situation. Coach was lucky and unlucky at the same time; lucky because he took over a great team with a great atmosphere and chemistry, but unlucky because it is very difficult to coach the Euroleague champions. We have a lot of pressure in Greece, from the media and everything. We had a lot of pressure and were judged often, but managed to keep the team together, staying focused and calm. He added new things to our game, especially on set offense. He did an unbelievable job and deserves all the credit he can get. Our cooperation is great and am very happy and proud for him."
As team captain, you received the trophy and lifted it - for the first time in your career. Only a few privileged players did that in history. How does it feel to lift the Euroleague trophy and get the party started?
"Man, it is a feeling that I cannot describe. Only if you have this trophy in your hands and lift it, you can feel all these emotions passing through your mind, all these years of hard work to get where I am now. I feel lucky and blessed. It is something that will stay on my mind for the rest of my life."