The 2016-17 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season has been the longest and toughest on record and for CSKA Moscow guard Aaron Jackson, it has also been a season of accomplishments. He scored his 1,000th career EuroLeague point, set personal bests in scoring, three-pointers made and three-point accuracy and assists and is now set to appear in his fifth straight Final Four. Jackson exactly what CSKA is up against in the semifinals; he has been a part of four consecutive victories over Olympiacos Piraeus, but also partook in semifinal losses to the Reds in the 2013 and 2015 Final Fours. All those reasons make Jackson an ideal candidate to hear from prior to the big event in Istanbul. Jackson is confident that his team will have the answers for their opponents and eager to finish this historic season on top. "I feel like we’ve played [Olympiacos] several times and we have a good coaching staff that watches tons of film and will give us the best advantages and what packages to use to make easier against their defense," Jackson said. "We want to be the first team to win in this new format. We want to show that we made it through a hard season and made it to the Final Four… We want to end our EuroLeague season with a championship at the Final Four."
As you head to your fifth Final Four with CSKA, the biggest difference from previous years is that now you come in as the defending champion. How does that impact your approach to the games in Istanbul and is there less pressure than before?
"It’s less pressure. Honestly, I feel like we got the monkey off our backs last year. We know what it takes to win, firstly. And secondly, we are coming to the Final Four knowing that we won last year and we know exactly what to do. And we know how that feeling feels, so it’s more excitement to feel that same exact feeling I felt last year."
During the season, the team had many highs, including a pair of six-game winning streaks, as well as some lows, like a three-game slide and injuries to key players. What did the team learn about itself during this longer, tougher season?
"We learned that we can play without certain players. We don’t only have one identity; we can change into as many styles as we need to be competitive. It shows that we have a lot of players we can rely on, not only Milos [Teodosic] and Nando [De Colo]. We can also help them when they’re down."
To reach the Final Four, CSKA was tested by Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz in a tough playoff series. How did that series prepare the team for what lies ahead?
"First, You gotta give it to them; Baskonia is a good team. It helped us prepare for how we are going to deal with the ball pressure from teams like Olympiacos or Fenerbahce when they press the ball a lot. That right there, it prepared us for that. And the environment of being on the road and playing in a hostile environment like we did in Vitoria with the crowds were against us and they kind of made their players play better than they usually do. I think that will help us against Olympiacos in Istanbul."
Your semifinal game is a classic matchup of the league’s best offense against its top defense. What challenges does the Olympiacos defense pose for your team?
"They are a physical team. They can disturb us on the wings, but I feel like we’ve played them several times and we have a good coaching staff that watches tons of film and will give us the best advantages and what packages to use to make easier against their defense. We have to believe in what Coach does, even though we know how good of a defensive team Olympiacos is."
CSKA not only defeated Olympiacos twice during the regular season, including just last month in the regular season finale, but also managed to score at least 80 points in both games. What can you take from those games to help you prepare for the semifinal?
"We just hope we can duplicate what we did offensively against Olympiacos both times. We know them better after we played them two times in the regular season, but the Final Four is a totally different story; it’s just one game. We want to duplicate our offense, but sharpen some things on defensively so we can make the game easier out there."
It’s fair to assume that you will spend at least some of the semifinal game matching up with Vassilis Spanoulis on defense. How do you prepare to guard a player with his unique abilities?
"They call him 'Kill Bill' for a reason. It was fun watching him play against Efes. He’s probably one of the best players in Europe right now. A lot of people want to count him out, but he still plays in big games and shows that he is one of the best players in Europe. It’s exciting to play against him, but we gotta a nice little matchup, we have a scheme that we’re going to use to slow him down."
This season has been your best offensive season since you arrived at CSKA with personal bests in scoring, three-pointers made and three-point accuracy and assists. What do you attribute that to?
"Honestly, it was more that, after last season, me having a tough season and breaking my face, I really took my offseason very, very seriously. I was in a gym, seriously, all the time. I worked on my shot, I worked on my body. Being comfortable with my team and I gotta trust our coaching staff; they do a real good job of putting us in the right position and they’ve made my job a lot easier."
Your backcourt mates are all elite offensive weapons, but Nando De Colo, Milos Teodosic, Cory Higgins and Vitaly Fridzon all have slightly different styles. How do you change your game when playing alongside each of them?
"I like it, it makes my job a little bit easier. I like getting people the ball, I like feeding other players at that level. I like helping players get to a better level if I get them the right pass or I create offense or a shot. Working with those players every day makes yourself more confident."
Your team survived this longest, most-challenging season ever in Europe. Does that make being at this Final Four even more special?
"Yes. Last year we made it to the Final Four; every year I’ve been here we’ve made it to the Final Four, but this year with this tough and long and exciting season, it is a little more special to make it to the Final Four, especially knowing that we just won last year."
You have played against both Real Madrid and Fenerbahce Istanbul this season. What do you see as the key to their semifinal?
"Whoever controls the rebounding. They are both great rebounding teams. They are going to play a lot of great defense; Fenerbahce, they are going to force Madrid to play a different type of game. And whoever gets the most rebounds, whoever wants the ball more, is going to end up winning that game. Fenerbahce is going to have all the support behind them. You never know how the game is going to play out, but nothing changes when it comes to who wants the ball more. Whoever wants the ball more is going to win the game."
What would back-to-back titles mean to you and your CSKA teammates, especially at the end of this, the longest, most-challenging season in EuroLeague history?
"We want to be the first team to win in this new format. We want to show that we made it through a hard season and made it to the Final Four. After the ups and downs of a long season, we made it to the Final Four. Other than that, I want to be selfish. Personally, I remember the feeling last year. We don’t want to see anyone else have that feeling that we had last year. We want to do it all over again. We want to end our EuroLeague season with a championship at the Final Four."