Real Madrid is the most-crowned team in European basketball with nine continental titles, but is in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four for just the eighth time. Only two of its eight EuroLeague titles came in the last 35 years, but Madrid has returned to being a competitive force at the highest level in Europe since head coach Pablo Laso joined the team. In his six years at Madrid, Laso has led the team to four Final Four appearances, winning the title in 2015 and reaching the championship game in 2013 and 2014, too. Add three Spanish League and five Copa del Rey titles, and that turns Laso into arguably the most successful Madrid coach since Lolo Sainz – who led Madrid to EuroLeague titles in 1978 and 1980. Not only that, Laso has managed to turn Madrid into an offensive-minded, fun-to-watch squad that basketball experts all over the continent praise. Just as in 2015, Madrid will have to play against Fenerbahce Istanbul in the semifinals. That means Laso will go against Zeljko Obradovic, who is not only the winningest coach in EuroLeague history, but his former boss when Laso made the Final Four as a player in 1996. Small details will be decisive, as always, Coach Laso told EuroLeague.net. "From a technical and tactical point of view, when you want to beat a team like Fenerbahce, you have to do many things well. Rebounds: if you don't rebound well, you won't have many chances to win. If you don't have good shooting percentages, if you pick up too many turnovers, then you won't have many chances to win," Laso told EuroLeague.net. "At this level, you cannot predict you can win if you do something in particular the right way. You have to do a lot of things well because you are facing a great team, full of great players."
Hello Coach, and congratulations on reaching another Final Four for your fourth time in six years as Real Madrid's head coach. How proud are you of that achievement?
"Thanks. I feel very proud because it is something you achieve by working hard every day and that is recognized as time goes by. Of course, every season is different, we change players, but the team always has that competitive spirit and, as a coach, I am very proud of seeing that we get credit for the hard work we do in a team that always challenges for titles. We have shown we are ready to compete every day and the fact that we played four Final Fours means that you have worked very well and it says good things about the club and its players."
Going back to the start of the Final Four era in 1988, Madrid has been to eight Final Fours, half with you as head coach. How does it feel to have returned Madrid to its status as a serious EuroLeague contender, year in and year out?
"Well, first of all, what makes me most proud about my job as coach – it happens to me a lot of times, even more around Europe – is when people say that they love watching Real Madrid. I have been able to give the team a character and a playing style that makes fans identify themselves with their team. It was something very important, critical from day one. Once we got this, obviously, big clubs aspire to be competitive and fight for titles. In that sense, we have been able to be competitive every season, getting close to winning most titles and winning the EuroLeague once. The team has kept growing. We had better and worse moments, and important departures, but the team has been able to take a step forward. I am very proud to help a club like Real Madrid, for whom fighting for every title is part of its DNA, to have such consistency in recent seasons."
From your personal experience, what would you says is the difference between a great Euroleague team and a champion? Aside from basketball skills, what does it take to win?
"I believe that when you arrive to the Final Four, there is a lot of work behind that. If you have a look, the four teams in this Final Four – Olympiacos, CSKA, Fenerbahce and us – were there in 2015. These four teams are consolidated among the European basketball elite and that speaks really well about their work. In that sense, all four are championship teams. What is the small difference that makes one of them the actual EuroLeague champion? Details: your physical condition, a shot... we are talking about the best teams in Europe and any small difference is sometimes hard to notice. Basketball details, your mentality at that particular moment, your experience, a turnover... in the end, small details will make the difference between four teams that, for me, have all it takes to be champions."
Your semifinal opponent is Fenerbahce Istanbul, just like at the 2015 Final Four and last season's playoffs. Do those previous battles make this semifinal even more interesting?
"In my opinion, a game between Real Madrid and Fenerbahce is always interesting, no matter when it is played. We have even played in preseason. I think both teams are really good European basketball reference points with outstanding players on both rosters. I think that it is almost a classic game in European basketball in recent years. We will play in the EuroLeague semifinal, which means we did a good job to get there. In the end, you will see great players compete at the highest level, and that makes the game very attractive for fans."
What aspects of the game will Real Madrid need to excel in to beat Fenerbahce and advance to yet another championship game?
"From a technical and tactical point of view, when you want to beat a team like Fenerbahce, you have to do many things well. Rebounds: if you don't rebound well, you won't have many chances to win. If you don't have good shooting percentages, if you pick up many turnovers, then you won't have many chances to win. At this level, you cannot predict you can win if you do something in particular the right way. You have to do a lot of things well because you are facing a great team, full of great players."
Point guards usually play a major role in the Final Four. You have Sergio Llull at the prime of his career and Luka Doncic doing incredibly well for this age. How much of an advantage is it for Madrid to have two elite playmakers?
"I believe that both Sergi and Luka gave us a lot this season and have been praised a lot because of the way they played. What makes me more proud, however, is the fact that they have been able to make their teammates better. People tend to look at Sergi as a player who scores big baskets in crunch time – and this is part of his game – but don't take into account other aspects of his game that were important for the team. I could say the same about Luka. He is a very all-around player who can help the team in many ways. Their contribution is very important to make the team grow and be competitive, but if you see Fenerbahce's roster, you will find the same. Kostas Sloukas is not a Final Four newcomer and played great games with Olympiacos and Fenerbahce. Bobby Dixon is at a very high level. I think all teams in the Final Four have great players at all spots and, of course, at the point guard position."
CSKA Moscow and Olympiacos Piraeus will play the other semifinal. What kind of game do you expect to see?
"I don't know! A Final Four game can be unpredictable. In this very same game at the 2015 Final Four in Madrid, 90% of the people thought CSKA would win. CSKA had been playing well and had a very deep roster. It had been the best team in the regular season and the playoffs, arriving to Madrid as the big favorite – and Olympiacos won. Olympiacos is the kind of team nobody wants to face; a solid team, with clear ideas and two reference points, Spanoulis outside and Printezis inside. The rest of their players are hard workers and that allows the team to grow even when things don't go well. CSKA is a really talented team with two perimeter players – Teodosic and De Colo – able to generate 60 points on points and assists, and good players complementing them in all spots. Kyle Hines is a dominant player at the '5' position. I believe there are no favorites in this game."
All the teams have players who have been to at least five Final Fours. Does that neutralize the advantage some teams may have in terms of experience?
"We are talking about four very experienced teams. With the new format, we went through a very intense regular season, in which every game was super competitive, and tough playoffs series. All four teams have the experience of knowing what a Final Four is about. In that sense, none of the teams has an advantage. All teams are ready for it."
You have been to several Final Fours both as a player and coach. What makes the Final Four such a great event, which seems to get better from year to year?
"You have the best four teams in Europe going against the other, and they proved it throughout the season – especially this year with the new format. We all have to go past a very tough regular season and the playoffs, which no one seems to consider how tough they are, playing against a high-level team at that time of the season. There is a TV promo in Spain which says: 'You don't win the EuroLeague - you survive it.' And this is what all four teams did to get to the Final Four. As for players, you will find great stars at this event, the best players on the continent. That makes the Final Four really attractive for fans."
The road to the Final Four was longer and harder this season for all of the teams. Is there extra gratification to have reached the Final Four in the first season of the new format and will it make the Final Four even better?
"First of all, the new format has been great for fans. At the same time, playing a round-robin competition has been very demanding for coaches and players, but it has been great for fans. We are proud of being the regular season leaders, after 30 games. We were the top team in the first-ever round-robin EuroLeague regular season and that makes us proud and satisfied. It means we have been able to be competitive throughout a long regular season. Then in the playoffs, you have to start again and try to eliminate one of the best teams in Europe. And then in the Final Four, you are playing do-or-die games against the best teams. It is a tough, demanding format, but we as a team managed to understand it right away. I am proud of the way we competed, all season long. As for the Final Four, all of them are tough and demanding. In the end, the best teams in Europe go against each other. Anyone who follows sports knows that no matter who you play against, a final is always difficult. Who were the bottom-ranked teams in the regular season?"
Milan and Unics.
"OK. Do you think that Milan and Unics would not have chances in a Final Four game? They would not be favorites, but they would have a chance, for sure. That speaks volumes about the regular season and its toughness. Some teams were built to make it to the playoffs and did not make it. We saw surprises in every round, and the Final Four will be strong, but the overall competitiveness has improved throughout the season to very high levels."