Turkish Airlines EuroLeague
Adidas Next Generation Tournament
EUROLEAGUE FANTASY CHALLENGE
Matt Lojeski, Olympiacos Piraeus
Mar 26, 2014
by Frank Lawlor, Euroleague.net
Locked in a tight race to reach the Turkish Airlines Euroleague playoffs, defending champion Olympiacos is battling at the end Top 16 to keep its chances for a historic three-peat alive. Central to that effort, in his first Euroleague season, is small forward Matt Lojeski, who is one of just three Olympiacos players who have appeared in all 21 Euroleague games so far and the team leader in minutes played. Lojeski flew under the radar for six years in Belgium, developing into an elite player. By the time he earned his second Belgian League MVP trophy and led Telenet Ostend to a domestic league and cup titles last season, the time was right for Lojeski to get a call from the champs. Lojeski has been more than rewarded the confidence of the Reds by averaging 10.9 points on 43.8% three-point shooting, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in those 21 games. On Thursday, in the Game of the Week, the champs visit Unicaja Malaga for their fourth game together this season. Olympiacos won the previous three, but none were as important as this, which comes with just three weeks left in the Top 16 and both teams tied at 5-6 for the fourth and final playoff spot from Group E. Knowing so much about your opponent can be a dangerous weapon, as Lojeski made clear in this Euroleague.net interview. "We know what the atmosphere is like, we know that travel will take its toll, so we just have to be really focused. It's hard to beat any team three times, let alone four, and especially a good team like Unicaja," Lojeski said. "The importance of the game will help us. We know we have to play well and focused because we really can't affort to lose. That might benefit us as we get ready for the game."
Hello, Matt, first of all, you seem to be really enjoying your first taste of this competition. What has it been like for you to take this step in your career and compete in the Euroleague this season?
"It's been fun. It has been kind of like a new challenge, and probably the most fun I've had playing in Europe so far. We're playing in front of full crowds almost everywhere, and that's the most exciting thing, the atmosphere that the Euroleauge has every night."
Coming in this season as a 27-year-old rookie, did you prepare in a different way, either physically or mentally, knowing the challenge that you had ahead of you?
"I kind of came in not knowing what to expect, and that kind of helped me. I didn't have too high expectations, so I was not overwhelmed with the situation I was getting into, which might have helped. I felt comfortable from the beginning. Our coach told me not to try to do anything special, just to be myself and I would be fine. So hearing that, I was comfortable from the beginning."
Olympiacos was 14-2 before this four-game losing streak that was snapped last week. What went wrong during that month and what did it take to bounce back?
"I think we were losing a lot of close games and maybe doing different roles than before this season because of some injuries. We don't want to make an excuse of injuries, but Vassilis Spanoulis is a big part of the team, and when he was missing, players' roles changed and maybe they weren't as comfortable as before. Also, we played Panathinaikos at Panathinaikos, which is never an easy game. But we also weren't doing the small things we had been doing at the beginning of the year, and weren't making certain shots we were making before to win games. Spanoulis being back helps a lot because it gives us a playmaker that we had to do without for awhile. Hopefully, now we have the momentum to carry us to the next round."
What does it say about how tough this competition is when the defending champs can win the first 11 games, but then lose six of the next nine?
"Well, we felt coming in that this Top 16 group was really difficult. And I think that in basketball, apart from injuries, teams are going to have points where they play great and low points. We might have peaked in the beginning, going 10 and 0. And after going 10 and 0, we didn't have any advantage going into the next round: everyone was even again. So in a tough group, when the injuries came, maybe our confidence went down a bit."
Last week, Olympiacos needed a victory more than ever before this season and you stepped up with a big game. What worked for you and the team to win so big against Laboral Kutxa?
"I think after the first quarter, which was somewhat close, it was 22-7 in the second quarter and we got to halftime leading by 15 or more. That let us play more comfortably. Then we started making shots in the second half and pulled away easily. They were a team that, in last place and injured themselves, maybe didn't have so much to play for. We knew that if we got a big lead, they wouldn't give up, but that would make it easier for us to win."
Of course, Vassilis Spanoulis returned, too, last week. We all know how important he is on the court, but how does he help the team off the court?
"I think the main thing he does is just try to keep us together and staying positive. He knows that its been difficult for us, especially with the expectations people have here. He helps us stay positive. When we lost the first two or three games, everyone was kind of frustrated and upset. Now we're at a new point that we've got over it and we just need to look toward the next game, which we can't afford to lose, either."
You play this week against Unicaja Malaga, a team you have beaten three times this season. Will that make it even more difficult to win a fourth game against them?
"It's not an easy place to win. Our first game there, we had to come from behind to win. We know what the atmosphere is like, we know that travel will take its toll, so we just have to be really focused. It's hard to beat any team three times, let alone four, and especially a good team like Unicaja. The importance of the game will help us. We know we have to play well and focused because we really can't affort to lose. That might benefit us as we get ready for the game."
Olympiacos has one home game left - and it is against Panathinaikos. You have had a taste of the rivalry. How do you imagine it will be for such an important game to close the Top 16?
"The funny thing is we are all at the Greek all-star game recently, and I was talking about this with Mike Bramos of Panathinaikos. We were on the plane home, sitting next to each other, saying how it might come down to that last game and the crazy atmosphere that would be. It still looks possible, too. If we can win in Malaga, depending on some other results, it could come down to the last game. It would be really intense, a war, that's for sure."
How much pressure is on this team and especially on some of you new guys trying to help defend the last two Euroleague titles?
"The most important thing since we got here is not to worry about how we do individually and just try to win. When the teams wins, the club is happy and the fans are happy and most likely you'll stick on the team. So the idea is just be focused on that and do what you can to win. All our new guys are pretty unselfish, too, which is good. When you are on a team like Olympiacos, that's the main thing. We might not be the most talented roster out there, but playing together and within ourselves is the main thing. We are all focused on that."
Olympiacos didn't have it easy making the playoffs the last two seasons, either. How much does the experience of your teammates show now and help you guys who are new in this playoff race?
"We've discussed it in team meetings and player meetings. Last year, they said the team needed a certain other team to lose to get to the next round. The main focus we have now is to just get to the next stage, where anything can happen, homecourt advantage or not. They were underdogs the last two years and found ways to win the title. That's the main thing: pick up a couple wins here and hopefully make it to the next round. Then, anything can happen."