Olympiacos Piraeus is back to the Final Four and its leader, Vassilis Spanoulis, has another chance to add to his legend. Spanoulis has been to four previous Final Fours and has lost only one game. He led his team to three titles - with Panathinaikos Athens in 2009 and Olympiacos in 2012 and 2013. Moreover, Spanoulis earned Final Four MVP honors three times, an honor that only Toni Kukoc can claim. The fact that Olympiacos faces CSKA Moscow in the Final Four only adds more anticipation to the event. Spanoulis has played against CSKA four times in a Final Four environment and defeated the Russian powerhouse each time. He seems to be ready after an injury-troubled season; Spanoulis averaged 11.8 points in regular season action, but improved those numbers to 17 points on 44.7% three-point shooting in the playoffs. This is the first Final Four of a new era and Spanoulis seems to be enjoying every bit of it, as he told Javier Gancedo of EuroLeague.net in this interview. "It is a very competitive system and, at the end of the day, the best teams qualify to the playoffs. You cannot hide from anyone and even if you don't play well at some point, good teams will react," Spanoulis said. "It was pretty fun and people enjoyed the new format, just as players did."
Congratulations on reaching yet another Final Four. Now that you have had time to analyze the playoff series against Anadolu Efes Istanbul, what are the most important takes from those five games? What did you learn about your team after surviving two must-win games, one of which was on the road?
"Thank you very much. It was a tough situation for us, being with our backs against the wall. We lost the home-court advantage, but this is the kind of thing that can happen in a playoffs series; you never know. We reacted and one more time, we showed character. We managed to do something special in this team, because going back to the Final Four is really big for our organization."
This season we had the first true European league ever, with every team playing every other team for the first time. How did it feel to be part of this historic season?
"It was really fun, you know? Everybody enjoyed playing under this new system because you play against everybody. It is a very competitive system and, at the end of the day, the best teams qualify to the playoffs. You cannot hide from anyone and even if you don't play well at some point, good teams will react. It was pretty fun and people enjoyed the new format, just as players did. It is something that we liked a lot."
And your team survived this longest, most-challenging season ever in Europe. Does that make being at this Final Four even more special?
"For sure, it makes it more special, but whatever you do in the regular season is not even close to what happens in the playoffs. Most important for us was qualifying, being one of the best eight teams; as you saw, there were a lot of road wins in the playoffs this season. The most important for us was being physically and mentally ready in the playoffs, because if you are first, but not ready to play in the playoffs, you will not go to the Final Four and no one will remember if you were first in the regular season. You have to play well in the playoffs, because it is the only way to go to the Final Four."
Now, you return to Istanbul once again, but this time to the Sinan Erdem Dome, which surely holds special memories for you. What do you remember most from that historic night of the 2012 championship game?
"Great memories! We didn't have a great start of the season but at the end of the day, we managed to qualify to the Final Four as total outsiders. I remember that nobody believed we could do something special, but we believed in ourselves and stayed confident. We managed to do something truly special, and every time we go back to Istanbul – especially now that we will go back to the same gym, it is always great memories."
Olympiacos lost twice to your semifinal opponent, CSKA Moscow, in the regular season. What can you take from those games to help you prepare for the semifinal?
"You know, CSKA beat us twice in the regular season and this has happened a lot of times over the years. Final Four games are different, so we don't care what happened in the regular season. Like I said before, the regular season has to get your team ready for the playoffs. So, what happened in the regular season is in the past and now it is the Final Four. It is a different game, mentally, for everybody. The second game against CSKA was important to me, however, because I was coming off an injury. I was out of rhythm and it was important for me to play this game and get the right rhythm for the playoffs."
On the flip side, Olympiacos has defeated CSKA in the Final Four three times in the last five years. In what ways will that history be a factor in this semifinal in Istanbul?
"I don't think so, really. We will find all the answers on the court. We can say many things before the game, but we don't care if we play against CSKA, Fenerbahce or Madrid. We only have to care about ourselves, about being in the best shape we can, mentally and physically. Once again, it is CSKA against us, but we have to delete what happened in previous games and be ready for a new challenge that is coming."
CSKA has the EuroLeague’s top offense, fueled by guards Milos Teodosic and Nando De Colo. Is it more important to slow the two of them down, or to stop them from getting the others involved?
"I think it is a little bit of both. They are two really important players, but I also consider Kyle Hines. Maybe he doesn't have the same stats, but who cares about that? You cannot count the impact of a player with stats and whoever knows basketball knows how important Kyle Hines is to this team, as important as Milos and De Colo. Also other players, because they have a great roster. For sure, their two leaders are De Colo and Teodosic, but like I said, it is not just only these two guys. They are very important, but a lot of their players can make an impact, like Jackson, Higgins, Vorontsevich... Anybody can damage any opponent."
You have played against both Real Madrid and Fenerbahce Istanbul this season. What do you see as the key to their semifinal?
"I think the key will be controlling the game rhythm, because they have two different playing styles. Fener is more of a five-on-five team, very disciplined, that plays tough defense. Madrid is a very talented team; everybody can score and contribute on offense. Everybody can make the difference. They have two very different types of teams, but it will be a nice, competitive game. Fans will enjoy a lot and the best teams will win; this is sports, this is basketball."
You personally have never lost a semifinal game in your previous four Final Four appearances, regardless of the opponent. What’s the secret to that success in Final Four openers?
"For me, the biggest key is being in the best shape at the right time, in the right moment, physically and mentally, you know? Being ready for the challenge. You have to be ready to give your best in the Final Four."
Each of the last three times you played at the Final Four with Olympiacos, you openly embraced the role of an underdog and rolled with it. This is your fourth Final Four in six years, but is that the approach you and your teammates intend to take again?
"Yes, yes, of course we are the outsiders. We are talking about teams that have double or triple the budget than us. We have the chemistry and the same team that had a lot of success in previous years. We know what to do and also what it takes to win. We will have to prepare ourselves really well for this game. We are the outsiders, but want to win as much as any other team out there and we will try to do our best."