As Olympiacos Piraeus heads to the Final Four for the sixth time in nine years, it is important to note how important continuity and keeping the team's core together through the years has been. Ioannis Sfairopoulos has been an important part of that; he is in his third season as the Reds' head coach and already led Olympiacos to the EuroLeague championship game in 2015, when it lost to Real Madrid. And just like two years ago, his team starts the Final Four by facing CSKA Moscow in the semifinal. Sfairopoulos believes that the Final Four will put a great end to a great first season in his new EuroLeague era, as he told Javier Gancedo of EuroLeague.net in this Final Four interview. "When you play such an interesting regular season, with so many important games that created such great atmospheres, with such intensity for fans, coaches, players... it makes all the teams grow and play better," Sfairopoulos said. "I believe that the Final Four will be the top moment of this great EuroLeague season. We will see a spectacular Final Four."
Congratulations on reaching the Final Four. What is different and special about qualifying this season that separates it from other Final Fours you have been part of in the past?
"Thank you very much. I believe that, compared to the Final Four in 2015, when we went to Madrid, the difference is that we had the home-court advantage in the playoffs. Starting from that, we had the chance to qualify by winning all our home games. Unfortunately, we didn't do this because Efes is a talented team and they stole the home-court advantage from us. We needed to fight and win on the road, in Istanbul, which was not easy. We had to win Game 3 and even when we didn't have a good start, we had some chances in the end to steal the game. We didn't make it, so we were with our back against the wall in Game 4, a crucial moment for the team. We talked with the players and analyzed how the game needed to be, what we had to improve defensively and offensively. The fact that we won the game was very important to win the series in that Game 5 in Athens. So, we advanced to the Final Four in a completely different way than two years ago. We faced the new system, the new EuroLeague era with 30 regular season games. That was pretty new for all of us and I believe we showed stability in that period, finishing third in the regular season. That was also a big difference on how you reach the playoffs after such a long regular season."
What did you and your team learn about yourselves in the playoff series against Anadolu Efes Istanbul when you were down 1-2 and had to win on the road to survive?
"On one side, we have experienced players in this type of games, lock-out games that give you the chance to go to the next level. On the other side, you need to find the way after the disappointment for two straight losses in Games 2 and 3. You have to recover from these losses and react. We saw the character of the team. Through the years, Olympiacos showed a lot of character, being able to handle difficult situations and succeed to win tough, important games. That is what we did, one more time."
Starting in 2012, this is fourth time this core group of Olympiacos players has reached the Final Four, and each time the team excelled at the Final Four after embracing the role of underdog. Is that the mindset you have again going to Istanbul?
"First of all, yes, you are right, you have the base, the group of players who took part in all these Final Fours. This is very important due to their knowledge and know-how to play these games. We have some players who also played in the 2015 Final Four and the new players, the American players, get the right mentality from our players and coaches, how they need to do and how they have to get ready and mentally prepared for the Final Four. On the other side, I can say that Olympiacos is the outsider in this semifinal because we play against a very good team. CSKA Moscow is the cup holder, the champions and so, they are the favorites and we are the outsiders. We will try to do our best. We already lost twice against them in the regular season and this is a team that traditionally goes to the Final Four. They had stability all these years, just like us. We expect a nice basketball game."
What can you take from the last time you were in this situation, the 2015 semifinals, when you edged CSKA with the majority of key players from both teams still here for this meeting in Istanbul?
"I think that every game is different, and it is not the right thing to compare these two games, the 2015 semifinal with the 2017 semifinal. For sure, we remember that CSKA took the lead, but we managed to come back. What we want is to be more focused in this game and play the game until the end, in a stable way, not with ups and downs like in 2015. The fact that you said CSKA has the same players with very small difference is very important for all Final Four teams, because they have a core of players who have been together at this level for many years. They have the same coaches for several years. They have stability, and I think that all four teams that advanced to the Final Four have this advantage compared to other teams. The players know how to react and understand their coaches' philosophy. I believe that all four teams have these characteristics, and it is hard to say what you can change or not for this game, compared to previous ones. I believe that, from our side, it is very important to be mentally ready and follow the game plan that we will have, stick to our principles no matter how the game goes. This is very important."
As a man who knows a thing or two about putting together a great defense, what do you think makes CSKA such an offensive juggernaut?
"The fact that they have talent and quality, and a big roster. Three things, I can say. They have a lot of players who can give something extra to the team. Of course, Teodosic and De Colo control the game a lot, but we cannot underestimate any of their players. All of them, on a good day, can kill you if you are not focused defending them. I believe CSKA is one of the most talented teams in Europe and for sure, we need to be very focused on how to stop them, how to play smart and disorganize their game."
This does looks like a matchup of the league's top offense against the top defense, but what do you see as keys in a clash against CSKA?
"You know, we cannot analyze now what the keys will be, but like I said, it is very important for us to start the game with good defense, because this is how we want to play the games. This is our philosophy and we truly believe that good defense wins titles. It is also very important for us to focus on CSKA's playing style, to read how they play and to react and be ready to do our best in every situation on the court against them."
Each of the Final Four teams has played each other twice this season. CSKA defeated Olympiacos both times. Is there a way to turn those defeats into an advantage?
"I cannot say that losing both games against CSKA is an advantage or a disadvantage, because Final Four games are completely different than regular season ones. We know that because we have experienced players and I believe that Final Four games are completely different even from playoff games. We need to read which problems we had in these two games, for sure, defensively and offensively, and not make the same mistakes again. These two games will help us to be better for the Final Four game."
For Olympiacos, returning to a Final Four at Istanbul's Sinan Erdem Dome is special due to its memorable win over CSKA in the 2012 championship game. How strange of a feeling is it for you, since in that game, you were on the other side, serving as a CSKA assistant coach at the time?
"In your career, in the sport that we love, basketball, we will have a lot of happy moments and a lot of disappointing ones. The most important thing is being ready, after a loss or after a big win, to stand on your feet. When you lose a game, even if it is a final, to keep fighting. And if you win a big title, to stay humble and keep going in the next seasons. From 2012 until this moment, I am very happy and very blessed that I am still fighting in the EuroLeague, which is the best league after the NBA. As always, I am motivated to give my best for my club and help it succeed."
On the other bench in the semifinals will be your countryman Dimitris Itoudis. The two of you have had similar paths to get where you are now; how satisfying is it for you that you meet again on basketball's biggest stage?
"First of all, I respect Coach Itoudis a lot. He is a very good coach who led his team to win the EuroLeague title last year. I believe that Greek coaches, in general, improved a lot. It is very nice to see two Greek coaches in big clubs like Olympiacos and CSKA in this semifinal."
Finally, the four teams in Istanbul have played more games than any other teams to have reached a Final Four before and all have met twice before this season. How will those factors, all results of this being the longest, most-challenging season ever in Europe, make this Final Four better than in years' past?
"I believe so, because when you play such an interesting regular season, with so many important games that created such great atmospheres, with such intensity for fans, coaches, players... it makes all the teams grow and play better. I believe that the Final Four will be the top moment of this great EuroLeague season. We will see a spectacular Final Four."