Victor Claver of Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague this season. Claver started his career with Valencia Basket and was already the team captain when his team won the Eurocup in 2010. He made his Euroleague debut the following season and helped Valencia reach the playoffs. After three seasons with Portland of the NBA and 20 games with Khimki Moscow Region, Claver joined Lokomotiv this season as the only Spanish player on a non-Spanish Euroleague team this season.
Despite our last two losses, we have done a good job throughout the Top 16 and that gives us chances to make it to the playoffs. These two losses were hard for us, we know these were tough games, but even so, we are pretty much in the same position we were two weeks ago; second, with chances to qualify to the next round. We have three games left in the Top 16 and know that we will qualify for the playoffs and be in a good position if we win them all. That would be something historic for the team and getting home-court advantage in the playoffs remains a possibility, too.
We were really close to beating Panathinaikos in Athens. We controlled the game and knew Panathinaikos very well; it was our fourth matchup this season. In the end, there was a lot of excitement in that game and that led to our turnovers. We didn't play well on offense in the final minutes and that kept us from winning the game. Dimitris Diamantidis took over in the final minutes, too. He is the kind of players who can control a game all by himself. The more important the game is, the better he seems to play. It is impressive to see a player like that, he is one of the best European players; he can collect a key steal, hit a critical three-pointer and run his team's defense and offense.
Their gym was packed, but I have to say that, for me, it is more difficult to play in a half-empty arena. When you see a packed gym, even if they are shouting against you, it motivates you and generates a much better atmosphere than the one you see in front of just a few hundred fans. We played against Panathinaikos and Zvezda on the road this season. I had the luck to play at Pionir in front of a great atmosphere. This is what is great about European basketball - enjoying the atmosphere in the arenas. You don't see this in the NBA at all. It is a good atmosphere, but very different. Everything happening on the court is a show, but here, there is a more special sports rivalry. Fans are part of the game when they are rooting for the host team.
Speaking of fans, we have great ones; each and every one of them will be important in our game against Zvezda. Seeing the arena full of your own fans give you extra motivation and more energy, too, especially when you are having a bad moment in a game. People are really supporting us really well, especially in important Euroleague games, and we are sure they will be back to enjoy the remaining games in the competition and help us. We know we will qualify with a win, but Zvezda is in the same situation, too. It is a big game for both teams and I expect it to be a very intense game. We want to make the most of our home-court advantage and punch our ticket to the next round, reach another of our goals.
Tie-breakers are very important. We managed to keep the tie-break advantage against Panathinaikos despite our loss in Athens and could do the same against Zvezda if we beat them by 15. Again, it all depends on us. First and foremost, we must win the game and if we are in the right scenario, we will try to go for the next goal - winning by at least 15 points. But we cannot be obsessed with it; We have to win the game and will not think about it until the outcome is clear in the final minutes. If possible, we will go for it, but the most important thing is winning at home.
I was surprised when I saw that Zvezda rallied from 19 down to beat Unicaja in Malaga. That is not an easy thing to do; I have played many games in Malaga and know it is very difficult to win in there, especially if you have to rally. Zvezda has shown it is a tough team with a lot of character. They are a dangerous team, especially when they are hitting shots. We have to be very careful. Being strong at home will be more critical than ever from now on, as well as taking one game at a time. We cannot think too far ahead even though we have a good opportunity to do something special. We have played well at home during the season and need to keep being confident in Krasnodar. And if we need a boost, our fans will be there to help us out!
Now that I have been here for a few months, I can say that joining Lokomotiv Kuban has been a very important step in my career. My goal was being part of a team in which I felt comfortable, saw enough playing time to show what I can do and, at the same time, competed at a very high level. We are having a very good season and I am sure a lot of people didn't see that coming. We have a very good roster and are playing really well together, which also helps, of course. The team shines more that any individual. Coach Bartzokas deserves a lot of credit. He is the kind of person that you can talk to off the court; he is very close to us. That gives you a confidence boost when you are playing. We are all working in the same direction because he made sure everyone knew what he wanted from each of us.
Like I said, we played against Zvezda in Belgrade, already. Quincy Miller hurt us a lot early in the game, and Tarence Kinsey after him. We didn't play well early in the game; they were able to run and score a lot of points in transition. We have to be careful this time around. We cannot let them have such a strong start. They get their big men involved, Maik Zirbes and Vladimir Stimac, two good players who can hurt us with second-chance points. Stopping their ball circulation will be critical, too, as they have a lot of great s>hooters. Marko Simonovic hit a lot of big shots against Unicaja and is a dangerous player.
I expect a great crowd in this game! See you at Basket-Hall! Loko goes Loco!