AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan withstood injuries to win its last five Turkish Airlines EuroLeague games, the club's longest winning streak since 2014. After four of those wins came in an undefeated February, point guard Mike James was chosen as the league's MVP of the Month. James averaged 18.8 points on 60% two-point shooting in February. He also compiled 3.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 6.3 fouls drawn per game while making 77.4% of his free throws and committing just 1.3 turnovers on average. It all added up to a PIR of 21.8 per game, the highest among all EuroLeague players during the month, in which Milan catapulted from ninth place – outside the playoff spots – to sixth James is now averaging 20.0 points, 6.8 assists and 1.4 steals in 24 games, and he thanks his teammates for believing in him all the way this season. "This year, I basically have freedom to do whatever I want and I have been playing well," James told EuroLeague.net." I give credit to my teammates, too, because sometimes I won't make the best decisions but they stick with me and trust me. That allows me to keep moving forward."
Hello, Mike, Congratulations on being the MVP for February, an undefeated month for your team. What does this award mean to you?
"It is my first time winning it and it is nice to win, but I think it just shows that, as a club, we are progressing and are moving forward. I think that we're just not the same Milan as in past years, and I just think it shows."
You opened February in Gran Canaria, but lost Arturas Gudaitis in that game. Was it difficult to regroup, rally and win the game?
"Losing him was bad; he is one of our best players and had been one of our best players all year. So it is tough when something like that happens, but I think we set bigger goals this year and when that happened, it was just like a wake-up call. We were playing bad, and when one of your best players goes down, other people have to step up and I think that is what people did. People are ready to play when their numbers are called, and that is what it has been happening."
"I'd rather play a game where everything's on the line and everything matters."
You then faced Darussafaka without three key players: Nemanja Nedovic, Kaleb Tarczewski and Gudaitis. Did you have to adjust a lot to stay competitive?
"Yes, I think it was especially tough against them because they have big guys and not every team in the EuroLeague plays with a lot of 'fives' and 'fours'. With Jeff [Brooks] having to play more 'five' in that game, it was tough. But I think we adjusted pretty well and I think that since Kaleb [Tarczewski] has been back, it has been an easier transition."
Next, Milan beat Maccabi in an important game in the playoffs race. As a competitor, how do you like such pressure games with big crowds watching?
"I hate games when you play against the last team and they really want to beat you and you have to get up for the game. I'd rather play a game where everything's on the line and everything matters. Those are the type of moments I like; those are the type of games I like. So when games like that come up, they are more exciting than anything. Those are the fun moments. When you are little, those are the moments you think about when you are a kid. Those are the moments I prefer."
February finished perfectly, on the road at Khimki, in a game that went down to the wire until a three-pointer by Micov, a defensive stop, and your late free throws. How important is experience those situations?
"We trust each other. We wanted to win and knew what that game meant for us. I think that the last minute of that game shows how together we have become, because Nedo [Nedovic] drove and kicked it out to Vlado [Micov] and he made the shot. You need to trust your teammates to be able to do that. And the next defensive possession was all about trust. We switched like seven times in that possession and got the stop. We're starting to trust each other now and starting to be more of a team."
This is your fifth consecutive EuroLeague season. How comfortable do you feel as one of the superstars in the league?
"I enjoy it. I like this competition. I think it is one of the most competitive competitions in the world, if not the most. During the regular season, every game counts and you have to make sure you play hard every game. And that puts added weight on every game, especially around this time of the year, where if you lose, it can cost you a playoff spot. So, I enjoy it."
Your next game is against CSKA in Moscow. You led them by 13 points late in the third quarter in Milan, but lost. What will it take to beat CSKA this time?
"I think when we played them at home, we weren't all the way healthy. Us being healthy and being more of a team now is a wholly different look than last time. And I think we have a chance. On any given day, we are one of the best teams in Europe when we are playing defense and getting out and running. So, I think anything can happen."
You interacting with a lot of fans and other players on social media. How important is social media to you?
"I just like being on there. Before I was a professional, I think, being on a social media site and interacting with one of my favorite players or interacting with regular players or anything, I always thought that would have been cool just to hear what they have to say and just to know what they're thinking. So, I try to stay as active I can and respond to most people. Sometimes it gets a little blurred, sometimes it gets a little rough, but I think it's cool for fans to interact with me and I enjoy doing it."
"I think it's cool for fans to interact with me and I enjoy doing it."
You lead the EuroLeague in scoring, performance index rating and rank second in assists only behind Nick Calathes. Is this your best season? What has allowed you to play so well?
"It is my best season, statistically. I think it is just that I have more freedom. In years past, like you said, I played with Nick [Calathes] so I had to share half of the load with Nick, one of the best point guard in Europe. This year, I basically have free reign to do whatever I want, and I have been playing well. I give credit to my teammates, too, because sometimes I don't make the best decisions but they still stick with me and trust me. That enables me to have the confidence to keep moving forward."
You played a Final Four with Baskonia in 2016. Does that experience inspire you to return again?
"It is a big inspiration, I think. Last time I went, I didn't feel I was one of the key players and when I got there. I was just trying to do anything to win, so I was guarding the best players and just moving the ball, getting it to our main players. I want to go there as the main player and have all the weight on my shoulders, to have everything on me. Like I said earlier, I like those types of situations, I like that type of pressure. I just want to experience it; I want to go there and I want to win."