Real Madrid head coach Pablo Laso is closing a circle. Born and raised in Vitoria-Gasteiz, he took his first steps with the sport as a player there, then became a pro playing with Baskonia. After turning to coaching and collecting successes along the way, he now comes back to his hometown as the coach of Real Madrid to play in his sixth Final Four in eight years with Los Blancos. Laso aims to lift his third trophy, which would also be his second consecutive one after triumphing last season in Belgrade. However, for that to happen Real Madrid will have to win two games, starting with mighty CSKA Moscow in the second semifinal on Friday. "A lot of things are tactically very important, but first of all we must make sure that we play good basketball." Laso said in this EuroLeague.net interview. "If we do not play great basketball we won't win, because CSKA is a great basketball team."
Pablo, congratulations on reaching another Final Four. How has this year's road compared to last season's?
"Every year is different and it's difficult to compare. What's more important is the fact that we reached our sixth Final Four in the last years. This talks very well about everyone: the team, the club, the players, the staff... It means we have worked hard over many years to stay at the highest level. That's something I feel proud of, but every year is different: players, situations, injuries, however you want to call it. There is one thing that stays the same though, which are the goals ahead of us and one of them is the Final Four, which we managed to achieve again."
This is your sixth Final Four in eight seasons with Real Madrid. What is the secret to that consistency?
"I truly feel that I have the best job that I could have."
"I wish there was a secret to it, so I would keep it and go to the Final Four every year! But there are no secrets I am afraid. To me, the first practice of the season in September is as important as the one before the EuroLeague final. Every year is like this. You have to get your team ready and it makes me happy because I have been a basketball person since I was a little kid. I truly feel that I have the best job that I could have and I am working for one of the best clubs in the world. If you get those things together, you are very proud of reaching that goal six times in eight years. I am sure that when I got here many people thought that I would not be in Real Madrid for eight years because it's very difficult for a coach to stay that long on the same club. But I don't think about that, I just look ahead to tomorrow."
Most of the players who lifted the trophy last season are still on your roster. How valuable will their title-winning experience be now?
"I think that the most important thing we need to have present is an idea: an idea of who we want to be, what we are and of course our players are involved. But I don't think that any player has to win the Final Four. It has to be a team thing and to me, all the players are very important. And we've had very good players here in these last eight years. I am talking about Nikola Mirotic, I am talking about Chacho [Sergio Rodriguez], Willy Hernangomez, Kyle Singler, Luka [Doncic] of course... Those many players have been with us, but in the end, the important thing is the identity we have as a group and that is important from the first day we get together. Of course, when you get to this point, experience is important and we have players who are back from last year, but like I tell them, the great thing is arriving at the Final Four. It will be just one game against CSKA Moscow. Anything can happen, anything! The night before maybe four guys get sick. It will be just a game. The important thing is not to lose our identity: that is the thing we have been working on from the first day."
Last season, Real overcame many injuries to reach the Final Four. Does having a relatively healthier season make your team stronger now compared to then?
"Every year is different. It's true that last year it was unbelievable to the point when I got to practice and team doctors told me 'okay, eight guys cannot practice today.' So it was a very tough year. We had long- and short-term injuries, people in and out all the time... It was difficult, but I think it made us stronger during the year to arrive at the last month of the season in the right position where everybody was healthy and ready to play. We had Campazzo out, Sergio for a few months, of course... But everybody helped a lot to achieve a championship. This year is different but we also had problems. Sometimes, from the outside, it seems that problems are just the injuries, but there are other kinds of problems: defeats, trips, good or bad games... But you have to learn from everything and be ready to play hard together and achieve those goals. Right now I feel that my team is having a great year and has been competitive from the beginning, ready to play against any team. And that's why we play in the Final Four against the three best teams in Europe. Arriving at the Final Four cannot be the work of a single player, coach or decision. It's the result of a year of work and I am proud that we get to Vitoria with confidence and the feeling that we can beat anyone, but also that anyone can beat us."
Just like last year, you are facing CSKA Moscow in the semis. How does that team compare from last year until now?
"The important thing is not to lose our identity."
"Of course, they have different things. They made moves on the market, they brought in [Daniel] Hackett, [Alec] Peters... But their identity, let's say the Itoudis hand, is there. They have a great backcourt with [Nando] De Colo, Chacho and [Cory] Higgins. They are good players at one-on-one, pick-and-roll and also very good scorers. The whole team is ready to do certain jobs: [Kyle] Hines, [Othello] Hunter, Peters, [Nikita] Kurbanov, [Will] Clyburn... Itoudis has been doing a great job for years there, and we know how difficult it will be to match up against them. This year we lost both games against them because it's very difficult to play against a team with that much talent. And we know that if we want to beat them we will have to play a great basketball game."
And what will you have to change then, to beat them at the Final Four?
"First of all, we must understand that this is a game and that the two previous games do not mean a thing now (laughs). It sounds easy, but that's difficult. Second, in a general way of speaking, we cannot let them play easy, especially with the guys we mentioned at the backcourt, De Colo, Chacho and Higgins. Players who can create for their teammates and can also score. We must not let them run or take open threes. A lot of things are tactically very important, but first of all, we must make sure that we play good basketball. If we do not play great basketball we won't win, because CSKA is a great basketball team."
What can you tell us about the other semifinal between Fenerbahce and Efes?
"Probably I am not the guy who could tell you the most about that matchup because probably anybody in Turkey could tell you more about it than me. They are two teams from the same country, but with very different ways of playing basketball. Efes has been doing great this year with a lot of new players, which is difficult. But they create an atmosphere that makes it look like they have been playing together for years and that speaks very highly of Ergin Ataman as a coach. He did a great job of that: the way they share the ball, the way they look for the right positions... Only [Bryant] Dunston, [Krunoslav] Simon and [Brock] Motum stayed, but the rest of the guys are new! And that talks very well about the work they have been putting in all year. They are not in the Final Four by chance, they are here because they deserve it, they showed during the year that they are a very hard team to beat. Fenerbahce is a classic with great players: [Jan] Vesely, [Nicolo] Melli, [Nikola] Kalinic, [Luigi] Datome, [Kostas] Sloukas, [Ali Muhammed] Dixon... We are talking about a great team! They know how to play together and they have been winners for years. Zeljko gave them, for years, the right mentality of knowing what to do. We are talking about a team that has consolidated through the years but, at the same time, they are almost new! Both teams have had a great year and I think it is an open game."
You relied on all 12 of your players in both Final Four games last year. Is depth Real's advantage going into this Final Four, too?
"I don't know. Of course, we are a team that needs everyone we can get. It's a tough schedule throughout the year and we need all the players at any given moment. When you arrive at one game, one final, which is what the game against CSKA will be, maybe you don't need the 12 players. Because it's just one game. You just need the ones who are ready and are playing great at that moment. But it's also true that for us it's very important to maintain a high rhythm to the game. That means running and making a lot of points? But that's the easy part. The hard part is to be aggressive on defense, on the boards, on the one-on-ones, you have to move the ball, run after the screens... There are many things that we need to do during games at a high level and most times, the rotation is important for that. They all have to be ready to help the team be it 40 minutes or one minute. Last year it was a great team job because everyone chipped in and did their best for the team on the court and that speaks very well about my squad."
"Not even in my wildest dreams did I contemplate the possibility of being a European champion in my hometown."
Real has not won back-to-back titles since 1967-1968. Does that add motivation to the ultimate goal?
"You ask me this question, but you could probably ask the other coaches, too! Because, how long has it been without back-to-back champs in the EuroLeague? Too many! Okay, you have to accept it. Right now I don't have that in my head. In my head, I only have CSKA Moscow. Winning back-to-back titles is something that will be remembered on Monday after the championship game. But right now, I don't even think about that. I can only think about the CSKA game."
How much of an honor for you is to play a Final Four in your native city? You will be the only Vitoria native participating in it.
"Listen, when I was playing in my school, San Viator, and I was about 13 or 14, not even in my wildest dreams did I contemplate the possibility of being a European champion in my hometown. At that moment, my only dream was to become a player to play basketball with my friends and, hopefully, play with my hometown team, Baskonia, let's say... once. After that happens, you keep dreaming, but you have to put in a lot of hard work for them to become true, and not only in basketball but also life in general. And there comes a time when, as a coach, I come back to my hometown, Vitoria, for a Final Four. I think this is great for the city. Vitoria has been a basketball city for years, and people that travel there will have a great city because Vitoria is open to everyone that loves basketball. They are also very proud to be having the Final Four at home. I am a guy from Vitoria! I will go visit my mom, my family, my friends... But listen, I am there to work! (laughs) Many people will go there to have fun and watch some games, everyone is asking me about restaurants, blah blah blah. But for me, I will see my family, my friends and that's about it, I am there to work! I won't change my diet, I will be eating hotel food! (laughs) Everything will be the same as the previous Final Fours except that this one will be in my hometown."