The calendar reads May again and CSKA Moscow and Coach Dimitris Itoudis are in a familiar situation – preparing for the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four.
The 2020-21 EuroLeague season was unique in many ways. This regular season was closer than any before and not even 19 wins were enough to qualify for the playoffs. There has never been such a long wait for teams to start mathematically qualifying for the playoffs or locking up home-court advantages, and once it came to the playoff series, three of the four series went to Game 5, another first.
"The chemistry matters and the chemistry is not built just overnight."
Yet, at the end of it all, there is CSKA once again, playing in the Final Four, its 17th in the last 18 years, and a record ninth consecutive appearance. Coach Itoudis also stands alone in doing what no coach has done before, reaching his sixth Final Four in a row. And while Itoudis would refuse to compare his feelings from season to season, there is no denying how proud he feels about his team's achievement in this campaign.
"This is the third generation of players that we were called to manage and handle, which is great, and all were great teams," Itoudis said. "But it was a process for us to become a team, to have the right chemistry. And that's what matters, the chemistry matters and the chemistry is not built just overnight.
"You got to go through, and experience situations. You got to go experience the adversities, experience the criticism, experience the fact and the pressure you feel because you need to win. So all this is a daily process. Facing absences, long meetings, long practices, long trips. All of that. And last but not the least, the injuries which you cannot control, and COVID, when the doctor calls you can't count on these two or three players."
Those are things no coach can control and Itoudis said it sometimes it felt like he would go mad. He also lost two team leaders and MVP of the Month winners during the season, league rebounding leader center Nikola Milutinov through a shoulder injury and top scorer Mike James through suspension. But coaches can never despair, so Itoudis had his team take in stride everything they had to overcome.
"I think that creates a little bit more fun memories that we're going to remember with fondness. The fact that, as a group, we shared the hardship. Where we came together and we shared the hardship and we really managed that," he explained.
Itoudis went further to drive home the point that all the adversity the team faced ultimately brought out the best in his players.
"This is where the oxytocin is going out of the body," Itoudis said. "It means that we come together. We are coming closer. We know that on my right shoulder on my left shoulder, when I look over here, and behind my back, I have teammates. I have allies that they're going to help me in my bad moments. They're gonna pick me and they're going to help me to stand up again and fall forward because we're going to have falls. But we choose to fall forward. And that's what makes this team special."
In Cologne, CSKA faces Anadolu Efes Istanbul in the first semifinal on Friday. On paper, it is a rematch of the 2019 championship game, but Itoudis does not see this game that way because he has a very different team on his hands. Four of the pillars from that team – Nando De Colo, Kyle Hines, Sergio Rodriguez and Cory Higgins – are no longer with CSKA. The latter three will be in Cologne, but Hines and Rodriguez will be wearing the AX Armani Exchange Milan uniform and Higgins is with FC Barcelona. Itoudis though, while cherishing those memories, only looks ahead.
"This team has a tremendous expectation of going out there and compete in the highest level."
"Whatever happened in past belongs to past," he added. "The past can never determine the future. We are living in the present moment."
Itoudis feels the same way what to expect from the game against Efes. Their two regular-season games were blowouts. CSKA beat up on Efes by 35 in mid-December, and Efes returned the favor with a 30-point win in Round 28.
"Definitely, we have lost badly against Efes. They outplayed us, they outscored us. It was a back-to-back game for us, traveling from Tel Aviv to Istanbul, and we played a very bad game and they well-deserved to beat us at that moment. We beat them in a similar way, too, but I don't remember anymore when that was, but it was a long, long, long time ago," Itoudis said.
Itoudis is of course aware that All-EuroLeague guards Vasilije Micic and Shane Larkin are among the best in the competition. He calls Rodrigue Beaubois a pure scorer and thinks of Krunoslav Simon as someone with experience and the ability to make crucial shots. Itoudis will not forget about big men Sertac Sanli or Tibor Pleiss, who repeatedly showcased how important they are to their team, or to stress how big of a playoff Game 5 Chris Singleton had.
"Adrien Moerman maybe did not have that much of an impact in the playoffs, but for sure he's a great scorer," Itoudis shared. "Or, Dogus Balbay, who is a specialist defender. Each and every player is bringing something. Efes is a complete team, for sure."
Even against such a talented team and with so much at stake, the message Itoudis gives his team does not change greatly. His approach to the game is similar to what it has been for any other game or season so far.
"Even when you're glorious and you are victorious, you've got to stay humble and you’ve got to stay down", Itoudis warned. "I used to say whatever glory you have had, it is important, but let it rest in peace and in the past."
"Even when you're glorious and you are victorious, you've got to stay humble."
Still, it is hard to say that past success does not play a role, especially for a coach who has just become the first to lead a team to six consecutive Final Fours. That milestone just adds to the pride Itoudis feels for being a part of the CSKA organization, the one he just extended his contract with for another two seasons.
"I feel honored because I belong to such a great big club, but this doesn't go only one way", Itoudis said. "It goes both ways because I belong to this club and I feel that I belong. They make me feel that I belong. They gave me the values and the responsibility and the support, which makes me feel that I belong. And that's the most important. When a person doing his work on a daily basis feels that he belongs, feels that he is responsible for certain things and he feels that he has support, then he's going to give his best."
In Cologne, CSKA and Itoudis will surely give their best one more time for a chance to add to their respective legacies as they attempt to climb the EuroLeague throne once again.