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Блог Этторе Мессины о баскетболе

What makes playoffs special

Messina Online

The way we performed during Russian Cup was very important. We showed that we could adapt to two opponents who play completely different styles within 24 hours and come up with two good games.

In the semifinal, Dynamo Moscow tried to slow down the game and put the ball inside to Papadopoulos as much as they could. We needed to stay balanced to cover this big threat under the basket.

In the final, UNICS played a lot of pick-and-roll. Their big men tried to set screens and get open for a three-point shot. We had to defend much better on the perimeter, where Stevenson, Chikalkin and Stombergas are extremely dangerous. UNICS is also a team that likes to use transition. Plus they had an easy win in the semifinal over Dynamo Moscow Region that suffered from key players' injuries. I'm happy that our players managed to perform well under pressure and played two solid games.

In general, there are two major things that make playoff games different. You can feel both of them before the games. First, players are extremely concentrated. You don't need a lot of repetition to prepare what you want to prepare for these games. Second, it is difficult for players to do their best at practices, physically and mentally, because they are afraid of getting injured. They keep thinking: «What happens, if I get injured and cannot play?» However, everybody agrees that chances to get injured are higher, if you don't do your best at practices. Injuries are something we cannot control. So, it's important to be completely ready mentally, as it also helps to prevent injuries.

Before an important game, it's more difficult to find a right balance between having a good practice and not getting too tired. Spending too much mental energy could be at least as dangerous as spending too much physical energy. Practices must be a little bit shorter during this part of the season. This compensates for the fact that players spend a lot of mental energy.

Besides, both my assistants and myself need to make an effort to give the team an idea of the best way to play defensively and offensively against our opponents. Even though we are considered a good defensive team, we put at least the same effort and the same amount of time into understanding how to attack against our next opponent.

Good defense starts with good offense. There are three very important things about good offense. First, you can get a balanced shot. A shot by an open man usually means that the defending team had to work a lot before that shot. This makes it difficult for the opponent to run a fast break, which is much easier when you lose the ball or attempt a bad shot. As you see, good offense is about preventing transition from the opponent.

Second, if you have good offense, you can draw fouls. Getting one of the best opponent players sidelined with two, three or four fouls is the best defense.

Third, good offense implies having good balance on the floor. Once you have balance on the offensive end of the court, it's easier for you to transform it into a good balance on the defensive end of the court and thus prevent transition. In these days the court is more or less the same size it used to be ten years ago, but players are much bigger, faster and more physically fit. They can cover the court very quickly. This is why you can usually have a fast break only after a turnover or a bad shot, because in these two cases the team is not balanced and cannot cover the court quickly.

Playoff games are more difficult mentally, than technically and tactically. Tactically, they are even a little bit simpler than some regular games. If you make things simple, you help your team to play relaxed. If you try to add some complicated things before Final Four, everybody gets nervous. Most coaches go with what they did all year and what worked out for them. I believe there is no much room to surprise the opponent in playoffs. My job is to put my players in a situation where they'd feel comfortable and confident. It's not tactics that win these games. People do.

One day, Antoine Rigaudeau, one of the greatest point guards in European basketball in last 25 years, told me: «When I go into a game, I know that I have to win my match-up against my opponent, like in tennis. If I do this, my team has a better chance to win. If I lose my match-up, my team will probably lose, especially because I play point guard, which is a key position».

That was an incredible lesson. It taught me a lot about the team sports of high level. Personally, I never played at high level, so I don't know what's going on in the mind of a great player. Antoine is an ultimate team player, and still, he wasn't saying «team» or «we». He was taking his responsibility. He showed me that personal responsibility is extremely important. I learnt to help my players to understand how to win their match-ups. If there are five match-ups and we win three of them, we're likely to win the game. If we win four, we will win the game for sure. Other teams try to do the same things against us.

I don't believe when people say team sports are similar to chess. In chess you move pieces of wood, in basketball you deal with real people with their abilities, emotions and creativity. I completely disagree with the idea of the coach as a chess player.

Any coach, if he has time, will be prepared. When you have less time, much more depends on the level of the players. If you have smart and experienced players, like I'm lucky to have here, it might be enough to have just a video session and a short practice on the court to do what they call in America «walk through» — when you walk on the court and show your players where to go and where to stay.

No doubt, all 4 teams will arrive well-prepared for Euroleague Final Four. They have time to watch video tapes, to analyze, to discuss. Also, all 4 coaches have an idea of what should be done, if they win in the semifinal. But, I'm sure, nobody will try to anticipate the preparation for the final, because it will give the team the idea that you're already thinking about the final. This way you might lack concentration needed to get there.

I made the exception last year, but I made it only for myself. When we were going to Prague, I decided to watch couple of tapes of Maccabi. I felt that Maccabi had a great chance to win Final Four. «If we win the semifinal, — I thought. — We'll face an incredible team that won two Euroleague titles in a row and is going for the third». They had a very special style. I wanted to have a general idea about the way they were playing. I felt that two days between the semifinal and the final might not be enough for me. Though, I was extremely concerned about the semifinal against Barcelona. They had much more quickness almost in every position. I was afraid that this could become a big factor as well as their long bench.

As for my assistants, their job is completely different. Zhenia [Evgeny Pashutin] and Lele [Emanuele Molin] always prepare scouting reports on our potential rivals. They've already prepared three reports — on Unicaja, Panathinaikos and TAU. They already know everything about those teams. But, for me, it's different. I usually don't want to be involved in overpreparation.

There's one factor about this Final Four that we shouldn't underestimate. Last year we played only the final on the road, with 11 thousand yellow shirts in the stands. This year even the semifinal will be like that. All the fans of PAO and, probably, TAU will support Unicaja as they hope not to face CSKA in the final. We know we will hear our fans in OAKA and they will do whatever they can to support us, but the rest of the 20-thousand crowd will cheer against us. So we won't be surprised by a high level of aggressiveness towards our team.

I know it's difficult financially for most of our fans to come to Athens. The conditions that imposed by Euroleague and Express Holidays have raised the cost of the flight and accommodation. I know our club management is doing his best to make prices more reasonable. I hope that as many fans as possible will come to Athens eventually, because it's extremely important for us.

We always hear and see our fans. No matter, where we play. When I enter the arena during away games, I immediately try to see where our fans are. It's like something positive is coming from the stands. Regardless, if we can hear our fans or not, we always see them.

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