I heard many opinions that say were lucky to face Unicaja in Euroleague semifinal, not Barcelona. To think like this is to make a huge mistake. Unicaja is a solid team, with great defense. They got many improvements since the first round. Marcus Brown is recovered from injury and, for sure, wants to take revenge. If we make the mistake to think were already in the final, well watch the final on TV.
My teams have always won the semifinals. This means if we have time to prepare well arrive prepared. My players, the staff and myself, we knew what should be done and what should be left out while preparing for those games.
Our ability to get to the final might be explained by the simple reason that we never think ahead more than one game. We never gather information about our possible rivals in the final, except last years final against Maccabi. Ive always done it this way in Euroleague and Russian Cup Final Fours and Italy Cup Final Eights. I always tell a joke to my team: If you dont win the semifinal, it will be Final Two. We will be one of two teams on their way home.
This is the way well try to approach Final Four in Athens. I hope that together with the players we will be able to isolate ourselves from all those who forget that it took our team 4 years to advance to the final last year. And even last year we needed a great second half to beat Barcelona. So it never was easy to win the semifinal. I hope we do our best to beat Unicaja. Even if we beat team from Malaga, nobody can say now who well face in the final.
Its interesting that last year in Athens TAU won the third quarterfinal game worth the ticket to Final Four. Another reason this Final Four would be extremely interesting because there are two Serbian coaches in one semifinal and two Italian coaches in the other. That is unusual. Sergio Scariolo comes back to Final Four after 15 years. He got there the first time when he was coaching Scavolini, in his second season.
As weve already discussed it, the balance in our team is completely different this year. Its nothing that you can teach or you can ask out of your players before Final Four. The only thing you can do is paying their attention to something that is happening and that youve already experienced with previous teams.
The problems are related to two aspects. The first one, you might become too much confident. You know your teammates, you know what you are capable of. Youre not scared as you were last year before winning. Its good to feel confident. But, with too much confidence, you immediately become weak. You stop paying attention to small details the game is all about. Sometimes you dont have the fear of losing that, I think, is the part of your being prepared for the game. If you lost that fear, youre not ready.
The second thing that changes completely after winning the title is the expectations. If youre expected to do well in something, whether its school, job or sports, it becomes more difficult. Everybody understands this, but really few people are capable to perform under the pressure of expectations. And it has nothing to do with your abilities. No matter how good you are in doing your job. You might be an average player, but do miracles under pressure. Or vice versa, you might be a perfect player, but be a complete failure when it comes to play under pressure of expectations.
There are different kinds of pressure and the pressure of the expectations is the worst. If everybody your wife or girlfriend, your children, your colleagues thinks that you will do it well, this might destroy you mentally. You start thinking: what shall I do if I deceive all these people? Moreover, like a famous volleyball coach Julio Velasco was saying, you might start playing to defend the previous titles, which is a completely wrong approach. According to this approach, what you do now will justify the award youve already received. If you defend something instead of going on and getting something new, it might kill your performance.
This year we played sometimes like defending last years champion honor. Matjaz Smodis, David Vanterpool and other players made the others focus on winning new titles, not on defending last years ones.
Were 50 percent in the Euroleague final games which is good, but maybe not great.
The three finals my teams lost had one thing in common. All three times we played the semifinal against another Italian team. It was so called derby. We and our rivals in those semifinals were exposed to an incredible pressure. At that time there was a rule that both teams from the same country should face each other in the semifinals.
In those three years it was more than just semifinal. It was more of a zero-sum game. These games were the ultimate games to win, more important than the finals to come. At least, in the mind of everybody in Italy.
In 1999 we faced our major rival - Fortitudo Bologna. It was like having a Euroleague semifinal CSKA vs. Dynamo Moscow. That year we lost all the games we played against Fortitudo. Everybody expected us to lose one more time. It was in the middle of the Serbian war, so Danilovic and Nesterovic were under pressure, especially Danilovic whose family lived in the region that was bombed. We won that «game of the year». By the way, Claudio Crippa played in that game and helped the team.
For your understanding, there were thousands of people coming from Bologna to support both teams. It seemed like Final Four began and finished with that game. Everything was there: pressure, expectations, ultimate rivalry, even hatred between fans. The funny episode happened when my future wife Laura and I took metro to go to the hotel after that game and jumped into a car with lots of Fortitudo fans. It went OK. They were fair with us.
We were completely exhausted mentally and physically by that game and we lost the final two days after to Zalgiris. Its not that we relaxed a little bit, but we gave everything to win the derby and we were just drained.
The loss to Panathinaikos in 2002 was the most painful. It was my last year with Kinder Bologna. We had a very difficult season, because we had numerous problems with the club owner. The club went bankrupt two years after. We had a strange relationship with the new owner. I was fired in March for 48 hours. It didnt matter that we had won all the trophies (Italy Cup, National Championship and Euroleague title) in 2001 and have just won the Italy Cup in 2002. He decided to put me aside. But after the buzz from fans, press and almost everybody in the town, he called on me and said he had made a mistake and asked me to come back. Now, many years later, looking back at that incident, I think I made a mistake to return. But I did it because I wanted to stay with my team and win Euroleague. We had a Final Four ahead of us.
It wasnt a good idea to go back as the situation in the club broke. We had two camps. The team and coaches were on one side, the club management on the other. We faced Benetton in the semifinal. They defeated us three times earlier that season. Because of their running style, very similar to what DAntoni has in Phoenix now, it was difficult for us to match this team up. However we managed to come up with a great game and won. In the other semifinal Panathinaikos defeated Maccabi which seemed to be a favorite in this match-up. Final Four took place in Bologna and this put an incredible pressure on us. Everybody took our win for granted due to the fact we hosted Final Four, our experience and the titles we had in two seasons.
We started extremely aggressively and with 3 minutes left in the first half we led by 15 points after Smodis three-pointer. They narrowed the gap to 8 points at the end of the first half (48:40). At that moment instead of feeling confident about winning the game, we got paralyzed by what they call fear of winning. We felt nervous at the beginning of the second half. We got even more nervous as we wasted a big lead. Probably we went up too early in the game. They kept playing patiently. Papadopoulos, who was very young at that time, scored 3 or 4 baskets. Bodiroga led them very well. They were very patient and smart under the guidance of Zelimir Obradovic. At the end they went up by 4 after Kutluays 3-point shot in the last minute and sealed the game. Its difficult to believe, but we made only 30 percent from free-throw line. That was probably the most painful loss I experienced in my career.
Maybe this year if were good enough in the semifinal, we will face Panathinaikos on their court, if they manage to win over TAU. Who knows?
In 2003 Final Four was held in Barcelona. I coached Benetton Treviso. Once again, we had a semifinal against an Italian team. Siena was on the rise back then. They were a strong contender in National championship. It was their first Final Four. In the semifinal we spent a lot of energy. When we entered the final, we didnt feel as strong and confident as you should feel to have a chance to win the final.
However, this was an incredible year for us. I took the position from Mike DAntoni who went to the NBA. We won the SuperCup, the Italy Cup, the National Championship, we made it to Euroleague Final Four and only lost in the final to the hosts Barcelona. I dont have bad memories about that season.
All in all, this year situation is completely new in my career. I have no frame of reference that would match exactly what we have now in CSKA. First, we didnt change the team too much. Second, the chemistry of the team remained very good and no jealousy arose. Third, we had just one major injury (that of David Vanterpool), not a lot of injuries like in other years. Fourth, the atmosphere in the team and in the club remained pretty much the same, except that sometimes we acted as we were too much confident. But anyway we still have a good working atmosphere with people knowing their jobs, their abilities and limitations. We are trying to do it again together.
It does not remind me anything. After a big last year, we had a good season, but not another great season, this is why I have some hope. But this is just hope. I dont want to create expectations upfront. To defeat Unicaja would be difficult. To repeat this year in Athens against Panathinaikos and Greek fans would be extremely difficult. So we will see.
The game 2 against Maccabi was alarming. The good thing about this season is that we turned all five games we lost into positive without it affecting our standings.
We hope that we dont need any other alarm. Last year we lost an important game against UNICS in the semifinal. It was a big alarm. But if you lose, you dont know whether it is an alarm or a disaster. When we lost in Tel-Aviv it looked like a disaster. Now we can say it was luckily a great alarm. We hope we dont need another one, but you never know.
Every coach has many alarms each season. We were lucky, but also good enough to have only five big alarms and not to let them affect our position. Sometimes youre not so good. For example, Unicaja has already lost more than 20 games this year, but they are still in Final Four. And they are extremely dangerous because of that.
When journalists asked me whether I will use Russian Cup Final Four to model Euroleague Final Four, my answer was: We will use it to try to win it.
When I was coaching Kinder Bologna in 2001, we played Italian Cup Final Eight between the first two games of the Euroleague final series against TAU (we went 1-1) and the games three and four. The situation was extremely unusual and I remember the president of the club to tell the team before Final Eight in the locker room: You go there not to get injured. This is the most important thing now. I remember I spoke with the team after that and I said: Look, I respect everything, but we need to agree on something. Do we go there to play to try to win because this is an important trophy or we just go there not to play? Just let me know. The players Ginobili, Rigodo and others said: We havent won anything yet this season.
To make the long story short, we won the Grand Slam that year like CSKA made it last year. Im sure my players of CSKA would say the same. But I was also sure nobody in CSKA would go there and say dont get injured.