This year we decided to go to Madrid one day earlier than we usually do. We felt that the trip was longer the flight was about 5 hours and we also needed time to adjust to the weather. This decision turned out to be the right one. We've adjusted to the hotel, transportation and everything even before the other teams arrived.
Usually, when all teams are arrived the hotel is a big mess. Every time you get off the elevator, people jump on you. They want to take a picture, or they want to talk, or they want to ask you something. It's extremely distracting and consumes a lot of mental energy. I'm lucky that CSKA players had been to many Final Fours and they know how to rest and stay focused with all these crazy things going around.
On Wednesday we had a very good practice at the facility of Real Madrid. On Thursday we had a practice on the game court. Euroleague, like NBA, wants you to be available for the media 15 minutes at the beginning or at the end of the practice. So you have only one hour of practice time and you need to be very focused to get something accomplished, because you cannot waste one second.
On Friday we arrived by the second half of the first semifinal. Usually, I don't want my team to stay in the gym for a long time. While our players were taped, I had a chance to watch a part of the second half. Siena played an excellent defense in the first and second quarters and they had a very good performance by McIntyre from the three-point. Everybody was already expecting a surprising (though not for me) win by Siena when something changed.
One of Siena key players Stonerook got in the foul trouble. And Maccabi put a small line-up with Garcia, Bluthenthal at four and Derrick Sharp who is a great shooter and terrific leader. Siena, which is usually also a good inside team with Thornton, Sato and Lavrinovic who can post their defenders in the low post, didn't use this option much and totally relied on three-point shots. They took a lot of good three point shots, but didn't make them.
When you shoot so many three-pointers, first of all, you don't get easy shots, second, you depend on percentage, third, you don't draw many fouls. By missing these good shots they allowed Maccabi to speed up the game and hit some big threes by Sharp, Garcia and Bluthenthal. Siena had an astonishing number of 45 three-point attempts. Imagine it's more than 1 three-point attempt per minute. As the game became close, Siena got frustrated for having lost their big advantage and couldn't match Maccabi aggressiveness.
It was our time to go on the court. TAU is an extremely athletic team. They have not only powerful big men (McDonald, Teletovic and Splitter), but also big guards like Planinic, Mickeal and Rakocevic. We knew it would be a very tough game. TAU came out very well prepared. They did an excellent job to stop our most important plays, especially those when we put the ball inside to Matjaz and David Andersen. It took us more than one half to understand it and react in the right way. Once again we were helped by J.R. We might be trailing by 10-12 points by the end of the first half. He took a lot of responsibility and, by performing at the top level, allowed us to stay close. He kept us in the game, within 6 points, which helped the confidence of the team to keep fighting.
We didn't change our strategy during the half-time, even though we considered it. I felt that our strategy was correct. It was just a matter of bad execution. Generally speaking, if I see that the execution is good and the result isn't there, I understand that the strategy is wrong and I need to change the strategy. This time I felt that the strategy was right, especially on the pick-and-roll. We just had a slow execution. We had to improve the quality of the execution first. That's what we emphasized in the locker room.
We had a very good start in the third quarter. The game was close until David Andersen made some shots from the post and we had several fast breaks while making another step up defensively. We won as a team as everybody contributed in different moments. We made mistakes against their pressure in last minutes, but, all in all, we deserved the win. We were happy to be in the final for the third time in a row.
At this moment I felt a great responsibility. My assistants and myself are capable to prepare a game well, if we have enough time. Eight wins in the semifinals speak for themselves. Obviously, talent of the players helps a lot. But 24 hours isn't much time.
This time Lele and Zhenya did the scouting on both Maccabi and Siena before flying to Madrid. So did I, although I usually don't like to do it because I think that it brings bad luck. But this time I pushed myself to do it. Also we managed to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, even from our families, and to concentrate on the game. As Maccabi can use many set plays and rely in different moments on almost any player in their roster, we decided not to waste the mental energy of our team on preparing ourselves for every single play. They have so many talented players that focusing on one or several set plays equals losing the game in advance. Instead, we did something that we usually don't do. We prepared individual clips over Maccabi players and what they usually like to do individually. We felt if we could win these individual match-ups knowing the qualities of our opponents, we will win the game.
Even though Maccabi had a home court advantage in the final with all their fans, one more time CSKA fans were incredible. In spite of the fact that they were outnumbered, our fans were very vocal and helped us a lot. We heard their voice, we felt their support. We would like to thank them all.
We played a good game. My team was never anxious. Regardless the score, we just kept playing. I was very proud and happy as we managed to find balance between being nervous, which is normal, being confident and being aggressive. We controlled the first half. Even when they came close, we never got nervous. In the second half we made another step up defensively and offensively, with the ball movement. We won in the greatest way you could possibly win: with two minutes left you understand you won and you can simply enjoy the moment. Even if you make some mistakes or your opponent score some points. Having such a confident lead gives you the opportunities to seize the moment.
Turning back, it's like one incredible journey, winning two tittles in three years and going to six Final Four in a row. This is another great page in CSKA history, something that will be remembered for years. Honestly, winning one Euroleague title or winning two in three years is not the same. We established some kind of continuity. For the players, coaches, management, everybody. The kind of continuity that CSKA and Real had in 60's-70's, Varese in 70's, Milan in 80's, Maccabi in 2000's.
The success of a team mostly depends on the strength of the organization. Organization selects coaches, takes part in selecting players. It protects the team during the periods of injuries or losses. It may push the team or calm the team down. We're part of a great organization with great management. It can be felt on every level, from Andrei Vatutin and Sergey Kushchenko to the person who helps us in the locker room. When somebody says that CSKA won another Euroleague because we have a big budget, I answer with a question: «How many teams with big budget you know that don't win?»
There are many great teams and strong organizations in Europe: Maccabi, Panathinaikos, Olympiacos, Real Madrid and so on. Some of them are considered underachieving, some, like Siena this year, overachieving. The important thing: best of them have that continuity. TAU went to their forth consecutive Final Four. It doesn't matter that they haven't won it yet. They will. They remind me CSKA. Like CEO of Siena put it: «We had two third places and one fourth place. The important thing is that Siena keep qualifying for the Final Four. Sooner or later it'll be our time». I agree with that.
I don't think Siena overachieved this year. They have excellent management. They made it to 3 Final Fours in 6 years, which is more than Barcelona or Panathinaikos. Siena is a small town of 60 thousand people. Over these 60 thousand, about 8 thousand attend Siena games, which is an incredible percentage. Their main sponsor, Montepaschi, I guess, is the oldest bank in Europe. They are more than just a sponsor. Siena head coach Simone Pianigiani, which, I think, could be easily named coach of the year by Euroleague, grew up as a coach in the club. Their general manager and CEO are also from Siena. It's absolutely amazing. They select players always paying a great deal of attention to players' human side. As a result, they don't need the biggest budget to get to the Final Four.