We haven't started Top-16 well for a reason. We were coming off a lot of injuries and we had to completely change the chemistry of the team. Our important players like Papaloukas and Smodis were still recovering from injuries. It was a very difficult moment and we were very lucky to escape the loss during the first game against Lottomatica with three-point shot by Trajan Langdon. Then we had a due victory against Barcelona at home and a very poor game in Malaga.
If we had lost in Rome we would have been in big trouble. We played with great personality and dominated the game. This win gave us the confidence to play the same kind of game against Malaga at home.
It's amazing how game cleaning (paying attention to small details in practice) changed dramatically our game within one or two weeks. From outside it might look astonishing that we managed to change so much in two weeks' period. But all we did was cleaning the dust. We were like a machine that was slowed down by the dust that got into the mechanism. We focused on some aspects to get rid of the dust and polish them up, especially on offense: the positioning of the players and the timing of our offense. For example, we focused on the way we play pick-and-roll, on the direction of remaining players' movement depending on the movement of the ball. When the ball goes to the low post, what we should do on the other side so that the player on the low post could have good passing options in case the defense collapses.
After that we played a good game in Barcelona. The result was influenced by some magic calls by referees, but we had already clinched the first place in our group and didn't care too much about these calls. Sometimes such moments are also part of the game.
Generally speaking, we weren't happy with the Top-16 draw as groups F and G were much stronger that the other two. No offense, but one can be much more relaxed if he knows he doesn't have to face Real, Maccabi or Olympiacos to go to the Final Four.
I'll try to explain what happened in the first game against Olympiacos. It happens sometimes even to the greatest teams. When they cut out Marc Jackson who had hurt us in both previous games, plus we knew that Macijauskas was not in a very good shape, we felt that everything would go well for us.
We started the game very focused on offense rather than on defense. The proof is that they scored 11 of 13 possessions in the first quarter. And, more importantly, they scored most of these possessions from inside while we were not even aggressive enough. It helped them to feel confident right from minute one. In spite of the fact that we managed to come back, we never found the rhythm either on defense or on offense. Even if it looked like they won with the last shot, I felt like they won by 20. They played better than us, they had prepared better than us. We focused our preparation against their pick-and-roll, but they were attacking us mostly one-on-one, especially their guards and small forwards. It turned out we were not ready for it. Panagiotis Vasilopoulos and Qyntel Woods both had an excellent game.
They didn't have much pressure on them and felt more relaxed. Combined with the confidence they got in the first minutes, it helped them to make many last second shots. When they saw that we were getting nervous, it increased their confidence.
I wasn't there to witness everything that happened to the team in the following 48 hours. I had to fly to Italy and the team stayed with Lele Molin, Zhenia Pashutin and Andrey Vatutin. Obviously, we watched the tape of the first game with Lele the night before I flew to Italy and we decided what kind of adjustment we had to try. The next days we were on the phone, but all the credit for the team preparation should go to Lele and Zhenia and to Andrei Vatutin, who on behalf of the club expressed the confidence to the team and not the anger or nervousness.
I joined the team in Athens after the practice and I just tried not to interfere too much and focus players' attention on what we felt was the key to the game. First, we needed to be more patient regardless the score. No matter what happens, we should try to win the game on defense, not on offense. Our players played with incredible confidence even when we were down by 12 with some fantastic three-point shots by Printezis and Mavrokefalides. We had a good offensive first quarter, but again we didn't have a good defensive first quarter. But this time they scored a lot from outside, they never penetrated and we managed to keep them out of the three seconds area.
We had a great run at the beginning of the second quarter with some big shots from Ramunas and Matjaz. When we cut their lead to 4-5 points they started getting nervous. We made some adjustments defensively not to leave anybody alone to defend one-on-one. We tried to provide more help to our player defending the man with the ball in order to create more difficulties for them to penetrate. On offense, we simply decided not to use the pick-and-roll as we found out in Game 1 that the best thing they were defending was exactly the pick-and-roll. Instead, we decided to use the post up, the one-on-one and the movement without the ball. Our players were excellent in adjusting mentally. It's not easy in 24 hours to change completely your game plan.
Honestly, we expected Game 3 to be very difficult, but at the same time we knew that we had a completely different attitude and we were much more confident. It was absolutely mandatory to start the game well. This time we had to show them from minute one that we were ready to control the game psychologically, without rushing, underestimating them or being superficial. We had a good start. And even if we never had more than 8-10-point lead, we were in control. The big factor that influenced the result of Game 3 was an absolutely incredible atmosphere, probably, the warmest atmosphere we had at home during these three years. Not only for the banners our fans hold, but for their support and cheering up. And at the end, all the people waiting for the team to come back to the stage again to give it applause, it was like in theater. It was very memorable. Honestly, it surprised me. Russian fans are known for their ability to be extremely respectful, but not for their ability to be emotional. This time they showed incredible emotions, incredible.
I was really pleased with that. It meant that nobody was taking for granted the fact that CSKA went to the Final Four for a sixth time in a row. Going to the Final Four for the sixth time in a row with two coaches and different players, even if the core of the team is still there, is a very big accomplishment. Being part of it is really important to me. The morning before Game 3 there was an article, comparing this game to the last dance of Chicago Bulls and mentioning that it can be the last game of this team in Euroleague. It added emotion to this game, but I do believe that my players never considered it as their last chance to play with each other at this level. It could have been our last game this year in Euroleague, but it's definitely nothing like the last game of CSKA or the last game in life.