I would like to start this post by introducing a new player in our Russian league roster Maxim Zakharov. Maxim is a young player who is helping us in practices over the last 4-5 weeks. He went to Italy with us for the preseason preparation, but he had a problem with his back that forced him to stay out of the game for two months. Hes a serious person, hes always working, smiling, hes an excellent shooter, he has good size and hes not afraid of playing under contact. He can play both shooting guard and small forward. I think hes one of these players who are usually underrated and, if he continues to work this way, he might become a good player one day. Hes a player I like and all other players like. I never had to complain about him. I hope to reward him with a Euroleague trip one day.
We added Maxim when we had this army injury. Speaking of which Im sorry for Vorontsevich, who is not only a CSKA player, but also an important player for the national team, who might be out for the rest of the season. I think its anachronism to forbid the player who helped Russian Olympic team to play for his club. It doesnt make sense for me. I dont understand the timing either. If he represented the country before, why he has to sit out now? Its strange, but I respect. In Italian, there is a saying I dont understand, but I adjust.
This year our trip to the East was extremely difficult. We flew all night to Vladivostok. We arrived there at 8 a.m. local time. We slept a little bit and then we played at 5 p.m local time. The first time three years ago doctors told me were going to play only 9 hours after arriving to Vladivostok, I thought these people were crazy. We cant do this. But when I woke up that day I felt good. The game was at 11 a.m. Moscow time, so basically it was like a morning practice.
I dont think we played a tough game because we were tired. We just didnt play a good game. We were surprised by their pick-and-roll. We needed half of the game to adjust to defend it correctly. However, we managed to build a lead that protected us at the end of the game. Usually, we fly to Krasnoyarsk immediately after the game to gain 4 additional hours thanks to time zone difference. But this time we couldnt do it. There was some reconstruction at the airport, so we couldnt leave the same day. We had to sleep in Vladivostok. The morning after we woke up and we flew to Krasnoyarsk. This messed up completely all our biorhythms, our bodies adjusted to the time change. In Krasnoyarsk we were extremely tired, but the team practiced well and practiced hard, because we needed to get ready for the game that I was really concerned about.
I had seen the tapes of Krasnoyarsk playing against Triumph (they won) and Dynamo (they lost in the last minute). At the moment we didnt have Matjaz and J.R., so I had to be careful while selecting the foreigners. I decided to go with Lorbek, because I felt we needed to have another inside scorer. I also thought we needed to be ready to defend their pick-and-roll, since we didnt do a good job defending pick-and-roll in Vladivostok.
At the end it was very rewarding to find out that our new team has the same ability to raise the level of attention under pressure. We started the game with a great first quarter: the game was decided after 10-12 minutes. We played an excellent defense against their scorers, we attacked them in the right way getting fouls from the players we wanted to get in foul trouble. All in all, it was one of our best games in the Russian league this year. I was very pleased, first of all, because we played a good game drawing a big crowd (like always in Krasnoyarsk), second, because we made a step up when we needed it. It was the answer to the question I had in this first half of the season: we are able to do this with this new team we have.
Then we flew to Novosibirsk. You know how much I care about my players having the sense of responsibility. We decided to use a lot our young players in Novosibirsk. Not to disrespect Novosibirsk, because I knew the game would be close if I use more young players. But having the result secured it was time to test our youngsters. Usually, what I do in the Russian league, I put one young player, Vorontsevich (or Keyru, or Shved) with three or even four veterans. This time I put a point guard, Planinic, with Keyru and Shved always together. And the result was disappointing. They could not deliver under pressure. On the other hand, I was extremely happy with the way our veterans played. I told them: You go in, you find the way to get us the lead. Then you sit again, because I want to put the young players again to see if they could at least protect the lead. I was very pleased when I put Trajan, Viktor Khryapa and Alexey Savrasenko. They immediately got up by 10-12 points. This was a good sign of responsibility, because they could have thought: OK, coach is using us to support the young players in the game which is meaningless and maybe with a chance of getting injured. But they were running, diving on the floor. I remember Viktor Khryapa diving on the floor to save a loose ball for us. That was extremely important to me, because they showed responsibility for themselves and for these young players.
I was very upset with Alexey Shved and Viktor Keyru (while Vorontsevich played a good game in front of his home crowd). They have the talent, but sometimes they lack consistency and mental toughness. They have to grow up. By the way, Grachev was just abusing Alexey Shved. But what bothered me the most is that Alexey didnt show any sign of reaction. He just accepted to be abused by Grachev. I respect Grachev as a good player. Hes good, experienced player who could score 20 points even in Superleague A. But youre a better athlete, because youre younger, you have all the talent, how can you accept that? I was very upset, he knows that.
We came back home not only with three wins (which was expected), but with a lot of information about our team. We had a long week to prepare for the game in Belgrade. Its always very difficult to play there, because Partizan gets overexcited on their home court, in the good sense of the word, getting a lot of energy from their crowd. I respect very much Dule Vujosevic. Ive known him for 16 years. When we signed Sasha Danilovic in 1992, Sasha was 22 at the time and the coach who had brought him up as a player and as a person was Dule. Sasha has so much respect for him, that once he became the president of Partizan, he immediately hired him. They won 7 championships, 2 Adriatic leagues, and they are always a hardball in the Euroleague even after losing a player or two every season to maintain the economic balance of the club.
As I watched the tapes, I honestly felt that this year they are better than last year. They dont have the names of last year like Pekovic and Kecman, but they have young players like Tepic and Velickovic who give them a lot of energy and talent. They are much better at penetrating and passing, while last year they were better at shooting and setting screens (but they didnt have the quickness to drive you to the basket). I knew that with this ability to penetrate and pass they could give us a lot of problem, and thats exactly what happened.
The game was played with a very high level of contact allowed by referees, especially in screening. I thought that some of my players might be not ready to play under such pressure. I thought it might be very hard for Nikos and Erazem, because its normal for a young player to lose confidence under pressure of a big and vocal crowd and high level of contact. I was proved wrong because both Lorbek and Zisis played an excellent game. They had a crucial role in our win. We were lucky at the end, when they missed three times during the last possession, even if two of the last three shots were difficult. Only the last one was the easy one, when they just had to tip the ball.
We built 8-10 points lead three or four times, we were balanced, we got some free throws to shoot, and we played bad only against the zone. When I looked at the faces of my players after the game, they were disappointed. They thought we should have won by ten points. I repeated them what I told before the game: This is a very difficult game for the physical level of this team, for the style of the game they play that is not good for us, and for the atmosphere. It was probably one of the few times over the last several years when I was happier than my players when evaluating the game. They were more serious with themselves, too much.
By the way, it was the right moment to recover Matjaz. He lost weight, he has a very good body-fat percentage, and hes in a good mood. He was not at his level of the game, but he made some very important free throws, a basket off an offensive rebound and a three-point shot in the first half. He showed that hes coming back. For us his presence, his voice, his ability to do right things under pressure are so important that all our team will benefit from that.
The day after we came back home and had a shorter practice. It was an early practice, even though we arrived at 6 a.m. Moscow time, because it was Thanksgiving and all our Americans made a huge investment in buying turkeys. The price for a turkey in Moscow was incredible this year. Im glad my family does not celebrate Thanksgiving because it would have been a financial disaster to buy one these days.
Preparing for the game against Dynamo we knew we couldnt count on our army players Vorontsevich and Shved. Basically, we had only four Russian players Alexey, Viktor Khryapa, Victor Keyru and Sasha. It was a difficult decision whether to go with Terrence or with Erazem. I decided to go with Terrence because Dynamo is very strong not only on five position, but also on four position with Nachbar, who could be helped by Monia. I felt if Viktor Khryapa had any kind of problem, we should have a second option.
Honestly, I thought it would be very difficult for us to win this game. Probably, I said the wrong words to my team, because they were extremely nervous from minute one, like if they wanted to win and they couldnt do it. We went down by 10 points, we were rushing shots, we were not playing defense. I tried to calm them down, to tell them that we still had enough options to try to win this game. I tried to relax them a little bit, because I felt they were trying too hard. It was not a matter of tactics and techniques.
We showed great personality. It could have been easy to give up and find many excuses after going down by 10 against such a good team as Dynamo. After the game people kept telling me that I looked very happy. Indeed, I was extremely happy. Not only with the result, but with the mental attitude of my players. They came back slowly, without rushing, they scored almost 90 points against an excellent combination defense. Alexey Savrasenko had +20 points in index rating. He didnt miss one shot. He was extremely present both offensively and defensively. I was very happy for him, because it was probably the first time he played 100% after the injury he had last season. I hope it will give him the confidence for the rest of the season.
Nikos played very well. Very few people know that Zoran played so little because he had a problem with his back, as he had gotten hurt in the first half of the game against Partizan. I was so happy, because it was normal to lose this game. And yet, the team found not only an emotional way, but also a technical way to win. I understand I probably surprised many people by being so happy. It was not because we defeated Dynamo, it was because under pressure and in a difficult moment I found my team one more time, which is the most important thing to me.
All these games gave us a lot of useful information about our team. Now it will be just a matter of solving the problem with army players and helping Matjaz to recover his shape. And then, when J.R. is back, all the pieces of a puzzle will be there, and we will need to find minutes for everybody.