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The shadow of «peripheral opponent»

We had a very good month of January, but then lost at home to Bilbao in the ACB right before the Copa del Rey Final Eight. It was very difficult for the players to recover after the defeat but we still managed to put together two solid efforts in the Quarterfinals and the Semifinals of the Cup. Actually, the Semifinal clash with Caja Laboral (78-50) turned out to be one of the best performances by Real Madrid this year. We played well but here I’d also like to praise our guys who weren’t actually getting much time on the floor. Their great attitude was surely among the factors that carried the team.

Unfortunately, we didn’t come through in the Copa del Rey Final versus Barcelona (61-80) which in my opinion remains the strongest side in Europe, hands down. They have solid and deep roster, very good coaching and are coming off a successful 2008-09 campaign. All that makes them a very tough team to beat.

The worst thing about that Final game was that after staying close throughout the first quarter (16-19 at the first intermission) we then fell behind by around 10 pts in the second, and instead of trying to stage a comeback we just collapsed and let Barcelona blow us out. That was extremely disappointing, and I just hope we’ll be able to use this bitter experience to our advantage when we face Catalonians again this season.

Obradovic won the Euroleague more than once with basically the same group of players, and every time they did it the following year they couldn’t even get to the Final Four

It was encouraging though to see Real Madrid bounce back shortly afterwards in the Euroleague Top-16 game versus Montepaschi Siena, yet another Final Four hopeful. We struggled in the first half but then received a huge boost from our young players Ante Tomic and Sergio Llull who were instrumental in sealing the outcome down the stretch. The “+8” point difference (77-69) was just enough to offset our loss to Montepaschi in the first round of Top-16 (76-83) which I believe puts Real Madrid back on track in our very difficult group where everything will come down to the last couple of games.

Overall, it’s been a very tough and competitive season both in Spain and in Europe so far. In the Euroleague we’ve already seen mighty Panathinaikos get eliminated from play-off contention. Speaking of the Greek team, it’s interesting to mention that their current coach won the Euroleague more than once with basically the same group of players, and every time they did it the following year they couldn’t even get to the Final Four. That makes CSKA’s achievements over the last seven years even more impressive, by the way. The club not only won titles but also showed great consistency playing quality basketball and going to the Final Four year after year. That’s a true testament to the quality of this group of players and also quality of the club’s management which provided steady leadership and helped limit ups-and-downs over the years. This season CSKA is once again in position to reach the top phase of the Euroleague, and I really wish them all the best. It’s a great team that fans in Russia should be proud of.

Still, the only thing we can do right now is be patient, accept the criticism, avoid expending energy in trying to fight it off and keep working

These days people often ask me if in my opinion Panathinaikos’ struggles can be attributed to the lack of motivation coming from the fact that they won it all last year. It’s really hard to tell. I don’t know their players all that well and have utmost respect for Zelimir Obradovic and his coaching staff. All I can say is I remember how issues like that bothered CSKA in 2008-09. Like I’ve mentioned here, it was the toughest season of my four-year tenure with the Moscow club mostly because it proved difficult to push ourselves, to find new challenges, motivation and hunger after years of sustained success. In the end of the day, injuries and defeats (especially the ones in the Russian Cup and in that Siena game) somehow went in our favor and gave us a new source of motivation. But you just can’t always count on things like that. You have to fight every day to find that motivation inside yourself.

The current situation at Real Madrid is absolutely different to what we were going through with CSKA. Only three players from last year’s roster were brought back. The level of expectations outside the club is incredible. The great pressure is an integral part of Real Madrid’s everyday life – that’s true both for football and basketball. We’re constantly compared to Barcelona, which right now only happens to have one of the strongest teams in history. For example, even though Real Madrid had failed to make it to the Copa del Rey Final for two previous seasons, this year’s result was considered a disappointment because we were outplayed and blown out by Barca.

Still, the only thing we can do right now is be patient, accept the criticism, avoid expending energy in trying to fight it off and keep working and getting better both individually and as a team. The vision for the future is in place, the great support from the club is in place. We surely know that right now every game is an examination for us. We just have to focus on what’s happening on the court and try to maintain respectful rapport with the fans and with those who respect us. It’s important not to let what Pat Riley calls a “peripheral opponent” get under the skin and distract us.

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