Friday, April 06, 2007

Basketball Club battling versus the whole country

There is a good article which can be found on the blog of the head coach of CSKA Basketball club (CSKA) Ettore MESSINA. Last year they won the Euroleague championship title which the second strongest championship in the world (after NBA, of course).
As you know last fall CSKA beat Los Angeles Clippers and lost to Philadelphia 76ers.

Ettore MESSINA is famous for his coaching style, intelligence and brilliant quotes. So let me cite his notes on what he thinks of the latest loss to Maccabi (Tel-Aviv):

This year we enter the playoffs in a completely different situation. Last year we weren’t considered favorites due to David Andersen’s injury. When we played against Efes Pilsen, we knew we were facing an opponent we could beat, not that we had to beat. Pressure was high, but not as high as it’s now. Eventually, we managed to perform well under pressure, though the first home game was tight and the away game was extremely tight.

This year the majority of specialists around Europe predict that we defeat Maccabi and advance to Final Four. There are almost no doubts on the subject. Read players’ previews on Euroleague official site and you’ll see that everyone says CSKA will make it to Final Four.

These opinions are based on our good performance in Top 16 and regular season. However, great record does not guarantee the title. Last year Unicaja headed to Top 16 with the best record in regular season, then lost it's first home game and finally did not make it to the playoffs.

I remember that and I was worried back in Top 16 when we faced Joventut. Then the pressure went down as we played some very good games, like the one against Olympiacos in Piraeus, and qualified for the playoffs.

This year’s situation reminds me a lot the one I had in Kinder during my last season with that club. It also reminds the situation you had here in Moscow back in 2005 when you hosted Final Four.

In Kinder, we had a totally different team. We had very young players at some positions. We had young Becirovic and other players felt we were cutting down their game time to give more to him. This resulted in an imbalance. Rashard Griffith, our starting center, was recovering from an injury. We were struggling a lot that season. We lost 5 or 6 games by a wide margin.

Now, we’re in a more dangerous situation. As we went smoothly through the season and Maccabi struggled due to fact they changed some key players and the coach, general opinion is that we will win the series.

But it’s not that simple. First of all, when you face Maccabi, you face the whole country. Maccabi is by far the most popular team in Israel. They have the support and faith of their fans. Look at the results of the last three Final Fours and you’ll see this kind of support might be a source of a huge advantage.

Second, they kept some key players with strong personality like Sharp, Burstein and Vujcic who are able to lead the team in difficult moments. They are experienced players who know how to handle the pressure and how to perform in crucial episodes.

The players who replaced Solomon, Baston and Parker are not at that level yet. But they have the potential to explode in big games. Maccabi invested a lot in young players and they are already making a big contribution. For example, Jasaitis, who played for Lietuvos Rytas last season. Spahija liked him so much he took him to Maccabi.

Third, Spahija is one of the best coaches in Europe. I know him since he worked in Italy. He’s an intelligent person, he rarely overreacts and he knows exactly how to prepare the team to win.

Maccabi’s game is very similar to what they had last year. Spahija intelligently kept a great part of the system. For example, transition, pick-and-roll and Vujcic playing in the high post looking for an open man. Spahija also made little adjustments as he had some new players. For example, he has some screening offense for Jasaitis and Sharp who are his best shooters. He created some situations for Bynum, who’s very quick, to attack one-on-one. But the core of the system is there. It makes Sharp, Vujcic and Burstein feel confident in the system. It would have been much more difficult for Spahija to change the system completely.

Of course, Spahija doesn’t have the openness of character Pini Gershon has. Pini could keep the stage by himself. He’s not only the coach with strong personally, but also the person who attracts the spotlight. Everybody is fascinated by his way of dealing with press, fans and players. Pini and Neven have 15 years of difference which is also a factor.

Finally, the most important thing, Maccabi doesn’t feel any pressure. Everybody expects us to win.

I must say I’m extremely concerned about the way we performed in Rostov. I’m not the one who thinks it’s easy for a team to switch the light on and off like that, on call. I never believed to those who say it’s normal to relax a little bit and to lose before such important games, like the ones against Maccabi. I believe in the continuity and in the power of habit. Only a habit of keeping concentration could help you to perform well on a regular basis.

I’ve already said that after our losses to UNICS and Khimki, but I would like to repeat it. Every time this team lost a game, it always bounced back with a good performance. I hope it will be the case this time as well.

For three days before the game against Lokomotiv Rostov we had prepared well. We knew that Rostov is a good team who had already defeated Dynamo. In my opinion, Lokomotiv Rostov and Spartak Saint Petersburg are the most improved teams this year. We knew that this was going to be a difficult game. Probably, we didn’t have little fear of losing inside ourselves that it’s so important to have sometimes. Now, we have some fear of losing.

I expect the series to be extremely difficult. It will be a battle: two good teams playing with their hearts, two strong organizations with solid backgrounds. I do not even rely on the home court advantage as Maccabi is used to play on the road. And, no doubt, they will have fans over here.

This year we will have tough playoffs in Euroleague as well as in Russian championship. In Russian league, all teams have improved their rosters as compared to last year. They got better technically and physically. So we will need an extra portion of mental, physical and technical preparation.

We have to work harder than ever to deserve to go to Final Four this year.