We are the EuroLeague champions! I talked to guys like Kyle [Hines] and Cory [Higgins], guys who had won it before and they talked about how special the first title is and that is one of the most memorable moments, if not the most memorable moment, of my career. It is so hard to let it sink in because we still have two series of VTB League playoffs, hopefully, to play, but when the season is really done and I am on my flight back to the States, maybe I will sit around with family and tell stories about the season and be able to look at that trophy I have and it will be something special.
The celebration was crazy! I tried to notice every little moment about it: the confetti dropping, everybody getting their trophy, raising it high when we got the big trophy. You remember the champagne, the locker room and how it felt when everybody was finally in there. It was just our team, our coaches, and we all went crazy celebrating. You just remember every little moment and I will probably remember it all for a long time. The other word that I can use is unbelievable, the whole experience was unbelievable. Everybody wanted to stay a little bit longer in the locker room because this is what you do when a championship. It is something special and you don’t want to leave that feeling, that moment. That was definitely true for me; I wanted to stay there and let it all hit me, try to let it sink in the best way that I could because you never know how many of those moments are you going to get in your life.
Everybody keeps telling me that I still have to realize what it is our accomplishment and what it means for our careers and it is true! I don’t think I can quite realize it and maybe it is because I am in the second year of my professional career. There have been so many moments during the season that have been so special and capping it off like this, with a championship, was great. We had to battle in the Final Four, coming back against a great team like Real Madrid and then taking the lead against Efes, withstanding the runs that they made at us. Putting it together, it is amazing to win a championship after what the season has been about, to be a part of that.
Madrid is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the EuroLeague. They did a really good job at spacing the floor and finding their guys for open spot shots. We tried to do our best to limit their attempts and force them into tough, contested shots. We had a stretch there where we made them do that and that is what allowed us to come back in the second half. We were able to make them take tough, contested threes, secure the rebounds and execute at our end. Anytime you hold a team below the field goal percentage than they usually hit, you are doing something right on defense, and that was our game plan during that one.
We obviously have some serious ball players on our team. We have Cory and Will, who obviously do a lot for us, but also Nando or Sergio. We have a lot of guys who, in clutch moments, want to have the ball in their hands and make a lot of things happen for us, as happened all weekend. It is truly special to be able to play with those guys, to learn from them and see them at the peak of their careers.
Then we had to play the championship game against Anadolu Efes and we had a 48-hour window to get things together. Every game in the Final Four is literally like a final and you have to do your best just to get to the championship game. You kind of prepare everything for the first opponent and then you have to flip a few things against Efes, especially on defense. We were a little bit more aggressive on the ball screens with Larkin and Micic; those guys make a lot of plays and make a lot of shots, so we tried to limit those guys as much as we could. Honestly, they dominated the rebounding battle and if you look at the statistics, it is kind of amazing we were able to get that game done and win the championship. But we made plays when it counted and a lot of guys stepped up towards the end of the game. Will was making shots all game, Cory had a big first quarter, and from my view, it was something special to see. Our big players had that moment in the championship game; big players step up in big games!
And then there’s Kyle Hines, a guy who everybody relies on and everybody can count on for advice. He is the guy that everybody looks to because he has been here for so long. He knows and won three championships prior to this one. He is experienced, so if you need to ask questions about anything, he has been through that before so you go to him for advice so that you can be better moving forward and prepare the best that you can. He is a leader we needed and the guy that got it done for us this year. I am thankful for being a teammate of his and winning championships with him. He is a good dude and a hell of a competitor, for sure. Kyle meant a lot to this team this year and you definitely see it before and after the games. After the championship, you could see the way people talked about him and the way he carries himself on and off the court.
It is all happening very fast. I put in a lot of work and made a lot of sacrifices, but this what you have to do if you want to play for a successful team like CSKA. It is a place that demands winning and being at the highest level. In other to do that, to win championships, you have to have to go through tough times, through challenges, and sacrifice a lot. This is what our team did this year, and it paid off.
Once the dust settles and that championship high goes away, it is a feeling you will always remember and obviously, something you want every year. It is something that plays in your decisions moving forward with your career. You want to recreate this, nobody plays this game to lose. Everybody plays to win, for the trophy. That is what my priorities are in terms of basketball; I want to be a winner! I want to be known as a winner, a guy that everywhere he went, he won different championships and did it at the highest level. That is always going to be my thought process going forward, and that is always going to be my wish.
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