It was an unusual post-game scene near FC Barcelona locker room. There's a long corridor at Mediolanum Forum that basically belongs to the away team with separate changing areas for players and coaches. Sarunas Jasikevicius and his players were having a serious conversation, and you could hear Barca's head coach disappointment very clearly.

Free throws this season

Points made: 10,6
Accuracy: 78,0%
Place in standings: 15
Record max: 20
Record min: 4
Most made FTs: Lukas Lekavičius

Barcelona lost a close game against AX Armani Exchange Milan 70-75 and gave the lead in the EuroLeague standings. But the final result wasn't the essential thing for Saras. It never was at this point of the season.

"How long it was? Probably something like half an hour?" Rokas Jokubaitis asked me after he left the locker room for an interview.

Jokubaitis came out with a slice of pizza in his hand that was delivered for Barcelona players. But it was probably already cold after such a long speech of coach Sarunas Jasikevicius.

We know Saras as one of the most demanding EuroLeague coaches. But it took that long that FC Barcelona press officer suggested his colleague from AX Armani Exchange start the official press conference with Ettore Messina. Usually, it begins with the away team coach statement, but Saras didn't want to make Messina wait.

Sarunas Jasikevicius achieved his 100th EuroLeague victory recently. He was always obsessed with winning. But more than just winnings games, he wants to see his team growing. And the character his team showed in Milan didn't meet the criteria of Saras' winning mentality.

Barcelona allowed 28 first-quarter points, let Milan play their game, and couldn't match the home team fighting spirit that made the Mediolanum Forum crowd go nuts.

In the long EuroLeague journey with the trophy as an ultimate goal, that had to be challenged. Especially after a second disappointing presence in a row after a last week's loss in Tel Aviv.

"Ultimately, it's for the bigger goal. It's for the goal of a team to achieve things, to get yourself more chances of winning games. As a coach, you have to fight for it. You have to fight for what you believe in," Jasikevicius said in an exclusive interview with BasketNews.

"I think it's very important for me to understand if we're improving. At this point in Barcelona, we have a great record. But my question always is, are we really improving? Are we gearing up to get better? Those are the more important questions than 7-1, 8-0, whatever, 5-3," he added.

It's not the first time Saras challenged Barcelona stars. However, that's not an easy thing to do for any head coach. Mainly when your locker room includes the most expensive EuroLeague player, one of the best European floor generals in the last decade, and one of the deadliest scorers.

But when it takes winning, Saras doesn't shy away from getting under your skin. Too many great winners surrounded him to let this go away so easily.

Sarunas Jasikevicius joined the Urbonus podcast in Milan to talk about his philosophy of building a championship team in Barcelona, the direction which the EuroLeague should be heading to, his good old friend Zeljko in Belgrade, and his first love Zalgiris going through a very challenging rebuild.

Sarunas, in your autobiography "Winning is Not Enough" you mentioned how obsessed you're about winning. What else makes you feel happy in basketball besides winning?
That's [winning] the thing that gives you calmness in this job. That's the thing that gives you a sense of joy for a moment. But as a coach, you have to worry about the process, improving. So it's very important to come to the key moments of the seasons in good shape. It's very important to develop young players. A lot of stuff.

At some point, winning has to be not the main thing. Even though you go home very happy when you win, but if you win and you improve, if you feel that somebody who was struggling played better, took steps, that we're taking steps as the team, that's probably the ultimate at this point of the season.

When Michael Jordan lost in the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit's Bad Boys, the next day, he hit the gym to work on his muscles to be strong enough to match Pistons' physicality.

When you were sitting on the bench and watching Anadolu Efes celebrating the EuroLeague title, what were you thinking about improving Barcelona to beat this superteam?
Well, we didn't have time to think about improving ourselves. It was a very sad moment, but in 48 hours, we had the first ACB playoff game. We lost to Efes on Sunday night and Tuesday night, we already played best of 3 series against Joventut. If you lose the first one, you go to the second one in Badalona with the chances of fighting for your season.

So at this point, it was a sadness for the loss, but you have to think that in three weeks you finish the season, and you have the whole summer to think about what you can do, what you can't do, and how to improve yourself.

At that point, it was just surviving the end of the season. We knew we had a great chance of winning the second title. We knew that we had a good chance of winning the ACB, which we hadn't done in a while. So for me, it was like how to get guys back because, for them, it was a difficult blow, no question. 

How do you come up with ideas on how to improve in summer?
First of all, a lot of rest in summer. We ended up playing 90 games last year, the club's record. I think, even European record. Not just 90 games, but 90 games between the EuroLeague and ACB. A lot of games in the ACB are like EuroLeague. So you need rest first. 

Then, in the second part of the season, we already started thinking about how we would do it. There were restrictions on pretty much how you could start the season. It's not like you need to do one thing. You need to rethink things.

Then you start building your system again from the beginning, offensively, defensively, trying to understand what you have now. Because we changed five players, we brought four new players. It starts the grind from zero. Every year you have to figure stuff out.

The rest is basic. The most important is not to drive yourself and your family around you crazy. And not to drive your team crazy.

Could you compare the mentality difference you noticed at the start of Barcelona training camp last season and this year?
Everything was more or less the same. It just helps you that the majority of the players know you. They know what to expect. It's much easier to put in defensive schemes, offensive schemes. They know what you expect from them. It's a little bit easier.

Every year, it seems like we have less preparation, which drives the physical preparation coach a little bit crazy. But players have their association, they agreed with the EuroLeague, and you have to respect it in a way. We started probably 4-5 days later than a year before. I think two months we had rest, and it's more than enough. And start grinding.

All these star players had to make certain sacrifices in Barcelona. Nikola Mirotic averaged almost 17 points per game in the NBA. Nick Calathes was the critical figure in Panathinaikos. Cory Higgins was the go-to guy in CSKA. Did your system require personal conversations with all these players?
Not so much personal discussions at the beginning, as much as a lot of video watching as a team trying to understand this is a good shot, this is a bad shot. Trying to understand what is a team game.

You're not going to score 20 points every game, but if you have a better matchup, if one guy is playing really well that night, we have to ride this guy that evening. And we have to come again the next day to understand the stuff is from zero.

It's okay to be left at 8 points. It doesn't mean you had a bad game. There are so many other ways to contribute. Find a way to contribute. You could be having an extra rebound.

Maybe you need to have crazy energy on the defensive end. You just have to be solid. You have to play well. It doesn't mean if you score 20, you play well. I think that's what the winning players understand.

Exactly what you said, the players like Calathes, coming off another team, Mirotic being with different coaches, they understood this with time. That's why we had success last year.

Was it hard to explain to Mirotic what was a good shot and what was a bad one? Since he's so talented, sometimes, all his shots seem like good shots.
I think players deep down understand everything. Honestly, I believe they understand everything unless they are clueless. Then we don't want them on our team (smile). But usually, at this level, players are very smart. They understand what you're asking from them.

Sometimes they may disagree with you, but in general, I think they like to be pushed, I think they like to be coached. I think they want to improve. This is the reason why they got to the level of one of the top teams in Europe.

Sometimes it's not easy to have a conflict or discuss things, but ultimately it's for the best. And I think deep down, players understand that, and they want to be coached.

Probably you had to challenge your players to have them on the same page last season. Did they try to challenge you, checking the limits of what they can and what they can't do under your guidance?
Oh, they always check. I think it happens in every team. They always see the limits, and then if you as a coach don't say anything for them.

You must try to tell them this is not the way we want to play defense. This is not the way to fire at every opportunity because we have other 7-8 very good players waiting in the line.

That is the point. Some fights occur during the course of the season. Ultimately it's for the bigger goal. It's for the goal of a team to achieve things, to get yourself more chances of winning games. As a coach, you have to fight for it. You have to fight for what you believe in.

In Lithuania, it was a hot topic whether Rokas Jokubaitis should give away a solid role in Zalgiris and switch it to a more risky situation in Barcelona. What do you think about his transition to a new country, different culture, and a much higher-level team?
He's going to fit in. He's a very easy-going guy. He's going to fit in as far as the team goes. I told him before he came that he'll play at every opportunity that he can.

We really want to build the program here. We want to develop young guys and have them in our system for a while, so they get identified with the club, with the city.

He's one of the best young players in the EuroLeague, so we're very happy to have him. As far as his game, we have to be realistic. He's 20 years old. He is a 20-year old who's giving us things already.

But he's still 20-year old. So we have to be patient with him. We have to understand that he's going to be up and down. I can't ask the same from Jokubaitis that I ask from Laprovittola or Calathes, who both are at the peak of their careers.

What's your vision for Jokubaitis in a three-year project?
In a three-year project, I hope he'll turn out to be one of the best point guards in Europe. This is my idea. But there's always an idea of the player himself, his agent, and people around, who are not always in the same line as the club. But this is life. When this point happens, we'll deal with it.

We can see the FC Barcelona football club losing games, dealing with debts, even Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona. What is it like to coach Barcelona and be a fan of Barcelona when the entire organization is going through a challenging period?
You're talking about the football things mainly. It's challenging in the sense that in my first year over there, I didn't have a president for six or seven months. You can't have decisions. You can't sign players when this is happening. You can't spend one euro without one euro leaving. You feel a little bit alone, and everything is improvisation.

Then the president comes, they have to do the audits of the bank account. Then they have money, and at the start of May or June, you want to have a very clear vision of how much you can spend and how much you can do. And you end up not knowing it. So the whole summer was a big improvisation.

But this is the situation. These are the cards we have, and you have to play with those cards. We were trying to improvise all through the summer with the new bosses. But we understand we're a football club first. They had to solve their issues and their situation. Just try to do your best and work for the club.

Probably that's the most frustrating part of your job as the head coach when you can't control some things that might impact the player's approach? Did you need to step up and talk about it with your players?
We did have conversations with some players, like trying to keep your head in the job. I understand that the club is in a bad situation. Nobody put a gun to your head to sign this contract. But this is the situation that arose, and you have responsibilities for the team.

I'm responsible for a basketball part, so it's important for me that, like you said, that you're present here in practices, that you're giving 100% and we're improving as a team. You try to separate the business part and basketball part. The most important at this point is if we're improving and gearing up for the second part of the season.

What do you think about the recent changes in the EuroLeague, with Jordi Bertomeu set to be dismissed from the CEO position after the season?
I think this is more of a question for the owners. Obviously, they haven't been happy with the EuroLeague developments.

I was always a fan of the EuroLeague. I'm also a fan of the new format of the EuroLeague. But there's also a business part. There are many departments. We need to see if the departments are working for each EuroLeague team. If it's not, obviously, like everywhere in life, there are changes to be made.

I look at it as a normal way to get better. I think the clubs voted for change, for getting better, so this is the direction we're heading. But I like the idea of this Euroleague, I like the idea of the model, I like the idea of playing 34 games, and everybody going to the gym of other teams, through the year, the fans of Munich, Tel Aviv or somebody, they get to see all the teams. And this is great for me.

What unused potential in the EuroLeague do you see? What would you suggest if there was a coaching board that would influence the EuroLeague changes?
Over the years, as coaches who created the association, we really complained that we hadn't been let in a lot of decision-making during the pandemic times. It seems like they're passing us on the side a little bit.

This is another complaint from us, coaches. We constantly complain to the EuroLeague that we were never heard of in certain situations. Or the last ones to be heard.

This is maybe the problem of the EuroLeague. That's why changes are coming. Maybe not everybody feels like they were heard, I don't know. But as far as the coaching association and the EuroLeague head coaching board, we felt that we weren't heard in many situations.

One of the main candidates to replace Jordi Bertomeu is Paulius Motiejunas. He's your good friend and former colleague from Zalgiris. Do you believe he can be that guy who could lead the EuroLeague?
As I said, I'm already getting way over my head. I'm a basketball coach, used to be a player. It's difficult for me to have an opinion on this.

I think the guys who go through the meetings all the time should be the ones who decide. There's a business part of the EuroLeague that is huge for them. Our salaries come from those departments, and this is very important.

If you don't grow, basically, you stay back. This is what they say about every line of work and everything. EuroLeague has to grow. If it doesn't grow, that means we're going backward.

Credit BNS

There were reports and rumors about NBA possibly coming to Europe. Do you see any realistic scenario of how the NBA could come to boost European basketball? 
I don't see it, honestly. If they improve the business model that is working for them in States, that would be great. But as far as mentality-wise, it's a whole different ball game here. That's the beauty of this EuroLeague.

You look at the NBA game with such a relaxed atmosphere. Here every game is a dog fight. You look at any game as a huge fight, huge suffering, and huge effort.

I like it. I'm not a fan of taking games off. I believe in the professionalism of every day. And this is what European basketball is all about.

You mentioned 90 games in one season. Do you believe that EuroLeague is getting closer to the NBA, and we should approach the regular season differently? 
I think it's very important for me to understand if we're improving. At this point in Barcelona, we have a great record. But my question is always, are we really improving? Are we gearing up to get better? But as far as just passing the time by, I think it's not right.

It's the bad thing about the NBA how easy they are in some games. I have been in the NBA, and I think it's not like they're throwing the games away. I disagree with the notion that, oh, regular season in the NBA doesn't matter.

No, teams do play hard. They do play to win. But it's just a lot of games. Still, the championship teams have the same qualities. They still compete every night for most of the nights.

Usually, it's very rare if you trick of basically the regular season, and you'll be fine in the playoffs. No, no, no. Usually, it doesn't work like this. The top teams are still the top teams in the regular season.

Last year Efes finished the first part of the season as the 11th seed and won the EuroLeague later. Is it hard to keep the focus of your players during the regular season, especially if you're a EuroLeague powerhouse?
Yes, but you have to analyze each case. You have to analyze why Efes were so bad at the beginning of the last year. They had some injuries. Shane was not there. It took time to get going.

CSKA are losing games right now, and they had injury problems. The healthy teams maybe have a little bit of advantage, but the question is are they getting better. Because from the second part of the season, Efes were constantly getting better.

I believe Barcelona were constantly getting better too. These were teams that came to the finals, and then we ended up winning our leagues.

So the question is, are we getting better. At this point, to be 7-1, 6-2, 5-3, maybe that's a bad schedule, perhaps that's a lot of injuries, maybe you play all your games on the road.

But the question is how we're acting, building something, and heading in the right direction. Those are the more important questions than 7-1, 8-0, whatever, 5-3.

Even in Zalgiris, I said that I'm not looking so much in the standings until January. The process is what counts.

What do you think of the Zalgiris season and its changes?
I think it's so difficult for an organization like Zalgiris to always be at the playoffs' level. Things are a little bit logical. They're clearly in a rebuilding phase.

Like I said in one interview, it was a little bit surprising for me that they went from black to white, from white to black. When we left for Barcelona, for me, from the level of philosophy, ideology, it was too big of a change. I think those are usually not really the ones that give you good results.

Do you mean the way they were playing, building the roster? 
Everything, everything. You just changed philosophy completely. You go to American philosophy from European philosophy. You see, the NBA, in a lot of ways they changed basketball over the years gradually.

It has become a lot of like European game now. It's so many three-point shots, so much [play in] open court, guards don't post so much up there. But in the end, ultimately, we have to play with our cards.

We have to adjust to our players. They're the main weapons. So if we have this type of team, we have to use this player. Then players change, they leave, again we have to adjust and put players in the situations to succeed. That's the most important about our job.

It seems like they're getting back to old-school European basketball by hiring coach Jure Zdovc.
Listen, I don't really... The worst thing is that a lot of times in those situations, you're just guessing why things are being done as an outsider. You have an opinion, but you don't really... This is what drives us crazy who are inside. You just don't know.

I understand there's journalism, fans, and you make opinions and something. But you have to know why things are being done. Probably this is why transparency is very important.

A lot of times in Zalgiris' cases, you see Paulius Motiejunas coming out and explaining his decisions. Because obviously, he has to because this is the team of the city, the team of the country. We have to understand why they're doing things they're doing.

But it's not easy, I'm telling you. It's not easy for the team with one of the lowest budgets, that didn't have fans' support for a year and a half, to be competing with the top teams with a huge budget. You have to hit all the right buttons.

There's a huge topic in Lithuania, whether they should give the season away and already build something for the next year or reshape as quickly as possible to be competitive this year. What is your opinion on how they should react?
I think you should never give anything away. I think you should fight for every win. This is the mentality. This is the DNA of Zalgiris.

The fans, if they come and after 0-8 they see the team fighting and playing good basketball, they'll get right back behind the team. You know how the fans of Zalgiris are.

They will come, they will fill the arena, they will enjoy. They will enjoy this fighting spirit that the team must have, the identity of Zalgiris, the identity of Kaunas. Hard-nosed, hard-working city. So no way. In my opinion, no way you should throw away games, you should throw away the season. But like you said, you need to have a plan.

We don't know the mentality... But I've seen the list of the players that Zalgiris has an option. And the list at this point of the season is not that great, I can tell you that (smiles).

Is it based on Zalgiris budget limitations and dry market?
I think it's the combination of everything.

You showed the way in Zalgiris by signing unproven hungry players hoping they'll show their potential in Kaunas.

In the last couple of seasons, Zalgiris tried a different route of buying more experienced players with the EuroLeague experience. What's the better way for a low-budget team like Zalgiris, ASVEL, Crvena Zvezda?
There's no better way. Because I signed young players, up and coming players, that means there were no veteran players on the list that they presented me.

I wanted veteran players. You need less time with them. But if the player is not on the list that Paulius is presenting me, that the agents are sending me, that means there is no player.

At some point, we signed Beno Udrih coming from the NBA, Toupane coming from the G League. We signed some veteran players. Don't forget that we had many veteran Lithuanian players at that point, such as Jankunas and Milaknis. When I became the coach, we had Kalnietis, who left for Milan, Seibutis... We had veteran players.

It's also a little bit the combination to have a mix. It's a little bit like a puzzle.

How do you feel watching your good friend Zeljko Obradovic back at Partizan?
I feel happy. I just feel bad for his assistant that can't take out the marker. I sent the message for him, don't get the guy nervous, it's just a marker (smiles). I spoke with him a lot. He's very happy over there. This is his club, this is his love. I think he's very happy.

I don't miss his games. I also love his team because there are many talented young players with Punter and Zach LeDay who gave some veteran leadership. Also, some Serbians guys. It's going to be nice to see how they will develop. I think there's a lot of potential for that place if they continue in that direction.

Can you imagine yourself in Zeljko's situation going back to your former team if they were fighting at a lower level?
Obradovic, as a person, just wants to be happy. He's in Belgrade, at his home, with his team. He has a very intriguing team. He has a very clear goal to bring Partizan to the EuroLeague. I think he's happy. At his point, what else? You already won everything. You did everything in your life. He just needs to be happy. And I'm 100% sure he's happy.

Recently you've reached the 100th EuroLeague win. We talked about how obsessed you were with winning. Throughout your career, did you ever meet bigger winners than you?
Yes, a lot of my teammates were obsessed. A lot of my coaches were obsessed. Zeljko... Zeljko is crazy about the situation.

I can put a lot of names: Anthony Parker, Dimitris Diamantidis, Vassilis Spanoulis... These guys are killers, man. They would do anything to win. That's why I was so lucky to play with them, to be in the same locker, to learn certain situations. Itoudis, also... 

This is why you need to consider yourself fortunate to be working with the people like this. Because this is a team game, you can't do anything alone. You need to be surrounded by a good front office, good players, good fans. One more time, it's like a puzzle.

Being such an obsessed winner, how do you feel now about winning the ACB and Copa del Rey last year but losing the title game in the EuroLeague?
We can't change it now already, so we have to look back and be proud of what we did. We're proud that we grew, that we became closer as a team. But here we go, we start from zero again.

Every game is from zero. So as every season is also from zero. But really, from zero, zero, zero.

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Nikola Mirotic

Nikola  Mirotic
Team: FC Barcelona
Position: PF, SF
Age: 30
Height: 208 cm
Weight: 102 kg
Birth place: Podgorica, Montenegro