Martynas Pocius: Now or never 31  january  2011
Well, it's been awhile since I talked to you, and a lot has happened, but I mostly prefer to look forward right now, because right in front of my team, Zalgiris Kaunas, is a game that will define our season.
We are 0-2 in Group H of the Top 16, and we travel to play Fenerbahce Ulker, the undefeated group leader at 2-0, on Wednesday. In just a six-game round, the math is clear enough. We almost have to win, on the road, against one of just five undefeated teams in this round, to have a realistic shot at keeping our Euroleague season alive. But guess what? I am psyched to be headed back to Istanbul! The last time I was there was September, and it was all good for me and for the Lithuanian national team, as we won the bronze medal in the World Championships. Few people expected us to do that, either. Just yesterday, I and four teammates from that team — Tomas Delininkaitis, Mantas Kalnietis, Tadas Klimavicius and Paulius Jankunas — we were all invited to Vilnius to take part in the draw for next summer's European Championships. Being together again with our national team coach put the memories of Istanbul kind of fresh in our minds again. Honestly, you don't get much of a chance to re-live that dream, but when the memories come back, they are certainly good. Now, we're going to the same town and the same arena on Wednesday, and hopefully it will be good luck for us. We will try to use some of the magic from our last trip there to make more magic now for Zalgiris!

Since my last blog in early December, believe it or not, we have only won a single Euroleague game. The reason I say believe it or not is because, in truth, we've only lost one game heavily, the first of the Top 16 on the road against Valencia. Other than that, our losses have been all close. In fact, we have lost six games to that lone victory since late November, and besides Valencia, the largest of the losses was 7 points, last week at home against Olympiacos. It's a double-edged sword losing so close all the time. It certainly hurts to lose when you could have won, but it also tells us that we can play with every team we come up against. It's usually a matter of details in games that are so even. We had our chances at the end of the regular season, and we had our chance last week against Olympiacos. But the bottom line after all these results is that we can play with every team. That's why I still have confidence that we can get back on the winning track.

Now, I kind of feel that our backs are against the wall going into this week. We have no room to take another step backward. We really need this game. As I said, we know we can play. Obviously, there have been some changes and we are still trying to get used to a new coach, Ilias Zouros, and a new system. That is always a learning process of day by day and week by week getting better in practice. We are doing that, and hopefully this week we can put a full game together. Until now, we've been playing well for parts of games, but have let ourselves in just a few minutes fall into big holes when we can't score. Then we find ourselves behind, try to come back and usually run out of time.

Our scoring has dropped a lot from the regular season to the Top 16. That might be a little bit trying to get to know a new coach and system, and a little bit him trying to get to know us. In both of the Top 16 games so far, we suffered those scoring slumps. We had only 9 points in the fourth quarter of the opening game in Valencia, and just 6 in the second quarter at home against Olympiacos. Without those two slumps, we would be scoring as much as before. The Top 16 itself might have something to do with that. Things have definitely change with just six games and no room for mistakes. Each game's high value adds pressure. I don't want to say there were easier opponents in the regular season, but in the Top 16, if you don't bring your A game and play 100% all 40 minutes, you can easily get blown out. All teams playing now are not only good because they made the Top 16, but they all believe they can advance to the next round. We have to have the same mentality, not only knowing we can win, but playing like winners, playing well and playing tough.

To avoid those slumps and score better, we need is to solve our turnovers problem. It's our Achilles heel. We had a little problem with it last year, but this year it's bigger. I wish I could say I knew how to fix it, because in that case, we would have fixed it by now. It's not one guy committing a lot of turnovers. It's all of us giving away one, two, three possessions a game, and it definitely adds up. Every ball we give away is a lost possession and a potential four-point swing on the scoreboard, because the other team usually scores easier off turnovers. If you look at our shooting percentages, we're not bad, ranked in the middle of all the teams, whether two-pointes, three-pointers or free throws. But with all our turnovers, we take fewer shots than other teams. And our opponents are running off our mistakes. We have to change that dynamic now and do a better job of taking care of the ball. It will be hard to do it on the road in Turkey, but that makes this the ultimate test for us, protecting the ball. It's now or never.

So going to Turkey, our biggest goal is to stay consistent all 40 minutes and finish the game without big let-ups or setbacks. I still think we can make noise, but to do it, we need this win to get our confidence, go back home and continue winning after. If we have to face this challenge anywhere away from home, I am glad it's Istanbul and Sinan Erdem Arena. Wish us luck!