Valencia Basket is on a mission that is nothing less than to win its third Eurocup title, which would be an all-time record. Valencia struggled in both the regular season and the Last 32, but left no doubt about its power in all the critical games it faced along the way. By the time the elimination series arrived and despite being without three key players, Valencia showed its best basketball against Khimki Moscow Region, breaking that team's Eurocup-record 15-game winning streak in Game 1 of the eighthfinals and surviving yet another make-or-break situation in Game 2.
By downing Alba Berlin 86-54 in Game 1 of the quarterfinals, Valencia heads into this week's Game 2 in Berlin holding the best position of any Eurocup team right now. Team captain Rafa Martinez already won the competition with Valencia back in 2010 and is tied for seventh place in Eurocup games played (79), while ranking fourth in three-pointers made (135) and 13th in points scored (792). Martinez has been more effective than ever this season, averaging 9.9 points on 51.9% three-pointers (42-of-81) and 82.1% free throws (23-of-28) while dishing 2.7 assists in 19 games. Martinez knows that the best is yet to come and Valencia has to be ready for it, as he made clear in this Eurocupbasketball.com interview. "Above all, we know that things are going well for us, but we still want more, and that means winning the Eurocup title. This is what we want, what our people want," Martinez said. "The club is ambitious and wants to play against the best. That makes us really motivated in this competition, especially now in its final stages."
Hello, Rafa, congratulations on the big win against Alba Berlin. How is your team feeling now that the most important games of the competition are here?
"Well, right now, the most important thing is that the team is getting back some injured players. Pablo (Aguilar) brings us a lot of fresh air and I hope we can bring back (Vladimir) Lucic and Serhiy (Lishchuk), which will allow us to rotate a little bit more. The team is feeling good, turning La Fonteta into a very difficult court for every opponent, which is what we wanted. It is more difficult for us on the road, especially in the Eurocup. We hope we are able to win in Berlin and, in that sense, take a step forwards."
Your team dominated the opener against Alba from the start, just as it did in Game 1 against Khimki. What has allowed Valencia to start games so well since the elimination rounds started?
"Everything is based on our defense. It is something really important for us, because it allows us to run and find easy baskets. We are a high-scoring team and if we play good defense, we have more options to score on the break. We have to play as if every play was the last one of the game. The team is aware that a good home win can give you plenty of chances to advance. We did it against Khimki and now against Alba."
Valencia struggled a bit during the season, even facing do-or-die situations, but has improved a lot recently. What happened?
"As I always say, the Eurocup is a really tough competition. We struggled in both group stages. I remember the games against Ostend and Asvel which, like you said, were do-or-die ones. The team responded well, lived up to its potential and won those games. After our last game against Khimki, we know that not having the home court advantage makes Game 1 critical for us. It is very, very important for us to play well at La Fonteta. We did it before, we lost games in the Eurocup, but managed to win at home by big margins. That gives us confidence to play well and get a 'comfortable' lead, even when a series is never easy."
Your series against Khimki went down to the final minute, when a big basket by Pau Ribas and a great defensive stop allowed you to advance. What went through your mind in those decisive moments?
"Truth to be told, I couldn't believe it! We never thought that the series would go so uphill for us. We knew it was going to be difficult and they came out with a lot of aggressiveness, just as we did in Game 1 in Valencia. We were controlling the game and were down by 6 points in the third quarter. But in three crazy minutes, Khimki started to hit shots without missing anything, but we were lucky that they missed a free throw and Pau hit a decisive shot."
Historically, Valencia has always been really strong and competitive in two-way series. From your expert point of view, which are the keys to do well in these series?
"As a club, we know that winning the Euroleague comes with a major award, which is playing in the Euroleague, the top European competition, which is what the club looks for and, I think, what the city deserves. We last won the title in 2010 and want to win it again. It is a very important competition for us and the team gives it a lot of importance. Above all, we know that things are going well for us, but we still want more, and that means winning the Eurocup title. This is what we want, what our people want. The club is ambitious and wants to play against the best. That makes us really motivated in this competition, especially now in its final stages."
You had never played in European competitions until your Eurocup debut at age 26 but now you are a top-ten player in games played in this competition. How has the Eurocup helped you to develop as an elite basketball player?
"Like you said, I started a bit late in European competitions, it was something new for me. My first Eurocup season helped me a lot to gain experience and become a better player. It is a competition which helps you to grow as a player. Eurocup games are much tougher, with a lot more contact and you need to change your mentality, play in a different way and that eventually allows you to improve. Playing a lot of games makes me proud but it also means that you are getting older! It is what it is, but I still hope to play many more games in European competitions."
Of course, one of your best moments with Valencia Basket was winning the Eurocup title in 2010, downing your current opponent, Alba, in the final. Which memories do you have of that game?
"I have great memories, of course. It was a year in which some people had many doubts. The team cut its budget to half but in the end we made a really good, really humble team that was ready to work hard and knew exactly what to do. We managed to win the Eurocup and finish fourth in the Spanish League, results that few people expected. We had a really tough semifinal against Panellinios. I sprained my ankle but had to play the final, which is a game everybody wants to play. We just rolled in the final against Alba; it was a great opportunity for us and that date was marked in our calendar for months. If we played together and as a team, we knew we could win. I remember a meeting that we had in Kazan before a really important game against Unics. We knew that we could play the competition if we played together and with confidence. I will never forget that meeting! It paid off and we were able to lift the trophy. I don't have any pictures in the locker room after winning the title because my doping test took forever! Better late than never!"
Valencia is bringing back injured players — Pablo Aguilar returned, Serhiy Lishchuk and Vladimir Lucic will be back, too. Do you feel that Valencia Basket has not reached its maximum level yet?
"Our goal has been the same as in the last few years: go day by day, game by game. Of course, everyone wishes we could have a full roster but it is not like that. Pablo already came back, Lucic can return soon and I hope that Serhiy is back as soon as possible, too. We will be able to take another step further as a team when the whole roster is available. We should be at a higher level with more players available. It is difficult to say, because we are having a very good season, but why not? We could reach an even higher level when we have a full roster."
Only you and Serhiy Lishchuk remain from the team that won the 2010 title. How do you compare that squad with Valencia's current roster?
"Well, I don't know how to tell you. It was a special situation for us four years ago. We didn't have many big names back then, but a lot of players eventually improved like Matt Nielsen, Sergiy Lishchuk, Thomas Kelati, Nando de Colo, Victor Claver and myself. At first, we didn't look like a super team but we played good basketball with Coach Neven Spahija as our guide. In fact, Neven also improved his situation after that season. As for the differences, I think we now have more depth and experience. There is a very good mix of young talent and veteran players. We were a younger team four years ago, Matt was our only veteran. The spirit is really similar, too, willing to fight and give our best, always believing that we can win. That's the main similarity."
What would it mean for the club and for you, after so many years in the competition, to win another Eurocup title?
"Like I said, it is very important for us. We know it is harder and harder to do it so being able to do it would be great. When you win it for the first time, it even looked easy because we played great basketball, but years go by after that and you see it is not so easy to win it again. We know it is hard to win the Eurocup, so winning it again would be something really big. It would be really important for the club to win another title and return to the Euroleague. It would mean that things are going well. It would be, so to say, another dream come true."