It is safe to say that Khimki Moscow Region head coach Rimas Kurtinaitis is the most successful coach in Eurocup history. He is one of two coaches — Evgeny Pashutin being the other — to have won the Eurocup twice. In his three Eurocup seasons with Khimki, Kurtinaitis has led his teams to a 48-8 record — or winning 85.7% of its games.
Kurtinaitis now has the opportunity to become the first player or coach to lift the Eurocup trophy for the third time. His playing career was legendary, highlighted by Olympic medals with both the Soviet Union and his native Lithuania, but Kurtinaitis is making sure he will also be remembered as a great coach. Kurtinaitis is ambitious ahead of the Eurocup finals, as said this interview. "Personally, as a coach, it is great to be in the Euroleague and it is my goal to be there," Kurtinaitis said. "So both things are important for me — winning the championship and going to the Euroleague."
Congratulations on making it to the Eurocup Finals. How difficult has it been to reach the title series?
"Thank you. Clubs like us and Unics Kazan usually have the goal of winning the Eurocup from the beginning of the season. We play with a lot of pressure from our sponsors and owners all season long, so it is not easy, because there are a lot of good teams in the competition. Besides, after the Euroleague regular season, eight teams join the Eurocup, but this is the second year with this format and none of the Euroleague teams made it to the finals, which shows there are a lot of good teams in the Eurocup and that it is not easy to make it to the final. I am happy that we made it."
You beat Banvit Bandirma in the semifinals. Did losing Game 1 in Bandirma worry you in any way? What was it that led you to beat Banvit in the end?
"For sure, it is difficult to play in Turkey, it doesn't matter if it is Banvit, Fenerbahce, Besiktas or anyone else, there are really good fans everywhere. The gyms are usually not big and home teams have a good feeling — they play in front of their fans, a gym where they practice all the time. It is not easy, but I think we got a good result losing by 1. In the end, you have to score more points at the end of both games and that loss gave us a good chance to win the series at home. We played a good game and controlled the result until the final minute, in which Banvit got within 4. But we had a lead of around 10 points, which was enough to advance."
You will play Game 2 pf the finals at home. How important is the home-court advantage in an 80-minute series like this?
"If we put ourselves in a situation similar to what we had against Banvit, it is a great advantage to play Game 2 at home. You need to play a good first game on the road. If you remember last season, we lost Game 1 by 16 points in Valencia and overcoming that deficit was difficult; we won by 15 in the end, but it wasn't enough. If you play a good game on the road, it is an advantage; you have your fans and better energy at home. It is a small advantage."
Your team has a lot of versatility, with Tyrese Rice, Petteri Koponen and Marko Popovic able to play at the point guard position. How much were you looking for that versatility when you put together the team?
"The best example came five or six years ago when Panathinaikos usually played with three playmakers — Spanoulis, Jasikevicius and Diamantidis, as well as Batiste in the '5' position. They played a lot of pick-and-roll situations and won the Euroleague. This is the model I like. I look for players who can play pick and roll at the '1' and '2' positions. We took Koponen for the '2' position and had some problems, but switched him to point guard and he is playing well. He can pass and shoot, just like Marko and Tyrese."
Egor Vyaltsev is playing some of his best basketball this season and Sergey Monya always steps up in critical moments. How important are these two players for you, especially on defense?
"Very important, because Egor is good on defense. He always plays defense against the leader of the opposing team. Monya is always able to make three-point shots in crucial moments. He is helping us a lot, not just this season, but all the time Monia has been with us. He has helped us win a lot of times with his, let's say, risky shots. He usually scores in the most important moments."
You will face Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas, a team that plays with high rhythm and puts a lot of pressure on the ball. How difficult will it be to control the game rhythm? Wat do you like about that team?
"I know Spanish basketball and they are a similar team to Valencia. A lot of Spanish teams play fast, with aggressive defense, so it is nothing special for us. We are ready for them because we already beat Valencia twice this season, so we know what we are talking about. We will try to control the game and play at our rhythm, the way we want. It is up to the coaches to find out what the right rhythm you need is. We always play faster at home, and on the road we try to keep more control. We will try to do this. Gran Canaria is a very good team and had a great result by making it to the final. They didn't play the Eurocup last season, but came back. I know their coach and their players. We will see what happens."
As a coach, how much are you looking forward to facing Aito Garcia Reneses, who is considered one of the greatest coaches ever in Europe?
"He is a good coach, I have known him for a long time. I have been told he does not use a very disciplined set of plays, especially on offense, but every play has a lot of options. It is difficult to scout against him because in every defensive situation against them, they always get the next options, and the next one. Defensively, you must be fast at reading what plays they are using, which is not easy. Still, we are playing at a good level and ready to play against them because maybe it is not the same, but it is close to playing against CSKA Moscow. We have to read them well, it is nothing new for us, but yes, he is a great coach."
Everyone says the Eurocup got stronger since Euroleague eliminated teams joined in the Last 32. How has the Eurocup improved over the years, in terms of playing level?
"Yes, I say this all the time. With the new names and teams, it got better. The rule was good for us; we lost by 1 in the semifinals and won by 4 here. But usually, with good teams at this level, in the Eurocup, I don't see any reason to go to playoffs. This format makes the competition much better.
As a former Eurocup winner, what do you like best — winning an important continental trophy, getting a ticket to play the Euroleague the following year or the combination of both?
"It is both, but for me, the title is important. This is what you look for in the beginning of the season and when you get it, it is great. This is an ambitious team and we want to be in the Euroleague. Personally, as a coach, it is great to be in the Euroleague and it is my goal to be there. So both things are important for me — winning the championship and going to the Euroleague."
If Khimki wins, you will be the first coach — or player — to win three Eurocup titles. How important would this be for Khimki and of course, for you as a coach?
"For sure, it would be great to be the first to win three Eurocup titles. Personally, it is not important to be the first to do that. For me, the most important thing is that our sponsors and owners want to see the team in the Euroleague and win the Eurocup. I promised that, maybe not 100%, but if we had the team that we have now, we could fight to make it to the finals, which we already did. You can win or lose a final, but it is not easy to get here, and we will fight for the trophy, which is great."