Petteri Koponen, Khimki Moscow Region 10  march  2015
Khimki Moscow Region has a 30-5 record in the last two Eurocup seasons, but still that has not taken the club further than the eighthfinals. It all could change this week, as Khimki registered an 84-86 road in Game 1 of its two-way series against Zenit St. Petersburg and has a golden chance to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since lifting the trophy in 2012. One of its main players has been combo guard Petteri Koponen, a national hero in his home country, Finland, where basketball keeps growing and growing in popularity. Koponen has been rock-solid all season, averaging 13.1 points and 3.3 assists in 17 Eurocup games so far. Koponen was around last season when Khimki broke a Eurocup record for most consecutive victories, 15, but then suffered an early exit against eventual champion Valencia Basket in an eighthfinals series which literally went down to the final shot. Koponen and Khimki returned to the Eurocup with just one goal — the title — as he told "I think we have the team and everything we need to take it. It is not going to be easy but this is what you are here for and work hard all season for," Koponen told "There are a lot of other great teams, too, so we need to be ready and focused for every game."
Hello, Petteri. Khimki had a great first half in St. Petersburg but Zenit bounced back after the break. What allowed you to play so well in the first half, but not in the second?

"I think we were full of energy in the first half and like you said, we played really well. We were really focused in the first half and played well. We didn't let Zenit score easy baskets in transition and maybe we started to feel a little too comfortable in the second half. We lost our focus on the defensive end and allowed them to run and score easy baskets. This is basketball — it is a game of runs. After that, if it difficult to regain your rhythm, but luckily, in the end, we were able to take the win. Of course, we were up 20 points and should have a bigger lead in the series, but if we win at home, we will go to the next round."

Is that the way you see it? Khimki having a two-point lead in an 80-minute game?

"Exactly. This is only halftime, we played the first half away and return to our home court, in front of our fans, to take care of the job here. Of course, if somebody had told me before the series started that we would play Game 2 at home with a two-point lead, I would take it straight away. We need to be ready for a tough game and try to win it."

You lost your last two-game series against Valencia Basket last season. Did that experience help you be more focused this time around."

"Well, last year, we went to Valencia and ended up losing by 16. We had a hard task at home and tried to beat them by more points. We did a very good job and were leading by 21 points with one minute to go. Everything was in our own hands but in the end, you know, we were unable to win by 17 — we won by 15 and were out. I think that, of course, everybody wants to improve what we did last season. I hope we are focused and ready. There are no room for mistakes anymore. We need to be totally focused to go to the next round."

Is it more difficult to play against Zenit, a team that knows you really well?

"We played many times against Zenit, in the VTB League and three times in the Eurocup. I can say that both teams know each other really well. They are young and talented team. They like to run a lot and never give up. If we let them run and get going in transition, we will be in trouble. Like I said, they never give up and are a fast, dangerous team."

Khimki is on a 16-game winning streak at home in the Eurocup. What makes you so strong at home?

"I think it is our fans and how comfortable we feel playing at home. We practice there every day and feel the rims and the gym. That gives us good confidence to play here. That's our goal — to protect our home court and try to win every game. I think all teams need to know that when they come to play here, it is never easy to get a victory in our place."

You play point guard and shooting guard alongside Tyrese Rice and Marko Popovic. Does that flexibility make you feel more comfortable in this team?

"Well, yes, of course. We have great players in these positions. Sometimes I start, sometimes I come off the bench, it is up to our coaching staff and what they need in every game. For me, it is pretty much the same — I just try to do what they ask, play with the ball or without the ball, try to give 100% and help the team. So far, it has been very good and I think I have done a pretty good job. We have a lot of good players and anyone can step up in every game — but especially Tyrese has been playing great all season and Popovic is back from injury. We have great players in these positions."

You are a great shooter, just as your coach, Rimas Kurtinaitis, was back in the day. Do you think that him being an elite shooter in the past helps him understand you better as a player?

"Of course! Coach always tries to give me some advice. When he was a player, he was one of the greatest shooters — he has shown me some tricks and I am trying to learn from him. I always joke about it, that for him, it was easier because he was playing with Arvydas Sabonis! He was standing in the corner and only taking open threes! Honestly, Coach was a great shooter and has helped me a lot with my shooting."

You returned to Finland, your home country, to play against Bisons Loimaa this weekend. How was the experience?

"It was... how I can say it? It was the first time that I played there with a club since I left Finland. There were a lot of friends and family in the gym. It was a great experience. We were lucky that we were also able to take the win — it was a very close game and Bisons has been playing really well lately. They had won four in a row before that game in the VTB League. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Of course, I played with the national team in Finland before but never with a club. It was a very special evening and like I said, we were lucky to take the win."

Basketball is getting more and more popular in Finland. How does it feel to be sports icon in your country?

"The main thing is that our national team did a pretty good job in the EuroBasket and that we were part of the World Cup. Like you said, basketball is becoming more popular in Finland, getting bigger and bigger. I hope that we can see this in the future — that more Finnish kids start to play the sport and that there will be even more players coming out of Finland. For me, of course it is nice to see a sport like basketball get headlines in Finland, too. It is a great sport which deserves it."

Last season, Khimki broke a record for most consecutive wins but also had a quick exit. What would it be a good result for Khimki in this Eurocup season?

"Of course, we play to win it! I think we have the team and everything we need to take it. It is not going to be easy but this is what you are here for and work hard all season for. Like I said before, there is no room for mistakes anymore and every game is very important. If you play one bad game, you might be out. The competition system is like this, we know this and I think we have everything we need to win. There are a lot of other great teams, too, so we need to be ready and focused for every game."