Unicaja Malaga lost Game 1 of the 7DAYS EuroCup Finals to Valencia Basket 68-62 despite another strong showing from power forward Jeff Brooks. Unicaja held Valencia to 14 points below its season average on low shooting percentages (47.4% 2FG), but could not capitalize down the stretch. Brooks, who led the Unicaja attack with 11 points, is in his first EuroCup Finals and his second season in the competition. He has become a very important player for Unicaja in its amazing playoffs run. Brooks has averaged 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in 20 EuroCup games and improved his numbers to 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in the semifinals against Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar, in which he shot the ball well (69.2% 2FG, 50% 3FG vs. Lokomotiv). Asked about a key for Game 2, Brooks did not hesitate to explain how small details really do make the difference in any finals, as he told Javier Gancedo of EuroCupbasketball.com. "I think one of the main things is defensive rebounding. There were a few tip-ins in Game 1 that should have been our balls, and they got them back to score. Pure 50-50 balls ended up being theirs and they got a layup or a three-point shot," Brooks said. "One of the main keys is making sure that every ball that doesn't have a name on it is ours in Friday's game. We have to show our aggressiveness in every play, dominate the game so that we can make it to Game 3, make our statement."
Hello, Jeff. Unicaja was really close to winning Game 1. What prevented you from winning the game?
"Small details, seriously. Maybe 1 or 2 more offensive rebounds or maybe being able to get a loose ball, maybe foul someone before he got an easy layup... The game was just so close! It actually fulfilled the level and the intensity of both teams. I think we matched each other's intensity and that is a great thing for a final. You can tell that the guys are up there fighting the hardest, giving everything they have to win, and that will continue on Friday."
Unicaja had a great start of the game. Is that what you are looking for in Game 2, to play with that same energy?
"It is very common. Every time we played against Valencia, we got off to a great start against them, but then we sustained it. And I think that should be one of our focal points going into Friday's game. We have to get off to a good start again, like we did in the past, but not allow them to go on an 8-0 run to get right back into the game. This is what happened in Game 1; we led 7-17 and then [Joan] Sastre comes off the bench and makes two threes and they are right back in the game. We made threes in consecutive plays, and that showed us and them the game was nowhere near from being over. If we are able to get a 10-point lead and sustain it, I really think we will have so much better of a chance to continue to control the game. I thought we were going to be able to do that in Game 1, but like I said, Sastre made those two threes and the game was right back open. We finish the quarter tied at 20, which is like nothing happened. We didn't get off to a good start because of the way we finished the quarter."
You have lost five times against Valencia this season, but this was a really close one. Is there any room for surprises between you and Valencia?
"Yes, it is very difficult. Myself, I know their plays inside out now. I know when the guard is going to receive the ball, when he is going back door, I know when they are setting a screen... Now, it is not about the sets. Right now, going to these last, hopefully, two games, it is all about desire and making plays. We have played each other five times, we know them and they know us. Now, it is all about going out there, playing harder than the other team and making more plays than the other team."
How much of a factor can it be hosting Game 2, with over 10,000 Unicaja fans at Martin Carpena?
"As you can see from Game 1, them having a sold-out arena helped them. There were a couple of plays where they were broken down, but they made a big shot and the crowd erupted. It is hard for an away team to keep focused when you hear the crowd and their desire to win. I think all this is going to work in our favor on Friday. If we get off to a good start and hit a couple of big buckets, make a couple of big plays, our fans are going to show that we are here to play and win. I really feel like the home-court advantage is definitely going to be big for us on Friday. We won two series in a row without the home-court advantage, but always winning at home. We have to take care of business on Friday and if we do what we have to do, some balls will go our way, some shots will fall for us and we will be able to take the series back to Valencia."
This is your first European final. How is the experience? What do you like about it?
"I am very proud to be where I am at. That is the only feeling that I have about it. I know where I came from in my career. I know what I have been through, and to be in this situation, I am blessed. That is how I feel while I am playing in this final. It is not pressure or fear, but going out there and enjoying the moment. I think this is what everybody should do in this situation - enjoy the moment, because those moments don't come around often for most players. For players in some teams like CSKA and Real Madrid, who are always in the finals, it is totally different, but for players like us in Unicaja and Valencia, living the moment is key and that is what I am doing. I am very proud to be a part of Unicaja and to be here in the finals."
Now that you have played against some of the best teams in the EuroCup, and from your own experience, how do you compare its highest level to the EuroLeague?
"I am getting this questions a few times in my career; I don't see that big of a difference in the talent level, but I will tell you this. I feel like, in the EuroLeague, the teams are a little deeper. I feel like they have one or two more players than what we are having in the EuroCup, really good players who can come out, score 10-12 points and help their teams win. I feel like that is the only difference between these two competitions. I think that the intensity is more or less the same, but a couple of players are missing from EuroCup teams, that EuroLeague teams have. Maybe it is budgets, players are older, new talents or stuff like that, but I think both competitions are really good. The EuroLeague, of course, is better because of the reasons I gave you, but I think that the EuroCup is up there and is a great league, too."
For someone who grew up outside Europe, how blessed do you feel to travel around and experience so many different cultures, travelling to so many different countries?
"You know, me and my Mom were skyping last night and we were talking about this. She made such a great point! She just said: 'you have seen so much of the world', and it is something I hadn't even thought about. Playing high school basketball and college basketball, the goal was always the NBA, but there is basketball outside the NBA and that is what I found. And it found me, too! I wouldn't trade my experience for the world, to be in the situation that I am right now. I have been to great cities, met great people, played with and against great players and coaches. I really enjoy what I do and am very blessed to be here. Every year is a new adventure, it is something that I tell my wife. Every year I come back over and it is a new journey, to see what I got and if I can still do this, if I am talented enough to play against some of the best players in the world who are not in the NBA. Now, I am in the EuroCup Finals, which is something I never knew could happen until it did. The word that you said is 'blessed' and that is what I am. It is a key word for me."
Some people say the journey is just as important as the final result. Unicaja had a great journey in its first EuroCup season, especially in the playoffs, and it is not over yet. How are you enjoying the journey?
"It has been a rollercoaster ride, man. This EuroCup season has been a rollercoaster because we had some highs and some lows. Going 3-3 in the Top 16, we felt like we were not the team we are right now. Going into the playoffs, everything started to click. We found our chemistry again and were able to see the bigger picture. We did what we had to do to be in the situation we are right now. In my opinion, no-one thought we would be in this situation and I think that helped us, too. The adversity of people telling us who we were, not as good as the other teams, well... we showed who we are and we are in the final for a reason. I enjoyed the process and it made us stronger as a team. We have to take care of business on Friday. If we don't, it will be our last EuroCup game, but nothing in this world is easy."
How have you changed as a player since you first came to Europe?
"I would say maturity, continuing to work at it and trying to understand basketball in the European mindset, along with my American mindset. What I mean by this is that we have these two different types of basketball, American and European, and I try to balance out the two by being aggressive, but also knowing about team ball, making the extra pass, helping on defense... things like that. I learned that in the last six years, I don't think I was the greatest defensive player coming out of college, but I think I got so much better because of my attention to details and my desire to be a good defender. All those things came with me maturing, being over here in Europe and taking every team that I played in as a new experience, a new challenge, a new opportunity to learn. This is why I think I am the player that I am today. I feel like I am a very good player who knows basketball. I am athletic, but that is not the only thing that I bring to the table. I try to learn every day and work hard every day in practices, and I am going to continue to do that."
What will it take for Unicaja to finally beat Valencia in Game 2 of the EuroCup Finals?
"I think one of the main things is defensive rebounding. There were a few tip-ins in Game 1 that should have been our balls, and they got them back to score. Pure 50-50 balls ended up being theirs and they got a layup or a three-point shot. That was the difference between us and them in Game 1 - a few balls just went their way and we didn't get them, which didn't give us another opportunity to score again. One of the main keys is making sure that every ball that doesn't have a name on it is ours in Friday's game. We have to show our aggressiveness in every play, dominate the game so that we can make it to Game 3, make our statement. All the energy from our fans, all the emotions from us being in the Finals will come out on Friday night. It will be a great game and I really hope we can win it."