Back in 2007, a rookie head coach named Joan Plaza was able to lead Real Madrid to the ULEB Cup title. It was the club's first continental trophy in 10 years and added new, different hardware to that legendary club's roll of honors. A decade later, Coach Plaza has done it again, this time with Unicaja Malaga, the 2016-17 7DAYS EuroCup champion. It was not easy; Unicaja had to down FC Bayern Munich, Lokomotiv Kuban Kranosdar and Valencia Basket in the playoffs, always without the home-court advantage, surviving several do-or-die situations. Plaza led Unicaja to its first title in 11 years since the club won the Spanish League crown in 2006. It was also Unicaja's first continental trophy since 2001, when it lifted the Korac Cup trophy. Indeed, Plaza's teams are always competitive in the EuroCup; this was his third season in the competition and, in addition to the two titles he won, Plaza also led Cajasol Seville to the title game in 2011. This time around, Plaza and Unicaja wrote one of the most epic pages in competition history, never giving up and lifting the trophy after a 13-point fourth-quarter comeback in Game 3 in Valencia. "We had to do that and give our best not for us, but for those players who were unavailable. I saw my team's faces and body language during the timeout and my players believed in what I did," Coach Plaza told Javier Gancedo of EuroCupbasketball.com. "It was all a matter of faith to return to the game, and nobody expected Valencia to score four points in the fourth quarter. I was on the bench, guiding my players and thinking we could win, and it finally happened."
Hello, Joan. Congratulations on your second EuroCup title. Is this the biggest win of your coaching career?
"Thank you. I don't know how to measure it, how important they are compared with each other. It is true that this one, compared to the one I won with Real Madrid, came after several playoffs series without the home-court advantage, with a team not as powerful as Madrid was back then. Even with that, it was important for Madrid, which was out of the EuroLeague after many years and wanted to get back, and it was a single-game final in Charleroi. I know I am very happy to win this competition twice and that means a lot to me, but I don't know which one is more important, because I also treasure the final I played with Seville, as it was very difficult to get there and I have great memories of that one, too."
You won three series without the home-court advantage, which few teams did in the past. What allowed your team to be so mentally strong to achieve this?
"Well, I have to go back to preseason, when we set our goals in all competitions: domestic league, Copa del Rey and EuroCup. One of the challenges we had back then, in August, was making it to the semifinals. Some people had already bet on Valencia, Khimki, Lokomotiv and Bayern to make it. We reached smaller goals throughout the season; making it to the Copa del Rey and reaching the EuroCup playoffs. Once we knew we had to face Bayern, the goal was always to try to make it to Game 3. It was like a kind of mantra we all had in mind to combat fear. There was a moment, when we lost against Bayern in Game 1, that I said in public that if we beat Bayern, we will make it to the final. I never do such things, but the energy and confidence I got from my players made me think we would be back to Munich, beat them and even go all the way to the final. I sent small messages and my players were confident that I, as a coach who had already been in two finals, knew what it took to get there. In the end, the only way to justify that we were so mature and solid to overcome such situation was confidence in what we do."
Down 13 with nine minutes left, with Alen Omic out of the game, your team regrouped to win in Valencia. What did you tell your players and what allowed them to react so well?
"Again, I have to go back a little bit. Once we beat Lokomotiv in the semifinals, our goal was to make it to Game 3 and be alive in the fourth quarter. It looks like a vague goal, but it was very important for us. We managed to get to the point we wanted, but without our centers; one (Dejan Musli) was injured and the other (Omic) had just been ejected. Plus we were losing by 13 points. We tried to have a couple of good defenses and change things a little bit to make Valencia be more confused on offense. We had to do that and give our best not for us, but for those players who were unavailable. I saw my team's faces and body language during the timeout and my players believed in what I did. We were a bit lucky, of course, not that much on offense, but especially in that play in which they had four offensive rebounds and didn't score, and also in a tough rebound that Carlos Suarez grabbed and which allowed Jamar Smith to hit a three-pointer at the other end. It was all a matter of faith to return to the game, and nobody expected Valencia to score four points in the fourth quarter. I was on the bench, guiding my players and thinking we could win, and it finally happened."
In that situation, you opted to use Carlos Suarez at center and play with two versatile forwards like Jeff Brooks and Dani Diez. What made you choose that option over others?
"In the timeout, we decided to try full-court pressure after every free throw made to slow their offense down. We also switched to a zone defense to shake things up a little bit, as if you were playing chess with white pieces and all of a sudden, you play with the black ones. Under normal circumstances, I would have brought Nedovic back on the court, also Waczynski, who in theory, is a more effective shooter than Dani. For a second, I thought about bringing Viny Okouo back on the floor, because he was our only center available and he had done a good job in previous games. In the end, I opted to do something I previously had done during the season; use smaller players to be able to switch on defense if need be, and to go with a lot of commitment. Alberto (Diaz) has been with us for many years, Dani has been two years with us, Carlos four... It is obvious that those players who have been here for a longer time could understand better the level of commitment and sacrifice that the moment required. And luckily, they executed really well."
The series against Bayern and Valencia were similar. You were down 1-0 after several losses against the same team. Did it help that if you did it against Bayern, you could also do it against Valencia?
"Probably, yes. When we finished the series against Bayern, we talked in the locker room about it. They beat us three times this season and we only beat them twice, but those were the most important games. When we made it to the final, we didn't know who our opponent would be, but we knew that we would not have the home-court advantage. We wanted to be able to reproduce that. Before we played against Valencia, I never wanted to refer to the Bayern series. Every game and every playoffs series is a whole different story, and sometimes players and coaches can tend to do the same things you did before in order to win, instead of focusing on the next game. But unconsciously, the Bayern series helped us believe we could win. Furthermore, thinking on the rest of the season, we are fighting for a playoffs spot in the Spanish League. If we get the home-court advantage, great; but if not, we can use this experience to try to do it again."
How much did winning the EuroCup have to do with heart and winning mentality rather than basketball skills?
"It is true that you can have a great tactical background but if your team is not willing to make the effort, you don't get a lot out of it. When you play on the road, against such a strong crowd as Valencia has, with such desire to win this title, you need to be cold-blooded but also proactive and intense. Some opponents and coaches talk about us being a very physical team. Personally, I don't think we are such a physical team in term of skills, not as much as they say, but we always take the initiative on offense and defense. If a team wants to beat us, they have to give something extra, something more. We don't let things happen by accident. If you limit a team like Valencia to below 70 points, you must have been steady on defense, on the ball and away from it. That is the attitude that made us deserve to win this title."
Your last experience in the EuroCup was in 2011. How did you like the competition this time around?
"In August, I was surprised to see what people thought about us in the EuroCup. Since we came from the EuroLeague, people thought the EuroCup was way less demanding. It is true that the EuroLeague has a heavier calendar, especially with the new format, but eight of the teams who were in the EuroLeague last season were in this year's EuroCup. These are powerful teams, probably with more powerful budgets than Unicaja. I expected the EuroCup to be very tough but wanted to get to the quarterfinals at least with the home-court advantage. When we didn't, that made things even more complicated, but the teams I coach usually finish the season strong. We expected to reach our best level around these dates. You never know, because this is not easy, but we were working well and Omic, the last player to arrive, fit right in. We expected to have a great end to this tournament, and we did. We made it."
All your teams have been very competitive in the EuroCup. What is the secret to do so well in the competition?
"I believe that every season was a complete different story, all of them beautiful, too. I find it curious not only playing it with three different teams, but playing the finals in three different formats: single-game with Madrid, Final Four with Seville and best-of-three playoffs with Unicaja. All three formats were demanding, but I was able to help players reach the finals in the best possible condition. For instance, when we played the EuroLeague with Unicaja, with the old format, we had to play really well early on to make it to the Top 16. We had been there for many years and didn't want to break that streak. That prevented you from being in your best shape when it was time to challenge for a playoffs spot. In the EuroCup, from our own experience, we had some early losses like the ones you mentioned against Bayern and Valencia, but knew that if we kept advancing and moving forward, we would keep improving until we arrived to our best moment. It is a combination of tactics, physical preparation but especially having the right mindset and being able to see ourselves being able to get there. Our players showed great faith in what we were doing. There were some things that we were working on, but not using until the right time. It is a number of factors, also my own experience, which allows teams to see they have what it takes to get them far in the competition."
Unicaja had not won a title of any kind in 11 years. How does it feel to bring so much joy to the city of Malaga after such long time?
"It is great. First, because you make a lot of people happy in the club which, historically, has reached a great level in both the domestic league and the EuroLeague. Some of its players have gone to big clubs, even to the NBA. Our fan base can be one the most competitive in Europe. We will never have the atmosphere you can see at Pionir Arena in Belgrade, but we can have a sellout crowd of 11,000 that is active and the atmosphere is intense, because our fans throw in their special passion. It is great to make them happy. The club was close to winning titles in the last 11 years and I am happy I contributed to make it happen. On the other hand, when people believe in you it's because they think you can make things better. Unicaja had great coaches, probably better than me, without question, so being the coach that helps Unicaja reach a European final and win it makes me proud. It is just a step, but it has allowed the club to bring back feelings which were forgotten. It is very special to walk down the street these days. My players feel flattered and now they belong to the history of a club that has been in this business for 40 years."
How proud are you to take Unicaja back to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague?
"If you ask me, winning the EuroCup title was our first priority, because of all the things we talked about. The club had won the Korac Cup many years ago, and also won a Copa del Rey and a Spanish League title in the past. It didn't have this title, and the EuroCup is prestigious enough to put a banner up at Martin Carpena. On the other hand, winning the EuroCup takes you back to the EuroLeague, which is deserved but also epic, because of the way we did it. People in Malaga and Spain understand that the changes the EuroLeague made were satisfactory because it is more competitive now, so coming back and earning your way back on the court like we did speaks well about what we did. It will take us some time to realize what we did; even making it to the finals and being close to returning to the EuroLeague was already a success. Doing it says enough about how much we wanted this, not just the team, but the club, the city, the region, wanted us to be back. We are very happy and proud we made it but it is important not to talk about the future, but live the present and, once the season is over, put together a competitive team and a structure that allows Unicaja to hang on to this EuroLeague that everyone wants to be a part of."