Marius Grigonis could not lead Zalgiris Kaunas to the win against Olympiacos Piraeus at the Peace and Friendship Stadium last Friday, as the hosts prevailed by 83-74.
Grigonis had to seek for playing experience in Spain and Germany, before coming back to his native Kaunas. Upon returning, he found a different situation than the one both he and the team were used to. Zalgiris had not only turned into a solid EuroLeague playoff contender, but had managed to reach the Final Four for the first time in almost 20 years.
In the first season of his new stint in Kaunas as a professional, the 25-year-old guard-forward was a EuroLeague rookie. A small detail as it turned out, because Grigonis registered 8.7 points on 44.2% three-point shooting and an impressive 93.5% from the free-throw line. So far in the 2019-20 season, his numbers are even better: 11,9 points on 47.1% three-points for a career-high 11.4 PIR. On top of that, he was the man who changed the course of the Lithuanians’ away game vs Fenerbahce, scoring seven points in 96 seconds and thus overthrowing a seven-point deficit for his team. Zalgiris’s overall run amounted to 0-10, leading them to their second victory in Istanbul in six months.
Nevertheless, despite making the impossible seem possible once again, the Lithuanian powerhouse still has to deal with some rather unexpected results. As Grigonis explains in this interview with TalkBasket.net, Zenit St. Petersburg and Olympiacos managed to deal hard blows to his team, leaving Zalgiris at a modest 3-5 record. In addition, as a Lithuanian National Team player, he recalls his experience at the World Cup in China, confirming what his teammate Jonas Maciulis had revealed on Greek television some weeks ago. Grigonis also commented on Kaunas hosting one of the Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, scheduled for June 2020.
Q: How did this defeat come about for Zalgiris?
A: We accept it. We lost by ourselves because Olympiacos isn’t playing great, but we played even worse. So, if you look at the playoff race, this is really painful. Of course, we are not planning our wins and losses. We were used to winning in Piraeus, but now it’s hard to say anything.
Q: Does this result reflect the reality of a competition where everything is possible?
A: Everybody knows that all the teams are ready to play, but still Olympiacos is in tough shape, they were having problems and we had to use that. In this season, we’re not playing well. There’s some details missing and we’re making a lot of mistakes. Ask Saras. I’m sure he will explain. The only way of becoming more stable as a team is practice. There’s no secret.
Q: What’s the main issue?
A: It’s difficult to say whether the problem is team chemistry or not. Players come and go, just like on any other team. We lost to Zenit and Olympiacos. It’s super painful because if we want to make the playoffs, we got to win these kind of games.
Q: Apart from the sold-out games, what makes the Zalgiris organisation so special?
A: There’s no sun, it’s raining, but basketball is crazy over there. Everything is on time, all players and coaches are being taken care of. It’s really a blessing to play in front of such a crowd that helps us a lot. When we play bad, I think it’s disrespectful for them.
Q: Last season, Bayern Munich coach Dejan Radonjic was skeptical as to whether Zalgiris stood any real chance of qualifying. Do you remember his reaction?
A: Yes, I do. I think he remembers this too. It was a funny situation, for us. I hope that this year also we can react on the court to those kind of statements. I just hope that we will find an easier way to get to the playoffs.
Q: Some hours ago, it was announced that Kaunas will host one of the Olympic Qualifying Tournaments. How did you receive the news?
A: It’s awesome not to travel and play at home, but this system is about five games taking place in six days. I don’t know what to say right now. I’m happy that we will play at home and take advantage of it. Now, we have a new coach on the NT (Darius Maskoliunas) whom Zalgiris players know very well. It’s hard to prepare in a few weeks for five straight games. As far as the system goes, ask any player and he’ll tell you that he’s not at all happy with it.
Q: Can you confirm the allegations of Jonas Maciulis, concerning the bad organisation of the recent FIBA World Cup in China? He complained pretty much about everything, including a wedding party held in your hotel before the crucial game against France, which kept the whole team up all night.
A: Yes, he basically said everything. As a team, we played pretty well, but lost some tough games. The World Cup as a whole was a disappointment for our country, but I hope that we can make it to the Olympics. China is not a basketball country and was lacking organisation, but still everyone was under the same rules. We had to play better.
Q: Have you talked to Jock Landale about the officiating in the Lithuania-Australia match?
A: Yes, he has complaints and I have many more! We make jokes, but that’s already in the past.
Q: You’re one of Zalgiris’s home-grown players that made a career abroad before returning to Kaunas.
A: It was kind of a long-way dream. When I was abroad, I was having a good time, but I always thought that one day I’d return to Zalgiris. That was my mini-goal and now I’m trying to make the best out of it.
Q: What did you pick up in Spain and Germany?
A: Basketball there is different. When I got there, I wasn’t even a player. I grew up there and took different details from different coaches. I had Pedro Martinez at Manresa, Aito Reneses at Alba Berlin and now Jasikevicius. All of them have strong character and I could talk hours about them.
Q: Tell me about Saras then. How is he as a coach?
A: Difficult. He has a strong personality and you have to know how to communicate with him, but he’s a leader and wants to win.