Tyrese Rice on Pitino’s emphasis on defence, coming to grips with his role at Panathinaikos and the altercation he had with its owner on social media

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Tyrese Rice has experienced pretty much everything that European basketball club competitions can offer. A EuroLeague and EuroCup winner and MVP, as well as a Basketball Champions League semifinalist and MVP, the 32-year-old guard has been playing overseas for more than a decade. Greece, Germany, Lithuania, Israel, Spain, Russia and China got a good taste of his talents, since Rice has won both individual accolades as well as -more international rather than domestic- trophies with his teams.

The last but not least in the group of teams that have put a great deal of trust in him was Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. After ten years, which were proven enough for Rice to establish his name all over Europe, his career kind of went full circle. An Athens-based team, Panionios, was his first professional deal back in 2009 and now the “Greens” provide him with the chance to shine bright in the EuroLeague, two years after his last season in the competition with FC Barcelona. Things did not go as planned for Rice in Spain, but Germany and Bamberg lifted his career up.

The 2019-20 season for Panathinaikos is already quite bumpy; the six-time EuroLeague champions got eliminated in the Greek Cup quarter-finals, dropped the home game vs Alba Berlin in double overtime and fired their coach, Argyris Pedoulakis, for the third time in less than six years. Luckily for Pana, a not-so-old acquaintant was almost immediately available. Rick Pitino took over again and in his second debut with the Greek side, Panathinaikos OPAP crushed Baskonia by 100-68, improving their record at 7-4.

Tyrese, who also goes by the name of “Rese”, spoke to TalkBasket.net and had some points to make, regarding the team, himself and the public argument he had with PAO’s owner, Dimitris Giannakopoulos, who was furious at the team’s poor results in the beginning of the season. On November 11, Giannakopoulos asked the players to issue a joint statement of apology to the team’s fans for their performances and reportedly warned them that if the situation didn’t improve, he would resort to extreme measures, such as releasing some of them. The crisis on the team was kept public, as after that incident Rice tweeted: “Some things should stay in house”, to which Giannakopoulos responded via his Instagram account: “Things should and did stay at home. That’s why nobody found out where you are every night. So better shut the f… up and do your job”.

The issue did not go any further and now, for the first time, Rice shares his view on the incident and its aftermath. He also refers to the defensive principles that Rick Pitino wants to instill in the team, his role and the Greek derby vs Olympiacos Piraeus that will take place next week at the OAKA arena.

Q: It is apparent that something has changed in this Panathinaikos team. Can you identify it?

A: Honestly, we’ve been playing with more emotion, with more character and we’ve been challenging each other. Obviously, even before Rick Pitino came, we had two wins on the road in tough places and I think our focus on the defensive end is what won those games. Tonight, you saw that defensively we came out and played great.

Q: So, it seems to be a question of mentality.

A: For sure it’s a mentality question. Because we’ve been locked in on detail. Coach challenged us to get a certain amount of deflections and steals, to contest a certain amount of shots. If you do that, you build a sense of urgency and that’s what helped us. From what I understand from that game, this is what he’s going to demand from us night in and night out because he’s a firm believer on the defensive end of the floor. He believes that if we defend, we can win any game.

Q: Coach Vovoras revealed that Rick Pitino had recorded a video message for the team that was shown before the game in Munich. Can you reveal its content?

A: If you want to bring it all into something short, he basically was saying we go out and defend, get steals, contest shots and not allow offensive rebounds.

Q: In your statements you never ceased to thank Panathinaikos OPAP for the opportunity. What was so enticing for you to take up this challenge?

A: The history behind this organisation, first of all, is one of the biggest things. I thank them so much because they were the first EuroLeague team that came around since I had that situation in Barcelona; and they came around early enough that I felt as if I was someone that they wanted, watched and appreciated. So, I feel that I have to give them the same thanks and appreciation back.

Q: It was written that you had an offer from Zenit St. Petersburg. Did they offer you a contract last summer?

A: No, not that I know of. They never approached me or my agent.

Q: Is it easy for you to embrace your role on this team?

A: You play the cards that are dealt to you and you do whatever it takes for the team to win. Whatever that role and your capacity is, you have to maximise it. I’m not asked to do anything that I haven’t been asked to do in the past: just coming out, playing hard, trying to make plays, trying to make the game easier for everybody else, as well as bring in my own talents and ability to the game.

Q: Is it a really new condition for you getting less playing time and being asked to shoot less and create more instead?

A: Who knows … I come out with the same approach. Maybe one day you play 35 minutes, maybe the next day you play 15 minutes, but you do whatever you can for your team to win. As long as the team wins, that’s the only thing that matters.

Q: It’s interesting what you said because Keith Langford has expressed a certain bitterness about the reluctance of Euroleague teams to trust or rely on veterans. He’s 36, you’re 32 and you’ve followed the opposite direction. How important is it to feel relevant?

A: You always feel relevant when you have successful years, when you’re playing at a high level and you’re successful at that level. You never feel as if you can’t do something. I’ve always felt that I can play at the highest level since I came out of college. In my mind, I just thought that it’s about applying it on the floor and making everybody else believe in it. Being a go-to guy requires the responsibility that comes with it.

Q: You were that kind of player in many teams: Maccabi, Khimki, Barcelona, Bamberg.

A: I wasn’t a go-to guy in Maccabi, but I ended up being one (laughs)! In the very end, in the last month, I developed into one. But even then we had so many guys and the only one that fits the description was probably Ricky Hickman. He was the guy that we focused on, making sure that we got him into the game. But other than that, we had so many guys doing different things. It didn’t matter whose night it was. That’s what was special about that team and that can be special about this one.

Q: Who is the Ricky Hickman of Panathinaikos OPAP this year?

A: Nick (Calathes). Nick’s got the ball in his hands. He’s the one to make the plays, the one with a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and it’s up to us to lessen that responsibility, lower the load for him and make the game easy for him as well as he makes it easy for us.

Q: Tactically, how easy is it to adapt to playing alongside Jimmer Fredette on defence?

A: It’s a matter of adjustment. Defence is about will. When you want to play defence, you just go out there and do it. If you want to stop your man from scoring, you do it. It’s about mentality, attitude and approach. Size never matters.

Q: What went wrong last year with Brose Bamberg in the Final Four of the Basketball Champions League?

A: As a whole, everything seemed to be going really smoothly until then. Obviously, we had a lot of things going on off the floor that could have affected us on the floor. We changed coach early and that was fine, but there were other issues that could have affected the team and maybe they could have been done a little differently. You still got to be ready to play the game and get on the floor.

Q: Did you ever plan on coming to Panathinaikos?

A: No. To tell you the truth, I never would have thought that I’d come back to Greece. Never, since I was with Panionios.

Q: I know it’s a delicate issue, but how did you react after the altercation you had with the team’s owner on social media?

A: I wouldn’t call it an altercation. It was what it was. We’re men, we talked about it and that’s how all should keep going forward. Ain’t really a big deal to me. You can’t let things outside the basketball court affect you while you’re on it. You got to just go out and play.

Q: Did you resolve the issue in person?

A: No, that’s fine. No problems. Everything is good. When you win, everything is fine. Put it like that (laughs).

Q: Which are your thoughts ahead of the upcoming EuroLeague derby against Olympiacos Piraeus?

A: They’ve shown a lot of improvement from the beginning. They went in and beat Berlin easily, they played Munich tough and probably should have won that game. They’re improving. Now, they’re playing Milan. It’s a big and winnable game for them if they play right, I think. But we’ll be ready next Friday.

Q: Looking forward to it?

A: For sure. I’ve seen it on TV, but it’s different when you’re in it (laughs).

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