BC Wolves guard Rasheed Sulaimon talks about crucial stretch for the club, “March Madness”
BC Wolves guard Rasheed Sulaimon talks about crucial stretch for the club, “March Madness”

The BC Wolves of Vilnius are amid a hot pursuit for their first-ever Betsafe-LKL trophy in the club's history. Although the Lithuanian capital's team started the third round with a 68:81 road loss against CBet Jonava, there is no time to contemplate this setback. The Wolves are set to begin a crucial multi-round sprint later this week.

Nedas Pacevičius' troops will have three big matches in Vilnius as games against 7bet-Lietkabelis Panevėžys, BC Rytas Vilnius, and Uniclub Casino - Juventus Utena await. This stretch could both solidify or significantly complicate the Wolves' chances of starting the playoffs with homecourt advantage.

The team's most productive player, Rasheed Sulaimon (averaging 16.2 pts and 16.1 EFF) said that he is looking forward to these intense clashes.

"Every match is like a finals game. In the US, we call it "March Madness." This is my birth month, that's why I love basketball," said the American import, who recently celebrated his 30th birthday a week ago, to LKL.lt.

First up for the BC Wolves in this stretch is BC Lietkabelis of Panevėžys, who are bringing in former Wolves player Djordje Gagic, who didn't fit the system in Vilnius. So far, 7bet-Lietkabelis won both matches between both teams 108:105 and 78:73, but with the teams having the same number of losses (7), the third game can become a cornerstone in the fight for third place. The winner might avoid an early face off against the champions, BC Zalgiris of Kaunas, in the semi-finals.

Ahead of this highly anticipated match - LKL.lt had a lengthy interview with Wolves star player, Rasheed Sulaimon.

– In the last game, you got a somewhat unexpected loss once again in Jonava. What went wrong?

- It's basketball. We played in a tough road game, we did not show the right intensity to our game. CBet were in a good rhythm, they hit a lot of difficult shots and challenged us. We showed poise to try to get back into the game and we almost did it. But again, they hit the big shots late and didn't allow us to get closer. It's a step in the wrong direction for us, but at the same time, we understand that the season is long. We want to play our best basketball when it's needed the most, in and around the playoffs.

- The third round has already started, and the battle for higher seeding in the standings is becoming more and more intense. What is your confidence level at this point in the season?

- I do not lack self-confidence. I have my routine, and my preparation for each match. This is how I try to get through everything. All the training gives me confidence when I play. When I shoot during the game, I've already done it a thousand times in practice. Now I'm trying to stay healthy. I've had quite a few injury problems this year. As I said, I want to play my best at the end of the season, I have to be 100 percent ready for it. I'm confident in my skills, trying to stay healthy, find my rhythm and play my best game as the season draws to a close.

– Injuries and health problems have been bugging you throughout the season. What is your current situation?

- Probably no one is completely healthy at this point in the season. I don't want to make excuses though, even though there are things that need to be sorted out. I work with a team; we have excellent specialists and doctors. We are trying to find the optimal solution with them so that I can return to my best form on the court.

- Has the team already left behind the not-so-good departure of Kęstutis Kemzūra and completely reoriented to the coaching style of N. Pacevičius?

- I can't speak for everyone, but in my opinion, whatever happened in the past, it should be left there. We need to focus on the present and improve for the future. Everyone in the locker room trusts each other, I trust Nedas. I think he's a great basketball mind, he has a lot of great ideas that he instils in us. Of course, not just me, but my other teammates also struggled with health problems throughout the year. Hello, getting used to Ned's schemes is a natural process. Now at times, we’re able to show what he wants us to do, but then we have bad periods, so we must work together better to implement the coach's plans. All this will come with time. Everyone has the right attitude, and we have a good squad, good coaches who believe in us, and believe that we can do something special if we just keep doing what we're doing every day.

- Artūrs Žagars also faced a serious injury, and he is successfully rehabilitating. How do you react to this kind of progress that gives you hope to see him play again this season?

- I am very happy to see him like this. In the short time we played together, before his injury, we became great friends. After his injury, we didn't stop communicating. It feels like a brother coming home. We are all excited to see him, we know how talented he is. Of course, the most important thing for him now is to recover from the injury. If he decides to play, it will be an advantage for us, but if not, health is the most important thing. Of course, it would be a shame if injuries prevented us all from playing together, at full strength. Let's hope this dream comes true in the most important period.

- You recently became one of the two winners of the Betsafe Casino three-point shooting competition in Kaunas. How will you remember this competition? Have you already spoken to the other winner, Sean McNeil?

- Yes, we've already spoken. I'm very competitive myself. I didn't know Sean until then, but I could tell he was the same way. We respect each other. We talked during the event, it was fun to compete. It was my first Citadele KMT Final Four, it was a great event, with a lot of fans, and a good game. What could be better than participating in a historic contest with two winners? Of course, I didn't know the result until I finished my turn, and then I saw that I won. Finally, I have no problem sharing the title with him. Let's hope we both play here again next year and then we can find out the real winner.

- Maybe the fans should mark the next confrontation between the Wolves and Kėdainiai on April 6 as the grand final of the sniper competition?

- Maybe (laughs). That's what the media needs to mark such matches and create hype around them. The three-point competition took place a few weeks ago and now I am fully focused on team matters with Wolves. I feel pleasure only when the team is successful. If he plays better than me, but we win, so be it. The most important thing is for the Wolves to win.

- In terms of individual statistics, you are the most useful player in a team that is currently third. Last year, Ahmad Caver picked up the regular season MVP award in a similar manner. Is aiming for that statistic something you keep in mind when competing?

- We are all human, we hear what other people say. If that happens, of course, it would be a great honour. I was injured for a long time and it somewhat changed the direction of the season. The most important thing is to be healthy, to help the team win. If I can do that and help the team succeed, the individual rewards will come with it. I believe that such recognitions are not entirely the result of individual work. A lot of the things you get credit for are because of teamwork. If we win, it will increase my chances. But that's not what I'm focused on. Most of all, I want to win, and then we will all get recognition.

– This week you will play two games in the Betsafe-LKL. The first one has already happened, and the second one awaits on Sunday when you host 7bet-Lietkabelis at home. Is the fact that it will be your second game this week a bit of an advantage over the opposition?

- Yes, why not? Any advantage is important, but they also played in the BKT EuroCup, they know what that means. I'm looking forward to playing against them because we had two losses before. You can say that I don't know how to accept defeat. My wife would probably say that after losses I'm not the nicest until the next match when I try to win again (laughs). Since we have two games this time, it doesn't give us much time to think about losing. We need to quickly refocus. As a basketball player, that's all you want - to play a lot of games. We will be ready for it.

- In October, you played a great match in Panevėžys (R. Sulaimon set his season records in that game - he scored 31 points and collected 33 utility points). The coaches of the teams have changed, but most of the players are the same. Is this an opponent you enjoy playing against?

- As I mentioned, I believe in my abilities, no matter who I play against. A lot of teams are targeting me this year, I've seen all kinds of defences. When it comes to playing one-on-one, I will always believe in my chances. But basketball is a team game. I have a responsibility not only to score points but also to make the right decisions. I will try to play my game, but at the same time I will read the defence and, if anything, look for teammates in good positions so that only the Wolves have a better chance of winning.

- Your opponents' team will have your former teammate D. Gagic. He had a hard time adjusting with the Wolves, but he was a key player for Panevėžys in the Citadele KMT semi-finals. Why do you think he hasn't been able to play well in your club? Is it all about the coach's system?

- I don't think that everything depends on the coaches at this level. We are at a high level, Betsafe-LKL is a respected league. We and 7bet-Lietkabelis have played in the EuroCup, we have a team capable at this level. It would probably be uninventive to say that someone is a bad player just because he didn't show up for a certain team. It depends somewhat on the schemes of the game, and on how the players fit together. I have seen many situations when a player in one team does not get minutes, and in another, he becomes almost the best player in the league. It's all about that. He knows the coach, he has played for him before, and he has been a successful player in his system. When you're struggling in basketball, it's always good to come back to where you were comfortable. It's probably the same for him. He just showed his talent. He's a great player, I'm looking forward to seeing him on the court.

- For the rest of March, you have a very crucial stretch of several games waiting for you, when you will meet the neighbouring ranked clubs in the standings - 7bet-Lietkabelis, BC Rytas and Uniclub Casino - Juventus. You can start April either fully locked in the third place or by complicating your position. With what thoughts are you entering this difficult period?

- Every match is like a finals game. In the US, we call it “March Madness”. This is my birth month, that's why I love basketball. This is competition at the highest point of tension. We fully understand the weight of the rest of the season, we know our schedule. It can end in any way. It doesn't matter what happened until now. Every game now will be like a final, we have to be ready for it to be in a good position before the play-offs and when the play-offs start, maybe we can do something special.

– The fact that you will play all three matches in the Avia Solutions Group arena can become your advantage. However, you train more often in Širvintos. Do you feel at home when competing in the capital?

- To be honest, yes. I like our arena and the fans. Probably the majority of our best matches have taken place here. I would like to train there more often, but it will be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. We have some fans, we want them to be proud of us at the end of this season and support us. We want to give everyone good moments and properly represent "Wolves" in Vilnius.

- The prospect of reaching the second place looks vague, but even in that case, Rytas would probably be waiting for you in the semi-finals. Of course, there is still a long way to go, but is such a clash, a derby in the capital, in the playoffs, something you are looking forward to?

- In this interview, we talked a lot about competitiveness. This is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, matchups in this country in years. We are a new team in Vilnius, which is widely known as the city of Rytas. Both matches against them were intense. Add to that the stress of the playoffs... I live for moments like this. You like such duels both as a player and as a fan. We will see if that happens, we respect all the opponents we will meet in the future, in the playoffs. But if we meet Rytas, we respect them too, it would be a great match.