Nikola Mirotic: “For what I’ve suffered, this season counts for two”

Nikola Mirotic, during a Euroleague match, against Baskonia on March 5.  PEDRO SALADO (GETTY)

Decisions and crucial matches are happening at unprecedented speed on Nikola Mirotic’s path. The 30-year-old Montenegrin player faces a definitive test for himself and for Barcelona in the final phase of the Euroleague in Cologne. His July 2019 signing from the NBA triggered expectations that increased as the squad led by Saras Jasikevicius strengthened. The Podgorica player was the highest-rated player in the regular season, beating Mike James, a CSKA guard who signed for the Brooklyn Nets in April. This Friday, with the match against Armani Milan (9:00 pm, DAZN and Movistar +), Barça’s 33rd takes on the challenge in a competition that they could not win on the four occasions they played it with Real Madrid.

Question. Two years ago, when he was already at an airport in Greece about to catch the plane for the United States and sign for Utah Jazz, he backed off. Are you intrigued by how far you could have gone on a team that is now among the NBA favorites?

Answer. You ask yourself sometime. But I am one of those who do not look back. I always look ahead. And I am intrigued to see where I am going to go with Barça, where I am capable of going and where the team is capable of going. But yes, I will follow the playoffs and to Utah, who is playing very well, and I’m going to be happy for them. But my last team was Milwaukee so I go with them in these playoffs.

P. He has always made difficult and often poorly understood decisions such as leaving Montenegro to join Real Madrid when he was 14 years old, going to the NBA in 2014 and returning in 2019 to sign for Barcelona.

R. You always look at the best way for yourself. I was in a very small country (Montenegro, 650,000 inhabitants) and I thought that coming to Spain was an opportunity. Then you want to step forward and you are criticized. I’m also talking about when I chose to play for the Spanish national team, and after when I left Madrid for the NBA. You think it’s a train that you have to catch and you don’t see what people are going to think. And the same when I came from the United States to Barcelona. I have never been carried away by what people think of me. I always thought about if it is the right thing to do, if it is really what I want and what is best for my career. I am used to being criticized. It is my life and I am happy with it.

P. He knew first-hand the rivalry between Barça and Real Madrid. Has the wear and tear of the critics affected you by that change of shirt?

R. I was very aware of what my signing for Barcelona meant, especially for the Madrid fans. But that never moved me one bit. I knew what I wanted, I spoke with my family and made the decision to move forward. Once you get here and you feel, I don’t know if I can say hate, but the tremendous disgust of many people, you realize that the reaction is much stronger than you thought. But that didn’t change anything. For me it was even more motivation to keep going, to be better. Above all I want to be happy and achieve my goals with the club. Life does not give you time to prepare, one has to be already prepared. Because I got here and the first thing I had to do was play that Super Cup game against Madrid and in Madrid. But then nothing. It is true that in the games against Madrid there is more tension, but it does not mean a mental drain or greater pressure.

P. How has your game changed since you arrived at Barcelona?

R. My game in America was much more than pick and pop (block and continuation), an open player, shooting triples and little else. I wanted to add something to my game, to make it more complete. When I got here the coaches were also betting on it and I was good at it. Every time I feel like a player more inside than outside. It’s something that I wanted to add to my game. I knew the ability I had to play in the low post and I know that there I can use the advantage much more.

P. Did you need to feel like a leader?

R. One hundred by one hundred. It is one of the reasons why I came from the United States. I was not happy with my game there and I did not feel well taken advantage of. He knew that the return meant he was going to have more leadership and it was what he was looking for. I am happy with it and I see myself very capable of maintaining that situation.

P. However, in the quarters against Zenit his performance was much lower than usual.

R. Very few people expected such a level; Me neither, especially offensively. Despite having an incredible year, very constant, each game at a very high level, if such a moment comes you have to support yourself in the team. That’s what I did, because the most important thing for me was to qualify. I didn’t feel very comfortable, especially in attack. Admittedly, they did a great job on me, because they exhausted me a lot attacking me. I tried to help the team in other ways. I focused much more on defense, I tried not to force so much in attack, to play more for others. Now, I have no doubt that it will be very different. Once again the goal is to win, even if I don’t score any points.

P. Last year the Euroleague was canceled, the pandemic arrived, the salary had to be lowered, you reached a pact to balance it by renewing it for two more years, until 2025, the covid passed, several games were absent due to a personal problem and the club was without a directive for a few months. How much is this final worth?

R. It would be worth two to me. I do not have any doubt. After suffering so much in everything, in sports, personally, after the pandemic, canceling last year, one would enjoy it much more. We are living a different moment and one has to adapt however it is, so for me personally it can count as a double Euroleague.

P. Can an excess of anxiety weigh you down to win titles and mark an era?

R. Without a doubt, I want to win and that can be transmitted a little to the anxiety. But we must not go further, because this is a process. You don’t have to put extra pressure on. You have to rely on your colleagues and all of us who are here go with great humility, with great enthusiasm. If you want to win you have to go for it. But with humility. We already know how it has been suffered in the playoff and we will have to suffer if we want to win.

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