By Jeff Taylor, PA Sport
Darryl Middleton laughs when he's asked how basketball in Europe has changed since his arrival on the continent more than 15 years ago from Baylor University.
"I think it was more physical (in Europe) back then," says the veteran Dynamo St Petersburg center.
"There were more players who were tough and every game was kind of hard. Every game is not as tough, now.
"I think the refs have a lot to do with it."
There is no doubting that the 39-year-old Middleton still plays a tough and hard style, because without him as their enforcer, St Petersburg would not have made it to a second consecutive final four.
They will take on Russian rivals BC Khimki in a EuroCup semi-final on April 7.
|Middleton has provided leadership in his first season with Dynamo|
Last year, under former coach David Blatt, St Petersburg didn't lose a game. Blatt left for Benetton Treviso and Fotis Katsikaris, who coached at AEK Athens, replaced him.
Instead of Blatt's open, offensive style, Katsikaris preached defense. In addition to bringing his different approach from Greece, he also brought Middleton, who had played for Panathinaikos and won trophies.
Slow Start, Fast Finish
"The beginning of this year was kind of tough," says Middleton.
And he's not talking about the weather.
He had expected to endure -35 Celsius temperatures in the icy north of Russia but instead, he says, has lived in a less chilly -15.
It was the transition on the court that was not easy.
"There were not many players who spoke English, we had a new coach, but as the season wore on, we improved, especially on defense," he says.
Some of the younger players have matured.
Middleton has played his part in that process.
"It's important to have veterans on your team," Middleton says.
"You can have young players, but you need the older players to look up to.
"This is what it takes. You have to work in practice. It's more than just offense."
Middleton says everything must click on the defensive end for St Petersburg to win games, be it in Europe or Russia.
Never has that been more true that the Khimki game.
They spread the ball around and have several players who score in double figures.
Among the talented Khimki players are Ruben Wolkowisky of Argentina, American Melvin Booker, Italy's Gianmarco Pozzecco and Venezuela's Oscar Torres.
"When the play-offs come, you can't count on running up and down," he says.
"You have to play half-court defense.
"They have a good team, but we're playing great.
"We need to keep playing our team defense and play together. We can't be selfish."
Dynamo do have some outstanding players like Kelly McCarty, the MVP of last year's Final Four winning side.
But Middleton says: "Our team is different from others. We don't have stars. Other teams that try to stop us, it's tough.
"When you on look on paper at Khimki, they have veterans. That's important. You look at our team, you're like, `who are these guys?'
"I like being the underdog. We just have to play defense and play."