|Martynas Pocius spent the last four summers in a Lithuania vest, the 2010 World Championship marking his first event with the senior national team|
It is a scene that has perhaps become a little too familiar for Martynas Pocius since Christmas - exiting the changing room following another loss to field the questions of the hungry media.
On this particular occasion, the scene unfolded on a recent Friday night under the bleachers in Audi Dome, Munich, moments after Zalgiris had given up a seven-point advantage at the end of the third quarter to fall 79-73 to the Euroleague new kids on the block, Bayern Munich.
It signaled the seventh loss in eight games in the Euroleague Top 16 for the Lithuanian team (a record that has since dropped to 1-9 following a heartbreaking last second loss to CSKA Moscow on 6 March), a decidedly disappointing record for one of Europe's proudest clubs, one which this season sports an experienced line-up with the likes of Pocius, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Robertas Javtokas and Paulius Jankunas on its books.
As a mark of the professionalism of Pocius, a former Mike Krzyzewski apprentice, it was immediately apparent as to why he had been selected to face the microphones as patience, diplomacy and a lack of clichés governed his answers, despite the obvious frustrations he can understandably be harvesting.
"Some games we have played not so well then some games we have played really well only to lose them at the very end when we should have pushed on for the win," explains the swingman when the obvious topic of current form is broached by fibaeurope.com.
"In a way, we are playing to our potential...maybe we could close a few more games out. If we were also playing in the VTB League it would be really tough for us to have that extra game a week. Maybe some things are not clicking and some things are not going our way but we are giving it our all," offers Pocius, tactically shutting down the theory that the club may benefit from participating in the VTB League where they would be exposed to tougher opponents than what the Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL) perhaps offers.
Instead, he steers the conversation in another direction, to a topic in which unfortunately he goes better hand-in-hand with than burgers and fries: injuries.
"We have had a lot of injuries and a lot of guys right now playing through injuries. When we started the year off, we had 17 guys on the roster but right now sometimes we cannot even play five-on-five at practice so it's tough when guys are out and sick."
|After finishing college in 2009, Pocius signed his first professional contract with Zalgiris|
Home, Sweet Home
Despite the lack of wins Zalgiris are currently collecting in Europe, Pocius, who is now in his second stint at the club which nurtured the legend Arvydas Sabonis, insists that he would not want to be anywhere else, after having two mixed seasons abroad with Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid.
"I am never opposed to playing for Zalgiris, the team where I started my career and the team that I love. I love their vision and it is the way it worked out," he says upon returning to the second-largest city in Lithuania in the 2013 off-season.
"The vision has changed a little bit in a lot of different ways from last time I was here. There have been changes in management and it is also my first time playing in the new Zalgiris Arena. I really love the facilities and the opportunity to play and practice here.
"I do not think there is a better place to practice in Europe. The level is really amazing and the opportunity to practice and improve your game [here] is unbelievable."
Keeping The Doctor In Business
Including the loss of a finger on his left hand following an incident with a metal-cutting machine in the seventh grade, the Vilnius-native has a well-documented history of injuries. They plagued him throughout his college career at Duke, forced him out of playing in the LKL finals at the completion of his previous stay in Zalgiris in 2011, and then meant he missed out on a Euroleague Final Four appearance with Real Madrid last season.
Again, this season he has not been spared the wrath of the injury curse, with a broken hand leaving him on the sidelines from prior to Christmas up until late January. However, since returning to action, Pocius has been providing glimpses of his true worth when he is undamaged, with his post-injury 13.2 points a game in his last six starts signaling arguably the best vein of form in his Euroleague career.
"At this point I feel really healthy. Last year I joined the national team and maybe I did not have enough rest. I also had my broken hand but in some ways I think that injury helped me because I had a month off to get my leg strong and it was good to get my body rested and prepared for the Top 16."
However, the patriotic Lithuanian is quick to defend his decision to perhaps return too early from a stress fracture injury that brought a premature close to his time with Real Madrid, in order to be part of Lithuania's 12-man silver-medal winning roster at EuroBasket 2013 in Slovenia.
"You could say it was too soon, but you wouldn't trade a silver medal for anything. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you win and you lose some."
|Pocius: "You wouldn't trade a silver medal for anything. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."|
Bleeding Green, Yellow and Red
Debuting with the Lithuania national team at the 2010 World Championship in Turkey where he averaged 9.6 points on the bronze-medal winning squad, Pocius, who is renowned for his athleticism and aggressiveness, has been a firm part of the Lithuanian rotation in every one of their major tournaments since, including the Olympic Games in London.
Now, given his current form, there is no reason to think he will not once again be receiving an invitation to Lithuania's training camp ahead of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. But, and understandably so given his history with injuries, Pocius is cautious of committing to anything just yet.
"It is still early to say [about playing this summer for Lithuania] because we still have quite a big portion of the season left and you never know how things go with injuries and everything else, so I do not even want to think about that.
"The past two years I have had literally no rest. I have had to go from championships straight into the national team and two years ago I literally played a championship game and got on the plane to join the national team. So this summer I am looking forward to getting my mind off basketball and kind of want to be missing basketball a little bit."
That said however, does not mean that Pocius has not been taking an interest in what may lay ahead for the national team when they arrive in Spain to take on first round opponents Australia, Angola, Mexico, Korea and Slovenia, suggesting that the draw has been favourable to the EuroBasket runners-up.
Speaking with caution, Pocius suggests that: "In a way, the group stage of a EuroBasket is more difficult than the group stage of the World Cup because for example last year we had a lot of the former Yugoslavian teams in our group and they were playing top basketball and we barely got out of the group. Again I am not familiar with some of the teams that are in the group this summer but I think as far as the first round goes it is a playable pool for us and we can definitely advance."