Journey To 1st B.League Championship Starts Today
First the historic merger. Then a grueling but exciting 60-game season. Now it's time to crown the first champion of the B.League.
The B.League playoffs tip off today with the eight remaining teams vying to advance to the finals, where the winner will walk away with a Tiffany-designed trophy and a cool 5o million yen.
The Kawasaki Brave Thunders, the final champion of the National Basketball League before its merger with the bj.League, will be the prohibitive favorite. Led by scoring champion Nick Fazekas, the Brave Thunders stormed to a league-best 49-11 record.
In the first round, Kawasaki will face the Sunrockers Shibuya (32-28), who grabbed the second wild card after finishing third in the Central Conference (which was won by the Brave Thunders). For what it's worth, the two teams split their regular season-ending series.
Both the quarterfinals and semifinals will follow a best-of-two format. If the games are split, the teams will play a mini-game of two five-minute periods following Game 2 to decide the winner.
The championship will be decided by a single game, to be played May 27 at Tokyo's Yoyogi Gym.
The other first round match-ups are (with home team first): San-En NeoPhoenix (33-27) vs. Alvark Tokyo (44-16); Sea Horses Mikawa (46-14) vs. Ryukyu Golden Kings (29-21); and Tochigi Brex (46-14) vs. Chiba Jets (44-16).
The top two teams in each of the three divisions clinched spots in the playoffs, with the next two teams with the best records earning wild cards.
In two instances, the difference between a higher seeding and making the playoffs came down to just a few points scored during the season.
For example, Tokyo and Chiba ended with identical records to finish behind Tochigi in the East Conference, but Tokyo came in second based on the tiebreaking criteria. As the two split their six-game series, the next criteria was points scored against each other---and Tokyo had a four-point advantage.
That became relevant because it meant that Chiba was paired with Tochigi, while Tokyo will face a San-En team with an inferior record.
A similar situation arose in deciding the placement between conference champions Tochigi and Mikawa, which both ended 44-16. The two split the two games played between them, so that the three points more that Tochigi scored gave the Brex the advantage.
"Advantage" in this case is relative, because it meant Tochigi was then paired with Chiba, while Mikawa got Ryukyu and its losing record. Perhaps it's not all that insignificant that Mikawa lost its final two regular-season games to lowly Shiga Lakestars.
But the spotlight on the final weekend of the regular season was squarely on Okinawa, where Ryukyu and the Osaka Evessa played a winner-take-all two-game series to finish runner-up in the West Conference.
The Golden Kings, the last champions of the bj.League before the merger, needed to win both games to clinch the playoff spot, and that's just what they did, finishing it up with an 80-73 victory on Sunday.
That win also earned Ryukyu 5 million yen, the minimum amount each playoff team will receive. Semifinal losers will get 7.5 million yen, while the consolation for losing in the championship game will be 20 million yen.
The end of the regular season also settled the races for individual leaders. Here are the top players in each category, with per game averages/percentages:
Scoring: Nick Fazekas, Kawasaki (27.1)
Rebounds: Ryan Rossiter, Tochigi (13.3)
Free Throws: Kosuke Kanamaru, Mikawa (90.8%)
Assists: Naoki Uto, San-En (4.3)
3-Points: Kosuke Kanamaru, Mikawa (42.6%)
Steals: Kenta Hirose, Shibuya (2.0)
Blocks: Josh Harrellson, Osaka (1.9)
- Ken Marantz: May 13th 2017
Prelude To A Playoff
Sunrockers Gain Confidence Boost With Victory Over Brave Thunders Ahead Of Playoff Match-Up
Even if Naoto Tsuji's last-second 3-pointer had found its mark, the moral victory that the Sunrockers Shibuya scored over the Kawasaki Brave Thunders would have had greater significance than the win they actually ended up notching.
Shibuya, all but assured of facing Kawasaki in the opening round of the playoffs before taking the court for Saturday's regular-season finale for the two teams, held on for a 78-76 victory to split the two-game series at Todoroki Arena.
Shibuya's win before 3,804 on Kawasaki's home court puts the Brave Thunders on notice that the Sunrockers will be a formidable hurdle to get over when they return next weekend for the two-game quarterfinal. The Brave Thunders ended the season with a league-best 49-11 record and top seeding in the playoffs, while the Sunrockers finished 32-28 to advance as the second of two wild cards.
"After dropping yesterday's game, a bit of a collapse in the fourth quarter, it was an important game for us to come back," Shibuya head coach B.T. Toews said. "If we are to match up with Kawasaki in the playoffs, it was, from a mental standpoint, very important. We've beaten them before, they're clearly the No. 1 team in the league, but we really feel that if we can execute defensively, we can hang with them."
The Sunrockers went into the final two-game set with a chance to overtake the San-En NeoPhoenix for second place in the Central Conference, which would have given them a less imposing playoff pairing.
But hopes dimmed when they blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead on Friday night and lost 93-86 in overtime. The NeoPhoenix sealed the deal later Saturday by routing the Toyama Grouses 83-68.
Leo Vendrame, who hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the third quarter, sank two free throws with 14 seconds left as the Sunrockers triumphed in a game where the largest lead of the day was six points.
Ira Brown led Shibuya with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Robert Sacre scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half.
With the score tied at 76-all, a mix-up on a Shibuya pass gave Kawasaki the ball with :38 left. But Tsuji missed a shot and Vendrame was fouled after pulling down the rebound, sending him to the line for the last of Shibuya's 31 free throws, 24 of which they made.
As the clocked ticked down, the Brave Thunders, looking to force overtime for the second day in a row, worked the ball down low, but a pass to Spangler was tipped and all he could do was try to tap it in. The ball went high in the air and right to Tsuji. A 37 percent shooter from beyond the arc, he lined up a 3-pointer and fired at the buzzer, only for it to clang off the rim.
"It's not often you can beat a quality team like Kawasaki shooting 36 percent like we did," Toews said. "But we got to the line, we put them in foul trouble, and we played tough defense right to the end. A little bit lucky on that last play to give up that offensive rebound, that was scary."
With scoring leader Nick Fazekas sitting out all but 11 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter, Ryan Spangler picked up the slack to lead the Brave Thunders with 16 points, while Yuma Fujii had 14 points, including three of the team's 10 3-pointers.
"You don't ever want to lose, but we were trying to give [Fazekas] a little rest today going into the playoffs," Spangler said.
Kawasaki won six of eight B.League meetings over Shibuya, and also had a crushing victory in the quarterfinals of the All-Japan Championship in January.
"At the beginning of the year, the first two times we played them, it was brutal, we weren't in the same league at all," Toews said. "But in the last four games, we've showed that we're a team that if they're not careful, we can beat them. And in a short playoff series, it's possible. So I think the biggest thing was just proving it to ourselves that we can come out here."
The Sunrockers became a very different team, and potential title contender, with the addition of former Los Angeles Lakers forward/center Sacre in midseason.
"The main thing is, we know what kind of team we are," Toews said. "It took us a long time to develop a style, and to find a way to use Robert Sacre. But at this time, we know where are our strengths are, and we know where our weaknesses are.
For me, the key is: how to handle a situation like yesterday in the fourth quarter. We were playing a championship team, and they were really coming after you, how are we going to respond to that? To me that's the key thing that we're going to spend time talking about in practice this week."
Kawasaki head coach Takuya Kita is certainly not one to underestimate Shibuya.
"They have different foreign players from the first part of the season," Kita said. "Sacre has been with them in four games against us. That's allowed them to start scoring from the inside. Originally, they were a team that makes a lot of 3-pointers. But now we are forced to defend inside. They have achieved a good balance."
What makes the Sunrockers stand apart, Kita continued, is the athleticism of the players.
"They are very good athletes, which is shown in the fact that they led the league in steals. Even on simple passes, they get their arms out and because they're so athletic, they make steals. It's different from other teams. Even the smallest of mistakes they turn into easy baskets."
While there were advantages to finishing second, Sacre said the important thing was that the playoff berth had already been clinched, so there was no reason for the Sunrockers to put undue pressure on themselves. But he was impressed with the determination the team showed.
"I thought it showed a lot of character that guys really came out and competed at the end. It was really great to see that," Sacre said. "We're working on things as a team, getting guys open, getting other guys shots. That was our main focus and I think we're going to keep working on that and get ready for the playoffs."
Asked what he has seen that could give his team an advantage over Kawasaki, Toews pointed to the defensive aspect against a team that plays a similar style.
"Similar to us, Kawasaki is capable of exploding in two or three minutes," he said. "For example, if we turn over the ball on successive possessions, they can come down, hit two 3s and the game gets blown wide open. It's similar to us. Both teams are not high-turnover teams, but we used to be--sometimes we still are.
"But I think the key is really taking care of the ball, executing defensively, especially off their shooters. They really get rolling when they have good team balance and they're firing from outside. So yesterday's game, they did that early, and today's game, they did that early again, but somehow, defensively we were able to stick with them."
In the quarterfinals of the playoffs, the teams will play two games. If they split them, a mini-game of two five-minute periods will be played immediately after the second game to determine the winner. The semifinals follows the same format, while the championship game on May 27 in Tokyo will be a single game.
Spangler noted the irony of Kawasaki getting the top seed and still having such a tough first-round opponent.
"It's the way it worked out, I guess," he said. "They're a good team. They're going to be hard to beat. But we won a lot of games this year, and if continue to do what we do, we should be fine."
Before it was known that the match-up was finalized, Sacre said it was irrelevant which team the Sunrockers had to face.
"We don't care," he said. "Let's just play some basketball. We're all in the playoffs, we're ready here to compete. We can play with both teams, so at the end of the day, let's just come out and play our game."
- Ken Marantz: May 6th 2017
Sunrockers Shibuya (78) - (76) Kawasaki Brave Thunders
Photos: Chris Pfaff - May 5th 2017: Todoroki Arena