Tough To Call This Shot
Kawasaki, Tochigi Evenly Matched In Clash For Inaugural League Title
As match-ups go, the B.League championship game on Saturday between the Kawasaki Brave Thunders and Tochigi Brex is about as close as you can get. Trying to find an edge is like looking for an open man under the basket. One might be there, but it's not always so easy to spot.
"We know they're a strong team, they finished with the second-best record in the league," Kawasaki center Nick Fazekas, the league scoring leader, told Inside Sport Japan earlier this week. "They got a lot of good weapons, so I think it's hard to just focus on one guy. I think we're going to have play collectively as a group really well in order to beat them."
Kawasaki had the best record in the league at 49-11, followed by Tochigi at 46-14. But the fact that Tochigi played in the super-competitive East Conference - second-place Tokyo also finished 46-14, but lost out on point differential after the teams split their season series - could certainly acccount for the three-game difference.
Head-to-head clashes put the teams on equal footing. They split their two-game season series in Jan at Tochigi Prefectural Kita Gym in Otawara. In both games, the Brex led by double-digits at halftime, holding on to win the first one 72-60, but allowing the Brave Thunders to rally to take the second 79-70.
"The first game, they kind of got into us and got out in transition, and we kind of slowed our offense down and we weren't able to score much," Kawasaki power forward Ryan Spangler said. "Second game, we got out and ran and were able to beat them, didn't slow it down. So that's what we're going to have to do this week."
Fazekas said that the length of time that has passed since the games, and the fact that Kawasaki was missing shooting guard and national team member Naoto Tsuji, makes those games less relevant. The main thing that matters to him was that Kawasaki managed to take a game on the road in Tochigi.
"The teams are probably different at this point," he said. "There are probably some similarities, but ultimately I don't think you can put too much into that because it was so long ago, and teams have changed, rotations have changed, and rotations will change in the championship.
"I like to look at it, we split in (Tochigi) which isn't an easy thing to do, so I'm going in thinking: we can win at (Tochigi), we can beat them at Yoyogi as well."
While this is the league's inaugural season, Kawasaki goes into Saturday's game at Tokyo's Yoyogi Gym as the de facto defending champion, having won the final title of the National Basketball League prior to the merger with the bj.League.
Tochigi center Ryan Rossiter, who edged Fazekas as the top rebounder in the league, even said as much following the Brex's victory over the Sea Horses Mikawa in the semifinals.
"We're going to work hard this week, get in the film room, get in the gym, and figure out what to do," he told the home crowd. "They're the defending champions, so we want what they have."
Last season, Kawasaki, then known as Toshiba, overcame a loss in the first game of the best-of-three semifinals to beat the Brex 2-1, then fell behind 2-0 in the best-of-five final before topping the Sea Horses 3-2.
"Even last year, we were down at their place, we were down against Aisin (now Mikawa)," Fazekas said. "It gives us confidence knowing that we can win it, and we've played at Yoyogi and we've actually had some success at Yoyogi. But at the same time, you don't want to be too overconfident."
This year's semifinals followed the format used by the bj.League, a two-game series with a mini-game of two five-minute periods if there was a split. In both, Kawasaki and Tochigi won their first game of their series, lost the second, then came back to win the "shootout." Kawasaki ousted Tokyo, and Tochigi took the same route to eliminate Mikawa.
"We're not going to give up," Spangler said. "We had a bad couple of last minutes there in the second game, and gave that game away. Then we just had to regroup, have our leader step up and lead us."
One aspect of the playoffs that Fazekas, and no doubt others, have qualms about is that after a 60-game season and multi-game quarterfinals and semifinals, the championship will come down to a single, winner-take-all game.
"It's the dumbest thing in the world," said the 31-year-old Fazekas. "It's not right. It's not fair for us to have to compete for 60 games and have it come down to one game. The whole format is silly to me. If it's me, I shorten the season and I make the playoffs a little more exciting with more series."
It's just not going to be the same, he added. "If you win Saturday, you're going to feel like the champion. But I won a five-game series last year being down 2-0 and I really felt like, we earned this."
One of the intriguing aspects will be how the foreign big men fare against each other, 210-cm Fazekas and 203-cm Spangler against 206-cm Rossiter and 188-cm Jeff Gibbs. While Gibbs may be shorter, he makes up for it with 110 kgs of bulk.
"Gibbs, he's not as tall, but he's strong, he's thick, he's able to move people down there," Spangler said. "So we'll have to hold our ground against him. Against Rossiter, he's a guy who gets the ball a lot, so you just got to make sure you don't give him any easy shots, don't let him get any offensive rebounds."
For his part, Fazekas hasn't been scoring in the 26.7 ppg range that he averaged to lead the league. But then again, he hasn't had to.
"Since we started the playoffs, obviously I'm not at 27 points a game," he said. "A lot of our guys are picking up the slack in the sense where the defenses are focused on me so much, and they believe that if they stop me, they stop Kawasaki. But that's not the case, because we got so many weapons over here. "
Just how well the Japanese players step up will also be a key factor. In the first semifinal game against Tokyo, Kawasaki had seen their lead cut to six points late in the game when the Alvark got a steal. But the hustling Tsuji came up from behind and stole it right back, then after a series of passes, the ball made its way back to him and he drilled a 3-pointer that all but clinched the victory.
"I think we have the best Japanese guards in the league," Spangler said. They do their thing every game, you know what you're going to get out of them. I think Tsuji's one of the best shooters over here."
That includes point guard and captain Ryusei Shinoyama, also a national team member who runs the offense.
"Shinoyama does so much for us," Brave Thunders head coach Takuya Kita said. "He has a terrific shooting percentage. We want him to keep doing the same. He's the captain, so it's not that he does this and that, he's the one pulling the team along, and we want him to lead us to victory."
The Brex offer veteran point guard Yuta Tabuse, still the lone native Japanese to have played in the NBA, and sharpshooters Yutaro Suda and Takatoshi Furukawa.
Tochigi was bolstered by the play of its bench in the second game of its semifinal against Mikawa, when the Brex trailed by 19 going into the fourth quarter and ended up falling two points short of victory.
"Our bench refused to die, they came in and made such great plays and gave us a chance to win in regulation," Brex head coach Tom Wisman said in an on-court interview after the game."
The Brex then came back and won the mini-game 14-12 on Rossiter's layup with :02 left.
"I missed that same shot at the end of regulation, so I was pretty upset about that," he said. "And I told coach before the huddle, 'Just get me the ball.' And (coach Ryuzo) Anzai drew up a great play for me and I was able to make the shot."
For Wisman, who led the Brex to their lone league championship in the 2009-10 season in his first stint as coach, getting to the final that way seemed appropriate given the tough season they went through.
"We like doing things the hard way," he said tongue-in-cheek. "We had the hardest conference, had to get on top of Chiba, Toyota (Tokyo) to become conference champion. Had to go through Chiba, Aisin to get to the final. Kawasaki's the No. 1 team, overall best record, so it's right that we have them in the final."
- Ken Marantz: May 26th 2017
Big Four Make Inaugural Semifinals
And then there were four. Pretty much the four everyone expected.
The semifinals of the B.League tip off Friday with the three conference champions and the second-place team with the best record vying to take home the inaugural crown.
The Kawasaki Brave Thunders, the last champion of the NBL before its merger with the bj.League to form the B.League, will face the Alvark Tokyo on Friday and Saturday on their homecourt of Todoroki Arena. In the other semifinal, Tochigi Brex will host the SeaHorses Mikawa on Saturday and Sunday at Brex Arena Utsunomiya.
As with the quarterfinals, the semifinals consist of a two-game series. If the games are split, then a mini-game of two five-minute periods will be played to determine the winner.
None of the quarterfinals went to a "shootout," as Kawasaki, Tokyo, Tochigi and Mikawa all swept their series. That left no teams with bj.League roots in the competition, a sign of the disparity remaining after the merger.
Not much separates the four remaining teams. Each played its semifinal opponent twice in the regular season, and both season series ended 1-1. But all of those games were played in December, making them less indicative of the current situation.
The Alvark team that travels across the Tama River to Kawasaki has seen a major change since their two-game series on Dec. 23-24, when the Brave Thunders took the first game 93-81 and the Alvark bounced back to win a 106-92 free-for-all the following day.
A month after that, the Alvark parted ways with forward Troy Gillenwater for disciplinary reasons, and filled the void with power forward Jeff Ayres, who won a NBA championship ring with the San Antonio Spurs, and center Trent Plaisted. Those two, combined with the ever-energetic Diante Garrett, helped Tokyo finish 44-16, just two games behind Tochigi in the East standings.
The teams also met in the semifinals of the All-Japan Championship in January, with Kawasaki winning 78-71. The Brave Thunders lost in the final to the Chiba Jets.
Kawasaki, which had the league's best record of 49-11 and eliminated the Sunrockers Shibuya in the quarterfinals, has pretty much stood pat with the team that won the final NBL title, led by league top scorer Nick Fazekas.
"Our team members have not changed in the past few years and have played in a number of big games from the days in the NBL," Kawasaki guard Ryusei Shinoyama told the B.League website after the quarterfinals. "I think we are a team that gets a lift from playing on a big stage.
"The next game against the Alvark will be at Todoroki Arena. We will have the homecourt advantage and the players and fans will become one. First of all, how we start the first game will be the key."
For the Alvark, who ousted the San-En Neophoenix in the quarterfinals, their mission is clear.
"We only have a short time, but we'll be fully prepared," Tokyo center Joji Takeuchi said. "The main thing we have to focus on is how we are going to stop Fazekas."
In their regular-season meetings at Brex Arena, Mikawa took the opener 74-71 behind Kosuke Kanamaru's 24 points, but Tochigi came back the next day and won 74-68, with Ryan Rossiter leading the way with 28 points and 16 rebounds.
Both Kanamaru and Rossiter were the best in the league in their respective specialties. Kanamaru had the top percentage in both free throw and 3-point shooting, and was the only Japanese player to finish among the top 10 in scoring. Rossiter meanwhile, was the No. 1 rebounder while also finishing seventh in scoring.
For Tochigi, there is a score that needs to be settled. Two years ago, the Sea Horses, then known by the corporate name Aisin, knocked the Brex out of the NBL playoffs in the semifinals with 71-69 and 68-63 victories. The Sea Horses went on to win the 2014-15 championship, beating the Alvark in the final.
"Mikawa is a strong team with much experience," veteran Tochigi point guard Yuta Tabuse told the league website. "We have a bad memory from the playoff two years ago, and everyone wants to get revenge."
Mikawa finished with an identical 46-14 record in winning the West Conference, but had an unexpectedly tough time getting past the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the quarterfinals, despite having finished 17 games ahead of the conference runner-up and beating them in five of six regular-season meetings.
In the opening game at Wing Arena Kariya, the Sea Horses trailed 63-60 heading into the fourth quarter before pulling out a 76-72 win in which Kanamaru scored 31 points and Isaac Butts grabbed 14 rebounds. In Game 2, Kanamaru netted 19 points to lead an 81-75 win.
"In the championship, you never know what's going to happen," Mikawa head coach Kimikazu Suzuki said. "We will keep cool heads and play aggressively."
- Ken Marantz: May 19th 2017
Alvark Tokyo (90) - (75) SAN-EN NeoPhoenix
Photos: Dan Orlowitz- May 13th 2017: Yoyogi #2 Gym