Link Tochigi Brex head coach Thomas Wisman described the challenge of facing the two-time reigning champion Aisin SeaHorses as “David vs. Goliath.”
But he and his young squad have no intention of backing down in the title series. Game 1 of the best-of-five Japan Basketball League Finals begins at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Just like the Brex showed in the playoff semifinals on Monday, they believe anything is possible.
Tied in the best-of-three series at one game apiece, the Brex rallied from a 19-point deficit down the stretch, and went ahead with just 39 seconds left in the game on a basket by ace scorer Takuya Kawamura against the Panasonic Trians in the decisive third game in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture.
“In the semifinals, we didn’t know if we would get there until the last 45 seconds of the game,” Wisman said at a Friday news conference at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2, venue for the JBL Finals. “We were down by one with 45 seconds to go and found the way to win. Our team has the ability to do that.”
The Brex, who are in their second season in the top league after earning the promotion by winning the second division title two years ago, had the best offense (84.0 points per game) in the league in the regular season. They have arguably the best backcourt duo in two-time defending scoring champion Kawamura (20.5 ppg) and former NBA point guard Yuta Tabuse.
Making their third consecutive appearance in the championship round, the SeaHorses still have the composure and confidence that produced previous achievements.
“We took first place in the regular season despite the pressure for a three-peat,” Aisin coach Kimikazu Suzuki said. “We’ve been in the Finals many times before and know it’s a totally different atmosphere. We’d just like to play our brand of ball.”
Aisin, based in Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, is probably the most consistent and balanced club in the JBL. It was fourth in scoring (78.4) and second in defense (72.5) in the regular season.
“We have confidence after winning in the Finals in the last two years,” Aisin captain Tomoo Amino said. “We know what’s awaiting us after winning a championship.”
For the SeaHorses, forward and regular season MVP Kosuke Takeuchi (15.8 ppg, 11.4 rebounds per game), Shinsuke Kashiwagi (12.5 ppg, 3.9 apg, 38.4 3-point percentage), J.R. Sakuragi (17.4 ppg, 3.3 apg, 7.7 rpg) and Josh Gross (11.1 ppg) are other key players.
The Finals is a showdown of the top two teams in the regular season. But Aisin is the favorite to take the championship banner, while the Brex are the underdog.
Wisman, a 61-year-old who is scheduled to resign as Brex’s coach and take the helm of Japan men’s national team after the Finals, said that his team wants to play a fast, full-court game, capitalizing on its league-best rebounding to match the mighty SeaHorses.
“We need to not get into a half-court game,” Wisman said. “I consider them (the SeaHorses)as the best half-court team in the competition. So we don’t want to play half-court basketball to help them.”
Wisman has a reason to worry, though. Kawamura has suffered from lower back pain since before the postseason and played only 11:17 in Game 1 of the semifinals.
But despite the injury, Kawamura appeared to be looking forward to the big stage.
“Our team has advanced to the Finals for the first time, and our motivation level is pretty high and we’re very much looking forward to serious competition against such a strong team like Aisin,” said Kawamura, who played in the championship series in 2005-06 as a member of the OSG Phoenix. “We all know if we play our own ball, positive results will follow.”
Scott Merritt (13.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and Ryosuke Ito (7.5 ppg, 4.9) also play key roles for Link Tochigi.