Aisin, Toshiba ready for showdown in JBL Finals

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Aisin Sea Horses have inarguably been the team to beat in the JBL in recent years, but they aren’t about to rest on their laurels.

The Aichi Prefecture-based club finished atop the regular season standings, going 34-8, for the sixth straight season, but head coach Kimikazu Suzuki emphasized during a Tuesday news conference at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 that the postseason is a completely different story.

“We were able to have the best record thanks to the fact that we won so many close games,” Suzuki said of his team, which was 9-1 in five-point games in the season. “But the playoffs are completely different from the regular season, and we need to start all over, playing good defense and turning it into good offense. We’re going to have to play one game at a time very carefully.”

Some people actually think their opponents, the Toshiba Brave Thunders, have the edge, because they more momentum heading into the championship game.

The Brave Thunders were dead last with just eight wins last year, but made a remarkable turnaround this season, finishing in third place with a 29-13 record and beating the reigning JBL champion Toyota Motors Alvark in the playoff semifinals.

Toshiba head coach Takuya Kita didn’t buy into that line of thinking. The 40-year-old former star guard said that Aisin simply doesn’t have any weaknesses.

“They’ve got experienced players and know how to win,” Kita said of the Sea Horses, who have been to the Finals in each the last six years. “They’re great inside (with J.R. Sakuragi, Kevin Young and Ryvon Covile), and they’ve got players who can hit shots from outside, too. So it’ll be a difficult matchup for us. The bottom line is, we’ll have to do our job both inside and outside. That’ll be the key for us.”

Suzuki said that despite the sluggish results of last year, Toshiba wasn’t as bad as people would think and didn’t deserve the last-place finish of a year ago.

“Although they finished last, we don’t think they are the last-place club,” he said. “I personally thought this team would have finished at least in the top four (to make the postseason).

“They are the team that scored off the fast-break the most among the eight teams this year. When they score on the fast-break off rebounds, that’s when they’re playing their game and we’d struggle.”

Aisin was 4-2 against Toshiba this season. But the Brave Thunders didn’t lose faith in themselves.

“We were 2-4 against them, but in the fifth game we won big and it left good image,” Toshiba captain Yuya Kagami said after the team’s practice at the arena. “So we don’t feel inferior mentally.”

In the meantime, Aisin was confident about taking on the surging Brave Thunders, who went 16-2 over their last 18 games of the season.

Aisin center Sakuragi admitted that Toshiba is a very dangerous team and has momentum.

“I agree that they have momentum for their team,” said the former UCLA Bruin, who was named JBL MVP for the third consecutive season. “But I don’t think they have momentum against us. I don’t think their confidence is as high against us, because we’re playing well.”

Sakuragi wasn’t being cocky, and has solid reasoning to support his opinion. He referred to Toshiba’s top two leading scorers, center Nick Fazekas and rookie guard Naoto Tsuji, both of whom were newcomers this year, and noted his team has been effective against them defensively.

“I just think we know their strength,” Sakuragi said. “And with our players we have on defense, we can stop them. They have Nick, of course, inside, leading scorer in the league. But our guys are playing well. Kevin keeps his body on him and makes him tired. Makes him work a little harder for shots. I don’t think he likes so much contact. And (against) Tsuji, I think (Takatoshi) Furukawa does a good job on him, because he’s bigger, he’s taller than he is.”

Game 1 of the best-of-five JBL Finals will tip off at 7 p.m. at the gym on Wednesday.

It will be the last time that the Finals will be held under the name of the JBL. A 12-team new circuit National Basketball League will be launched next season.