One victory separated the Eastern Conference regular-season champion Niigata Albirex BB and the second-place Yokohama B-Corsairs in the standings. That one game is indicative of the talent, roster depth, experience and quality coaching for both teams.
Niigata finished 36-16 in Matt Garrison’s second season as head coach. Yokohama went 35-17 under second-year bench boss Reggie Geary, the 2011-12 bj-league Coach of the Year.
Garrison earned that honor before the playoffs started, guiding the Albirex to a first-place finish for the fist time since the bj-league’s inception in 2005.
The teams will lock horns on Saturday at 6:10 p.m. in the Eastern Conference final, the second game on the first day of the Final Four. The victorious team will face the Rizing Fukuoka-Kyoto Hannaryz winner in Sunday’s title game at Ariake Colosseum.
How close in quality were the Albirex and B-Corsairs this season?
Their four games provided some clues.
Niigata went 3-1 against Yokohama, winning the first two times by a combined seven points (78-75 and 69-65) on Oct. 17 and 18 at home. Geary’s squad rebounded for a 75-74 win in the next meeting on Jan. 5 in Yokohama. Niigata closed out the series with a 78-68 triumph the next day.
To reach the Final Four for the second straight season, the B-Corsairs, the third-place finisher in 2011-12, fought off a pesky Toyama Grouses squad last weekend, booking a spot in the next round by virtue of a mini-game tiebreaker triumph, 19-14 over the Grouses.
The Albirex took care of business against the visiting Akita Northern Happinets, collecting 80-69 and 88-58 victories last Saturday and Sunday. The series finale showcased what has been a common sight all season: across-the-board production from numerous Niigata players.
Yuichi Ikeda had four 3-pointers and 20 points, for instance, Nile Murry finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds and four assists and Chris Holm had 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting, 14 rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
Niigata’s consistency is not surprising. Most of the team’s players have been in the league for several seasons, including guard Kimitake Sato, who averaged 12.2 points per game this season. Sato was with the Albirex when the league was established and is now in his second stint with the club. He also played three seasons for the Oita HeatDevils (2008-11).
The Albirex hauled in 2,083 rebounds, 221 more than Yokohama in the 52-game regular season. Holm led the league with 14.5 rebounds per game.
“Niigata has great size one through five, with their guards and with their Americans, obviously they have great size,” Geary said. “And we’ve kind of struggled against some of their rebounding totals in the past.”
Holm is the heavy load (105 kg) in the low post, and if he’s boxed out, Murry and Rodney Webb are often next in line to snatch a rebound.
On his Facebook page, Webb posted this message on Thursday night: “(I’m) starting to get excited again. It’s championship weekend, two games to win it all.”
Looking ahead to the high-stakes meeting on Saturday, Yokohama post player Shawn Malloy said his team’s approach to the matchup is “just be solid and play B-Cor basketball.”
“We just have to come out and take care of ourselves and do what we’ve been doing all year to get to this point and we should be fine,” Malloy said.
Seven Niigata players averaged 7.7 or more ppg. Murry is the top scorer at 15.2 ppg and Sato is next, followed by Holm (11.3) and Ikeda (11.0).
Yokohama’s scoring relies heavily on the contributions of its Big Three. Draelon Burns, the league’s Sixth Man Award winner, averaged 21.4 ppg, fourth-best total in the league, in the regular season. Thomas Kennedy scored 18.8 ppg and Masayuki Kabaya 13.3.
Faye Pape Mour and Malloy contributed 9.4 and 8.3, respectively.
“I can’t say enough about these three guys sitting next to me,” Geary said of the Big Three moments after his team eliminated Toyama. “They’ve been our Big Three all season.
“They take on that responsibility of being the men as a trio, they’ve taken that responsibility upon themselves, and (in the series against Toyama) they stepped up and made plays when they needed to make plays. . . “
Of all four teams in the Final Four, the B-Corsairs had the fewest turnovers (536) this season. Playing aggressive, but smart basketball is their focus, and Geary has harnessed the talents of second-year pro Mour to make a solid impact.
“His energy and what he does for us is incredible,” Geary said.
Geary also said he’s pleased with the less-heralded contributions of guards Kenji Yamada, Minoru Kimura, Satoshi Hisayama and Seiji Kono.
“With those guys and the young guys developing the way they are, we are a formidable team,” he said.
The benefit of having experienced the pressure of playing in the Final Four last season “is huge,” Geary said. “It’ll be a stage we’ve been on before. I think we’ll be more comfortable. I think we’ll become more comfortable with the moment quicker and so I think that’s huge.
“I think the fact that we’re going back now for the second year, all the returning guys should have great confidence in what we’re doing.
“We’re just excited. Last year’s experience will be great. This will be a new experience, and we’re looking to make the best of it.”
What are the team’s hopes and expectations?
“Obviously, our hopes are, our expectations are, to finish better than we did last year,” Burns said.
Said Kennedy: “My hopes and expectations are nothing less than a championship. Our goals are high. I don’t think they are ever going to change, and we plan to go out there and give it our all.”
Holm believes the B-Corsairs will be a tough opponent.
“Well there are obviously a few things you have to worry about when playing against such a dangerous team,” Holm said Friday. “All year long their Big Three has been consistent so we need to really focus on limiting their offensive production, I mean, they average probably 65 to 75 percent of their offense. We just need to try to make other players beat us.
“They are also a great defensive team so we need to take care of the ball and run our game.”
Around the league: Tokyo Cinq Reves star Cohey Aoki played for Japan in the FIBA 3×3 men’s tournament earlier this week in Doha. Japan went 1-2 in the tournament in Group D competition, beating Hong Kong and losing to Qatar and Jordan. . . .
Instead of keeping the gimmicky mini-game tiebreaker for the first two rounds of the playoffs, one basketball expert suggested to The Japan Times that the league should consider total points scored as the way to determine which team advances. That is, if the league doesn’t adopt a true best-of-three format.
Teams now know they can tank it in the second game because the tiebreaker exists, especially if they are getting blown out.