Canadian coach James Duncan’s arrival in Kyushu signaled the start of the Rizing Fukuoka’s revival in the second half of the season.
The Rizing, who were the 2012-13 bj-league championship runnerup squad, needed a strong turnaround to extend their playoff streak to seven seasons.
Despite an 11-17 start under Kimitoshi Sano, who became Duncan’s assistant, the Rizing finished strong, going 15-9 to close out the season. (Sano had replaced Mack Tuck, who stepped down without ever actually coaching a regular-season game for the Rizing, and he had taken over for Atsushi Kanazawa, who had left the franchise for a new coaching gig in the NBDL, the JBL2’s successor.)
Step by step, Duncan transformed the team from February through April.
Steady improvement was the key ingredient despite all of the changes cited above.
Entering the playoffs as the Western Conference’s No. 5 seed, Fukuoka saw its goal of reaching the Final Four for a second consecutive season end on Sunday. The host Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s 21-14 victory in the tiebreaker (Game 3 mini-game) marked the end of the Rizing’s 2013-14 campaign.
Games 1 and 2 were both decided by three points, Hamamatsu winning 70-67 and Fukuoka storming back 64-61 to force the 10-minute tiebreaker on Sunday in Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture.
Now that the dust has settled, Duncan reflected on the season’s finish.
“Unfortunately, we were not able to make the small but big plays in overtime game to advance,” Duncan told The Japan Times on Monday. “Missed free throws. Missed blockouts/rebounds and missed wide open shots hurt us at the end.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but these things happen. In these type of games, small things matter. They turn out to be big things that make a huge difference.”
What was the mood in the Fukuoka locker room after the game?
“I know my team was disappointed and not many words can take away the pain they feel, but we played extremely hard and we made huge improvement from the time I arrived,” Duncan said. “They accepted the challenge to play team basketball and trust each other.
“We pushed ourselves into the playoffs, we went from ninth to fifth and had a chance to finish in third place with the last regular-season games.”
He added: “Then yesterday we were three minutes away from advancing into the next round…”
Rizing forward Reggie Warren was named to the bj-league’s Best Five Team last week and eight-time All-Star guard Cohey Aoki scored the 5,000th point of his iconic bj-league career, joining ex-Tokyo Apache teammate Masashi Joho, the Toyama Grouses’ 2013-14 regular-season MVP, as the only Japanese in the upstart circuit’s history to reach that milestone. Those were two noteworthy accomplishments for the franchise.
Qualifying for the playoffs was no simple feat, either.
Duncan summed up his team’s season this way: “We took some big steps forward and I’m proud of this group. We should not hang our heads. We did the best with what we had.”
Based on the stellar job Duncan did reviving the Rizing, one would expect the team to re-sign him for the 2014-15 season. But nothing is official as of press time.
“I cannot comment on next season yet,” he told The Japan Times. “However, I do see the potential in Fukuoka to build something positive. With our fans’ support, I believe there is potential for so much more.”
Brave Warriors talk: Recognizing that his team made big strides this season, Shinshu bench boss Ryuji Kawai acknowledged that maturation is important during his post-game remarks on Sunday.
After the Warriors’ Game 3 (tiebreaker) defeat sent the Niigata Albirex BB into the conference semifinals, Kawai spoke about the support that has boosted the third-year franchise, which won 33 regular-season games, 16 more victories than in the 2012-13 season
“I would like to thank the sponsors who supported the team and many boosters during the long season,” Kawai said.
He apologized for the team’s playoff series defeat, saying it’s a pity that it ended that way”It is a shame,” Kawai said, adding that he feels the experience will help the team growth for the future.
Weekend best: Shinshu forward Xavier Gibson’s 33-point performance on Saturday against Niigata was the top scoring output in the opening round. … Niigata’s Shuhei Komatsu scored a season-high 22 points in Game 2 on Sunday. The sharpshooter drained 6 of 8 3-pointers.
Mr. Consistency: Akita Northern Happinets power forward Ruben Boykin had a 17-point, nine-rebound, two-assist effort in Game 1 against the Aomori Wat’s on Saturday, followed by a 17-point, 11-rebound, two-assist outing in Game 2.
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