Brave Thunders cap dominant season with NBL championship

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

They had the best record during the regular season (46-8), produced the league’s best player, and swept through the conference finals. Now they’ve added one last dominating victory in the championship round.

It’s just been that kind of a year for the Toshiba Brave Thunders.

Regular season MVP and scoring champion Nick Fazekas posted 25 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots as the Brave Thunders routed the Wakayama Trians 78-61 in Game 3 of the NBL Finals at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 on Saturday.

Toshiba swept the Kansai team to win its first championship trophy in the NBL, which began play this season as the successor to the JBL.

It was the first league championship for Toshiba in nine years, and the third overall in club history. The Brave Thunders triumphed in January’s All-Japan Championship as well.

“We were able to win it all after playing a long season, and I’m so happy about it,” said head coach Takuya Kita. “Our Toshiba players play so hard and (give) a lot of effort, and I tip my hat to them.”

The Brave Thunders’ sharp-shooting guard Naoto Tsuji, who averaged 21.0 points, was named Finals MVP. Tsuji, who racked up 20 points in Game 3, went 12-for-24 from behind the 3-point line in the series.

Wakayama entered the game without any import players, as both Michael Parker and Rick Rickert were sidelined with leg injuries, and the Brave Thunders took advantage from the beginning. The Kawasaki-based club built a 28-4 lead early and led by as many as 32 in the third quarter.

Wakayama, a first-year pro team previously owned by Panasonic in the JBL, rallied in the final quarter, but it was little too late.

For the import-less Trians, Takuya Kawamura and Fumihiko Aono, both of whom stayed on the floor for the entire 40 minutes, led the team with 16 points and 15 points, respectively. Aono, a center, recorded 13 rebounds as well.

It was a long-cherished league title for the Brave Thunders.

Two years ago, they landed Kita as their new bench boss and finished dead last in the eight-team JBL. They improved a great deal after acquiring Fazekas and Tsuji and advanced to the JBL Finals last season. They were stopped just short of winning the title and were eliminated by the Aisin SeaHorses in the series’ decisive fifth game.

“In my first year, we weren’t able to come up with a good result, and it gave our players tough times,” Kita said. “So it feels great that we’ve achieved this.”

Toshiba came into the 2013-14 season, having strengthened its roster by adding a few key players, including versatile American Cedrick Bozeman. Plus, the team focused on upgrading its defense to play consistently throughout the year. It all paid off, and the team captured the NBL title in almost dominant fashion.

“It’s been a successful year for us,” said Fazekas, who led the league with 26.4 points in the regular season. “We’ve achieved every goal we’ve set. We’ve done everything for us, so it’s a total success for us. We’re looking forward to next year.”

Meanwhile, the Trians, the Western Conference champions with a 41-13 record, weren’t thought of as highly as the Brave Thunders before the season, but still managed to make it all the way to the finals.

But what awaited them there was a severe dose of reality after having to play with only their Japanese players. The Trians lost Parker in Game 1, then lost Rickert for Saturday’s game.

“Because we thought our other guys had to score, we had to play with different styles and it disrupted our rhythm,” Wakayama point guard Hiroyuki Kinoshita said. “And we knew that we wouldn’t be able to grab rebounds, so we were hesitant about our shooting, too.”

Trians head coach Zeljko Pavlicevic said that he had a little hope that Rickert would be in action in Game 3, but the 211-cm player couldn’t get out onto the court.

“It’s just unfortunate that it happened to us in the championship series,” said the 63-year-old Pavlicevic, a former Japan men’s national team coach. “This is the first experience for me to be involved in a situation like this in my long coaching career.”

Wakayama’s Japanese ace Kawamura said, however, that the team never abandoned the fight. He actually told his teammates to play zone defense by his own judgment.

“We had to take any possible chance we could,” Kawamura said. “I told them that I would take the responsibility even if it wouldn’t work.

“And no matter what kind of outcome we’d get, it would have been a great experience for all of us to play in this stage.”

Despite of the defeat, Kawamura insisted that it was a successful year for the Trians.

“I don’t think that anybody thought that we’d be here (before the season), so I want people to give us some credit,” said Kawamura, who won a JBL title with the Link Tochigi Brex. “We struggled early on, but developed into a better team by discussing with each other. It was a fun season and it was a great year for a first-year team.”