When the Kawasaki Brave Thunders and Alvark Tokyo square off in the B. League Championship semifinals on Friday and Saturday, expect the foes to display physical, hard-nosed basketball.
But it’s not just because it’s the postseason, but also because of their longtime rivalry.
Japanese players are humble in general — at least on the surface — and do not verbally say provocative things. But once the Brave Thunders and Alvark step onto the same court, they tend to hit their bodies harder and occasionally get heated up emotionally.
Alvark star Daiki Tanaka said that his team would compete in the semifinal series with the same, tough mindset that it displayed last weekend against the San-en NeoPhoenix in the quarterfinals. But he added that because the Brave Thunders, who captured three championships in the last four years in the JBL and NBL (its successor), have always stood in Tokyo’s way when championships were on the line like in the postseason in the last several years, it gives the Alvark team an even stronger determination to beat them.
“Kawasaki is a very good team. They’ve always competed for the championship in the last many years,” Tanaka said after his team’s practice at its facility in Fuchu, Tokyo, on Wednesday. “And we don’t want to lose to them.
“Personally, I want to avenge the loss we took to them in the All-Japan (Championship).”
In January, the Alvark loss 78-71 in the semifinals of the annual single-elimination tournament.
During the regular season, the teams had only one two-game series (Dec. 23-24), with each club winning once .
Alvark forward Joji Takeuchi said that he does not really know there is a rivalry between the clubs as he is playing in his first season for Tokyo. But for the Alvark, a four-time league champion, Kawasaki is simply a team to beat.
“They’ve continued to accomplished greatly in the past several years,” said Takeuchi, who had played for the Hitachi Sunrockers (now called Sunrockers Shibuya) for nine seasons until last year. “In terms of the overall ability and maturity level, I think they are the best.”
But Takeuchi, a 207-cm national team player, added that his team would not back away from the challenge against Kawasaki.
“In terms of total ability, we are better,” he said.
Tokyo forward Shohei Kikuchi played for the Brave Thunders until he signed with the Alvark for the 2013-14 season. The 32-year-old said that there is a healthy rivalry between the two teams. But come Friday and Saturday, he intends to try to irritate the Brave Thunders with his stingy defense, which is a role he’s always given against an opposing team’s scoring ace.
“I tend to match up with a player that scores a lot,” said Kikuchi, who had been with the Brave Thunders for six years. “But if I give him frustration playing tenacious defense, it works to take some rhythm away from him. And it could take the entire team’s rhythm away. I think, for the opponents, I’m a player they get disgusted by.”
Meanwhile, the Brave Thunders consider the Alvark rivals, too.
“They are a great team,” Kawasaki bench boss Takuya Kita said after his team’s practice in Kawasaki on Thursday. “They are the biggest club in the B. League and it’s going to be a very good series against them.”
Going back to the JBL days, Brave Thunders sharpshooter Naoto Tsuji said that his team has always had tough games against Tokyo, adding that wouldn’t change during the B. League playoffs.
“We’ve always played so closely,” he said. “That’s especially the case when we took on them in (playoff) finals or semifinals.”
Occasionally, the teams’ members have become angry with each other during their games in the past. Tsuji said that the two teams have always played extremely physical games against each other and tried to take advantage of anything they could potentially do. And it’s sometimes led the players of both teams to cross the line.
“I’ve gotten upset when they did a little too much, doing dirty things while the referees weren’t seeing them,” Tsuji said of the Alvark.
Brave Thunders center Nick Fazekas, the league’s scoring champ this season, agreed that there exists a rivalry “a little,” but not too much because the current Alvark team is different from past Alvark squads.
“Obviously, we’ve played some big games against them since I got here,” the American said. “Just the fact that Joji is there, and (Jeff) Gibbs isn’t there any more (he moved to the Tochigi Brex before this season). They’ve changed a couple of different guys, a couple of different big pieces.”
Fazekas added that he expects there will be “some chippiness” in the semifinal series, but that is mainly because the berth for the title game is on the line.
It has been about seven decades since the Brave Thunders and Alvark were established and the two have played so many games, competing for the top of Japanese basketball, and built a rivalry between themselves.
In the first year of the B. League, both have removed their old company brands (Toshiba and Toyota) from their franchise names, but the rivalry stays the same and continues going into the playoff series this weekend.