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Brave Thunders too strong for Alvark in Game 1 of semifinals

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Staff Writer

Overcoming a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter against any foe is a big challenge.

To do so in the final 10 minutes against a team that won 49 of 60 regular-season games was the even greater challenge the Alvark Tokyo faced in Game 1 of a B. League Championship semifinal series against the Kawasaki Brave Thunders on Friday night at Todoroki Arena.

The Alvark were persistent and energetic down the stretch, but fell short, simply running out of time and making too few shots in an 84-76 defeat.

Kawasaki star big man Nick Fazekas, who scored 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, called it “a tough win today,” as a warm applause from many of the 2,869 spectators greeted his words.

“But we are happy to get it,” he added. “We just came out today to win. . . . The win, that’s what’s important.”

Brave Thunders bench boss Takuya Kita, who guided his club to the final NBL championship in the 2015-16 campaign, expressed satisfaction with the hosts’ series-opening victory.

“We are pleased that we took the first game of the series,” Kita said after the game.

“We let them score out of our own turnovers at the beginning. I think we had five or six turnovers in the first quarter and we let them run and make layups. But we played patiently and played better in the second and third quarters.”

During the middle two quarters, Kawasaki outscored Tokyo 46-30.

“Especially in the second quarter, we held them to just four points until late in it,” Kita told reporters. “Our second unit did a great job. We had some turnovers and it led them to cut the deficit (toward the end).”

The Brave Thunders finished with 14 turnovers; the Alvark had 13.

With the win in the books, Kita insisted he won’t dwell on the Game 1 statistics.

“Anyway, we are focusing on tomorrow’s game,” Kita said. “We should forget today’s result and prepare well for tomorrow.”

Kita’s counterpart, Tokyo coach Takuma Ito, acknowledged that the Brave Thunders were the more consistent team.

“I have an impression that Kawasaki played better throughout the game,” Ito said, before analyzing the play of his club when the two-import rule and one-import quota were in place.

He added: “When we had two imports, we were fine, but when we had one, we struggled to score points.”

Diante Garrett pulled fourth-seeded Tokyo to within 72-62 on a layup with about 5 minutes to play in the final stanza.

After Ryan Spangler made the first of two free throws for the hosts, Tokyo forward Joji Taeuchi canned a 3 from the left corner and Garrett’s basket-and-one cut it to 73-67 with 4:11 left.

For top-seeded Kawasaki, Naoto Tsuji made a clutch 3 from the right side with around 2 minutes remaining. Moments later, teammate Spangler’s tip-in putback gave the hosts an 82-71 lead.

Tokyo big man Trent Plaisted’s inside hoop and Takeki Shonaka’s 3 trimmed the lead to 82-76.

The Alvark wouldn’t get any closer the rest of the way.

The bottom line: It came down the shooting numbers. The hosts made 52.4 percent of their shots from the field; the Alvark converted 42.4.

Besides making more timely baskets, the Brave Thunders outscored the Alvark 36-28 in the paint.

Ryusei Shinoyama paced the Kawasaki scoring attack with 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range. Yuma Fujii had 10 points and Spangler contributed eight points and nine boards, while Takumi Hasegawa sparked the club with four assists and four steals in 27-plus minutes.

Kita, for one, was impressed with Shinoyama’s lights-out shooting.

“He’s been great,” the coach said. “He made his 3s at a high percentage. It’s been his weakness, but he’s now making them at better percentage, and it makes the opponents unable to play in the same way defensively. He’s been great.”

Indeed, it’s no secret that the 28-year-old Shinoyama is playing with confidence and at a high level for the Brave Thunders.

Just ask Ito.

“Shinoyama’s been playing well in the playoffs,” Ito said. “He’s actually been playing well even before the playoffs. Kawasaki’s got a lot of guys that can score, namely Fazekas and Tsuji.”

Since the start of the playoffs, including last week’s series against the Sunrockers Shibuya, Shinoyama is 10 of 13 on 3s and 14-for-20 from inside the arc.

“Personally, my shooting touch has been great since the quarterfinals,” said Shinoyama. “We were a little stiff and made some errors early on, but including our bench players, we kept our focus throughout the game.

“We played in a great atmosphere today. But we are going to have to (do it again) tomorrow. It comes down to tomorrow. We are going to have to reset our minds and do it again.”

For Tokyo, Garrett had a team-high 23 points and five assists with two steals. Daiki Tanaka added 14 points, including 3 of 6 on 3s, with a game-best five steals. Jeff Ayres scored 10 points and Shonaka finished with 10. Takeuchi had eight points and six rebounds.

Game 2 is scheduled for a 5:05 p.m. tipoff on Saturday at the same arena. If Tokyo wins the rematch, a 10-minute mini-game tiebreaker will be staged after Game 2 to determine which club will meet the Tochigi Brex-SeaHorses Mikawa semifinal series winner in the May 27 title match at Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

“Today was a good game,” said Garrett, a former Iowa State guard. “I thought both teams came out and battled. They came out and they executed a little bit better than us. Towards the end we made a good run to come back into the game. They just made some shots towards the end.”

Looking ahead to Saturday’s rematch, Garrett had this to say: “We’re going to watch some film and see what we did wrong and come back tomorrow and be better.”

A Hasegawa 3-pointer from the right baseline gave Kawasaki a 50-40 lead with nearly two-and-a-half minutes completed in the third quarter.

Tokyo responded with a strong burst of scoring. A one-man scoring run. Tanaka nailed a jumper, a 3-pointer from the left elbow and, following a Brave Thunders turnover, a layup, slashing the lead to 50-47.

But Shinoyama stopped the 7-0 run with a basket in the lane. And on Kawasaki’s next offensive sequence, he swished a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 55-47 near the midway point of the third quarter.

Veteran big man Mamadou Diouf converted a layup after making a steal and teammate Shinoyama knocked down a straight-away 3 to make it 60-57.

Ignited by efficient scoring and tight on-the-ball defense, the Brave Thunders took a commanding 65-52 advantage into the fourth quarter.

Even so, Garrett said he and his teammates never lost faith in their chances of rallying for a victory.

“We just stuck with our same game plan, stuck with what coach wanted us to do, and that put us back into the game a little bit,” Garrett noted, adding that the focal point of the game plan was defense.

He went on: “We really wanted to work on our defense. They have a great squad on offense and they have multiple options. Fazekas is a great scorer, so we mainly focused on our defense and let our offense come to us.”

In a quick-paced first quarter, the hosts trailed 16-11 after a Garrett left-handed layup. Kawasaki called a timeout after the play with 4:41 to play in the quarter.

Fazekas rejected a Shohei Kikuchi layup attempt near the 2:30 mark of the period, and Spangler drove to the basket at the other end, but was called for an offensive foul.

Tokyo led 22-19 after one quarter. Garrett had eight points in the opening stanza and Shonaka chipped in with seven. Fazekas led all players with nine points in the opening period. He also was first in rebounds (five) and blocks (two).

The Brave Thunders used back-to-back layups from Diouf and Spangler to pull ahead 23-22 early in the second period.

It was part of a game-best 12-0 spurt that gave the hosts a 35-23 lead.

At the same time, Tokyo’s offense went cold, and the Alvark didn’t make their first second-quarter field goal until Garrett’s 3 with 3:08 to play in the half. Tokyo trailed 35-26 at that point.

Fazekas made an old-fashioned three-point play and Fujii buried a jumper to increased the hosts’ lead to 40-26. Following an Alvark timeout with 2:07 before halftime, Tanaka sank a 3 from the left wing, then Shinoyama answered with a 3 for the Brave Thunders.

On the next Tokyo trip down the court, Garrett fed the ball to Tanaka in almost the exact same spot and he canned another 3.

Zack Baranski drained a 3, cutting the lead to 43-35.

Fazekas’ inside shot missed its target on the next Kawasaki possession.

After he dribbled, dribbled and dribbled some more to set up the final Tokyo shot before intermission, Garrett’s next shot, a buzzer-beating jumper, pulled Tokyo within 43-37 just before the half ended.

It was an 8-0 run to close out the half for the Alvark.

First-half statistics of note: Hasegawa had four assists, two steals and zero turnovers; the Brave Thunders shot 58.8 percent from the field and held the visitors to 44.1.

Notes: The teams’ last regular-season showdown was on Christmas Eve, when the Alvark ended the Brave Thunders’ 15-game winning streak. Kawasaki’s payback, ousting Tokyo in the semifinals of the All-Japan Men’s Basketball Championship (aka the Emperor’s Cup) in early January. … Foundation for success: Fazekas led the B. League in scoring (27.1 points per game), and fellow NBA alum Garrett led the Alvark in the same category (18.1).

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.