Morioka, Iwate Pref. – Aggressive. Alert. Attentive.
Those were the defining traits that shined through for the Iwate Big Bulls in their playoff opener.
In a teacher’s grade book, the second-seeded Big Bulls would’ve received satisfactory scores — straight As — for their overall effort and execution.
It all added up to this: an 82-59 Game 1 victory over the seventh-seeded Fukushima Firebonds in their bj-league Eastern Conference first-round playoff series at Iwate Prefectural Gymnasium on Saturday night.
Iwate coach Dai Oketani said his team’s 3-point defense on Masaya Karimata and Verdell Jones III, who shot a combined 4-for-14 from long range, was a key factor.
The veteran bench boss also said his team did a solid job defending Jones inside. The Indiana University product was 5 of 11 from inside the arc and had to work hard for his team-high 17 points.
Balanced scoring ignited the Iwate offense throughout the game. Five Big Bulls had double figures in points: Scootie Randall (19), Wayne Arnold and Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge (14 apiece), Shota Onodera (12) and Masato Tsukino (10).
It was the first playoff game in Firebonds history, and the team’s focus came and went. But mostly, they were outplayed by a team that won 20 more games in the regular season.
“Iwate set the pace,” Fukushima coach Hiroki Fujita told reporters afterward.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s rematch, set to tip off at 2 p.m., he added: “We need to play all 40 minutes from start to finish.”
For the Firebonds, who went 21-31 in the regular season, center James Hughes had 10 with nine rebounds. Popular teammate Edward Morris added nine points and 14 rebounds, while Karimata and Shota Kanno supplied eight and seven points, respectively.
The Big Bulls outscored the playoff debutants 44-13 in the second and fourth quarters, including 20-9 in the final frame.
What’s more, Iwate took advantage of its size advantage, out-rebounding the visitors 56-39. Abdullahi Kuso grabbed a game-high 15 boards and Big Bulls teammates Randall and Blackledge had 11 apiece. (Fukushima lost its huge inside presence when 203-cm Terrance Shannon went down with a season-ending knee injury in late February.)
Loud chants of “De-fense, De-fense” energized the home team, which held the Firebonds to under 30 points for more than 21 minutes.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter. The hard-charging Big Bulls had built an insurmountable 18-point lead with just under 7 minutes left.
Oketani, perhaps sensing the completeness of the team’s body of work or simply pleasure in seeing his players’ hard work, emphatically clapped his hands after a Kuso putback made it a 77-53 lead with under 5 minutes left. Then all that remained was the final buzzer to sound.
In a post-game interview, Randall emphasized that a complete team effort paved the way for success. He said the team’s Japanese players “made decisive plays quick.”
“I think they were being really aggressive on the defensive end, even if they were beat they were still coming back on the play,” added Randall, who was named to the league’s 2014-15 Best Five Team on Thursday. “I think in every aspect they came through for us.”
After the game, Tsukino said the team did a commendable job pushing the ball and running its halfcourt and full-court sets.
To do that, Oketani noted, the team’s execution relied on “the mental game” to follow its game plan.
This included quick decisions, but patience within the triangle offense that leads to balanced scoring
Or as Blackledge put it: “You want everybody to contribute scoring, you want the ball to be swinging, you want flow, you want everybody to keep rhythm. So when we get (defensive) stops, we’re capable of rebounding and running and getting out in transition, and that’s when we are at our best.”
Following a dominating second quarter, Iwate didn’t overwhelm Fukushima in the next 10 minutes, but made enough plays to thwart its foe’s comeback hopes.
After Fukushima trimmed the margin to nine, Onodera answered with a baseline 3-pointer to increase the Iwate lead to 52-40 near the midway point of the third quarter. The 20-year-old Onodera then showed maturity beyond his years slicing the defense and attacking the basket to earn a trip to the line. He calmly sank both foul shots and another 3-pointer on his next catch. That made it 57-42, Iwate.
Blackledge, Onodera’s confidant, said he encourages his younger teammate “to let it fly and “always let him shoot.”
With three quarters in the books, Blackledge was closing in on a triple-double with 11 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. His value to the team as a point forward stretches the defense and creates high-percentage scoring chances for his teammates.
In the first quarter, a 10-2 Firebonds spurt — Jones highlighted the run with back-to-back baskets, including a straightaway 3 — put the visitors in front 18-10 before Tsukino sank a 3 from the left wing to end the run. He drilled another long-range shot moments later to cut it to two to the delight of the rowdy, red-clad home supporters.
In a fast-paced opening quarter, the Firebonds led 23-16 at the 1:03 mark.
Moments later, Kuso, a bruising Gonzaga University product, had secured a rebound off a missed Arnold layup and went strong to the hoop for a second-chance scoring opportunity. It worked, Kuso’s shot fell through the net and slashed the margin to 23-18 just before the quarter ended.
Led by Kanno’s two long-range jumpers, the Firebonds sank 5 of 9 3-point attempts in the first quarter.
In the second period, the Big Bulls increased their intensity at both ends of the court, making defensive stops and challenging the Firebonds shooters.
Good floor spacing and quick, accurate passes kept the Iwate offense moving in sync. Not a big surprise; after all, the team went 41-11 in the regular season.
An 18-2 run that consumed most of the quarter put Iwate ahead 36-25.
Fukushima, which made 9 of 18 shots from the floor in the first quarter, converted 2 of 15 over the next 10 minutes and trailed 38-29 at the break.
(1) Northern Happinets 96, (8) Crane Thunders 61
In Akita, the hosts sank 15 of 33 3-pointers in a rout of Gunma.
The Happinets’ Yuto Otsuka canned 5 of 9 3s in a 17-point effort and Shigehiro Taguchi hit 4 of 9 and contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds.
For the Crane Thunders, Andre Murray had 17 points and Daniel Northern Jr. finished with 15 and 14 rebounds.
(6) Brave Warriors 91, (3) 89ers 84
In Sendai, Aomori snapped an eight-game slid and avenged last weekend’s sweep to the 89ers.
The Wat’s won the battle on the boards (57-39).
Aomori’s Paul Williams had 21 points and 13 rebounds and Gyno Pomare added 20 points and 14 rebounds, while Kenichi Takahashi poured in 12 points.
Sendai’s Kejuan Johnson was the team’s high scorer with 22 points, followed by Wendell White’s 21.
The 89ers hurt their cause at the charity stripe, shooting 15-for-27.
(4) Albirex BB 94, (5), Grouses 74
In Niigata, balanced scoring carried the hosts past Toyama.
Five Albirex players had 10 or more points, including mainstay Yuichi Ikdea, who had a 19-point effort, and Thomas Kennedy and Stephan Van Treese, both of whom supplied 18.
Takeshi Mito paced the Grouses with 20 points, Sam Willard scored 15 and Jamelle Horne 13.
Toyama star Masashi Joho is sidelined for the series with pain in his right knee, the team announced earlier in the day. A medial collateral ligament injury is suspected, according to a team-issued news release.
(7) HeatDevils 74, (2) Golden Kings 67
In Okinawa City, defending champion Ryukyu’s offense did not click in the series opener in a stunning loss to Oita.
The Golden Kings were just 6 of 29 from 3-point range.
The HeatDevils, making their first playoff appearance since 2007, turned the tide in the second quarter. Coach Yukinori Suzuki’s team trailed 21-9 after the opening stanza, then responded by outscoring the hosts 22-9 to grab momentum and a 31-30 lead entering halftime.
Kellen Thornton paced Oita with 22 points and pulled down nine rebounds, while ex-Golden King Naoto Takushi chipped in with 12 points, five steals and three assists. Kazuya “J.” Hatano added 10 points and five boards and Todd O’Brien finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks.
Anthony McHenry had 23 points, 13 rebounds, three steals and three blocks for Ryukyu. Draelon Burns, who added 18 points, was the Kings’ only other double-digit scorer. No other Ryukyu player had more than five points.
(3) Phoenix 85, (6) Susanoo Magic 61
In Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture, Hamamatsu jumped out to a 21-7 lead by the end of the first quarter.
Mo Charlo was the Phoenix’s top scorer with 32 points and Olu Ashaolu had 15.
Wesley Witherspoon led Shimane with 17 points and Jun Abe added 13.
(4) Lakestars 93, (5) Evessa 69
In Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, coach Koto Toyama’s squad rang up 56 points in the second half and held the out-of-towners to 26 in that span en route to a runaway victory.
Terrance Woodbury paced Shiga with 23 points and added eight rebounds and four assists in an all-around solid game. Yu Okada pumped in 16 points and Ray Nixon had 11. Team leader Jeff Parmer, meanwhile, posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds in his first playoff appearance for the Lakestars.
Shiga guard Yutaka Yokoe had 10 points and a team-best five assists and Chris Holm hauled in nine rebounds.
The Lakestars dominated on the boards, grabbing 56 rebounds and limiting the Evessa to 35.
Takuya Soma was Osaka’s high scorer with 21 points, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range, and Jonathan Kreft had 13. Gary Hamilton added 12 points, nine rebounds and five assists, while Shota Konno scored 11.