Basketball

Aisin, Toshiba renew storied rivalry in NBL Finals

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Aisin SeaHorses and Toshiba Brave Thunders squared off against each other during the final Japan Basketball League Finals to wrap up the 2012-13 season.

Aisin edged Toshiba, winning the series 3-2.

During this regular season, the two met five times.

Toshiba won 3-2.

Expect cutthroat battles when the two clubs take the floor in the NBL Finals, which tip off on Saturday. Game 1 is set for a 3 p.m. start.

It will be the final time the Finals are contested in the NBL as the B. League will start next fall.

The two advanced to the championship series after knocking off the top two seeds this postseason. The SeaHorses (35-18 in the regular season) ousted the No. 1 seed Toyota Alvark in the playoff semifinals, while the Brave Thunders (37-17) defeated the Link Tochigi Brex, who had the second-best record this year, in the same round.

In five head-to-head regular-season contests, Toshiba, the No. 3 seed, won the final three games, which were played in March.

Some might think that Aisin, the reigning league champion and winner of January’s All-Japan Championship, has the edge against the Brave Thunders. In addition, some fans believe that they beat Link Tochigi because the Brex were without regular-season MVP Ryan Rossiter for the decisive third game in their semifinal series.

But the Brave Thunders rejected that notion. Shooting guard Naoto Tsuji doesn’t think that the Kawasaki-based club can compete on par with the SeaHorses.

“Sure, they have three national team-class players, plus they have strong players inside,” Tsuji said at Ota City General Gymnasium, the site for the championship series’ first three games, on Friday. “But our strength is to play as a team. We have our sixth, seventh and eighth guys that come off the bench and contribute.”

Said center Nick Fazekas: “We’re always going to be ready to rock and roll. We like our chances. We definitely think we have a chance to win.

“(We are) just two different but similar teams. They got the bigs, we shoot better. It’s kind of different styles to an extent, but I don’t think they got the advantage.”

Meanwhile, both Tsuji and Fazekas said that they have a chip on their shoulder because of their team’s defeat in the 2012-13 JBL Finals.

“We talked about it, we talked about it this week in practice,” said Fazekas, who made his Japan debut that season. “We just came up short, we were up 2-1 and we lost two straight.”

Fazekas insisted that the Brave Thunders “all of a sudden” advanced to the Finals one year after they finished dead last the previous season, but they are not the same team this time.

“Now it’s not (uncharted) territory for us anymore,” said Fazekas, who was named the league MVP in the NBL’s inaugural season two years ago. “We’ve been to the Final(s), we know how it’s like, we know how to win. So the chip on the shoulder is right because we would like to get revenge.”

Tsuji, a Japan national team sharpshooter, was a rookie during the 2012-13 season. Even so, he wants to avenge the disappointment of losing the title series to the SeaHorses.

“In myself, it means even more to become a champion by defeating Aisin,” Tsuji said. “(But) Aisin has got great players everywhere and doesn’t have a specific weakness. We know they are a very good basketball team.

Meanwhile, the SeaHorses, a six-time champion in Japan’s top men’s circuit, never underestimate anyone. Veteran center J.R. Sakuragi said that the Brave Thunder are always a dangerous foe and his team wouldn’t take them lightly.

“It’s a special thing to be in the Finals, we don’t take it for granted,” the former UCLA player said.

Sakuragi noted that the recent history of the SeaHorses defeating Toshiba in the JBL Finals and last year’s playoffs wouldn’t impact this upcoming showdown.

“You can never depend on the history of the results, because the game changes, the game is different every single time,” Sakuragi said. “Sometimes you have to make adjustments in the game. So we don’t really look at it, because anyone could have a good shooting touch that day, or you could have a bad shooting touch. It all depends on the day.”

The Finals are a best-of-five series. If necessary, the final two games will be held at Yoyogi National Gymnasium the following weekend.