A week ago, the Toshiba Brave Thunders looked vulnerable and were on the verge of elimination from the postseason.
Right now, they are looking more like a team with a spark.
Center Nick Fazekas scored 30 points and his teammates gave all-out effort at both ends of the floor as the Brave Thunders routed the Aisin SeaHorses 82-60 in Game 4 of the NBL Finals on Saturday at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
The Brave Thunders were overwhelmed and took losses in the series’ first two games, but have now tied the best-of-five series with their second straight win.
The decisive fifth game, which will determine the NBL’s final champions, will tip off at 3 p.m. at the same venue on Sunday.
“With our backs against the wall, our players displayed great plays, and they played great defense, too. We held (Aisin) to four points in the second quarter and our team defense completely worked,” Toshiba head coach Takuya Kita said after the game. “Now the next game will be the final game, and I’m excited about it.”
Toshiba actually had a little trouble early on as its Japanese ace Naoto Tsuji, who was the hero in the team’s 88-73 win in Monday’s Game 3, committed a pair of fouls just minutes into the game and was benched for the majority of the first half.
The Brave Thunders nonetheless managed to take the pace with their ball-hawking defense while their unsung players like guards Yuma Fujii and Yasuhiro Yamashita and forward Takumi Hasegawa stepped up to make up for Tsuji’s absence from the floor.
Toshiba’s defense held the SeaHorses to just four points in the second quarter and 25 in the first half, and the Brave Thunders took a 40-25 lead into intermission.
Fujii, Yamashita and Hasegawa scored eight, four and 10 points, respectively, to give a boost for the Kawasaki-based club, which captured the NBL title two years ago.
Tsuji ended up playing for only 14 minutes, 48 seconds in the game, while scoring seven points. Yet Toshiba still went 8-for-22 from behind the 3-point arc.
Aisin tried to start a rally in the second half, but the Brave Thunders kept their concentration, offensively and defensively, to not let momentum slip away.
The Brave Thunders had 15 steals, five of them from Fazekas and four from Yamashita. Their aggressive defensive effort forced 18 turnovers from Aisin as well (Toshiba had just eight).
Toshiba came through underneath the basket, too. It was outscored 122-54 in the paint in the first three games in the series. Game 4 was a different story as it racked up 36 points in the area versus Aisin’s 38.
Kita said that Tsuji’s foul trouble wound up working favorably for his Brave Thunders team because it made the SeaHorses slack off a little bit.
“Because of how we played in Game 3, I think they presumed that we would come with Nick and Tsuji,” Kita said. “But the whole thing changed with Tsuji’s fouls. Then we tried to move the ball around to Nick and our other guys like Fujii, Hasegawa, (Ryusei) Shinoyama and Yamashita scored some points for us. And I think it made it more difficult (for the SeaHorses) to decide who to defend.”
Kita was right. Aisin head coach Kimikazu Suzuki admitted it.
“We got off fine earlier in the game, but we put our guards off after Tsuji’s fouls,” Suzuki said. “We had too many turnovers, which allowed them to score off fast breaks. We played our worst ball in this playoff finals.”
Said SeaHorses captain and point guard Ryoma Hashimoto: “We didn’t play our ball like Aisin. We’re going back in there tomorrow again and play as the challengers.”
Kita used all his 12 men on the team and played 10 players for more than five minutes.
Meanwhile, Fazekas said that the way his team performed offensively made it even more of a valuable victory.
“When we get 80, I like our chances,” the 210-cm American said. “Going in tomorrow, I just hope that we can get out and get some easy basket to get the momentum back.”
For the SeaHorses, Gavin Edwards and Isaac Butts had 14 points apiece. They struggled shooting long jumpers , making a combined 4 of 22 on 3-pointers.