Basketball

Brave Thunders ride momentum to wrap up NBL title

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Toshiba Brave Thunders are the last men standing in the NBL.

The Kawasaki-based club showed lots of resilience and energy in winning the final three games of the best-of-five NBL Finals, clinching the title with a 76-70 victory in Game 5 over the Aisin SeaHorses on Sunday before a jam-pack crowd of 3,057 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.

The Brave Thunders captured their fourth league title, going back to the days of the JBL — the NBL’s forerunner — and their second in the last three years.

Both the Brave Thunders and SeaHorses will play in the first division of the newly founded B. League, which tips off this fall.

With 27 seconds left in the game — and with just one second remaining on the shot clock — Naoto Tsuji knocked down a 3-point shot to seal the deal for the Brave Thunders.

“We took consecutive losses and then won consecutive games,” Toshiba head coach Takuya Kita said after the game. “We certainly had the momentum going in today. I was a little worried that our momentum could lead to impatience in our guys today, but we started just fine and my worries were unnecessary.”

Tsuji was named the series’ Most Valuable Player.

As in the previous two games, Toshiba took control with its stingy defense and built a lead that grew as big as 15 points.

The SeaHorses rallied back and got within three points with a Kosuke Kanamaru 3-pointer with just over a minute left in the final quarter. But Tsuji’s miraculous rainbow shot decided the game, and the championship.

American center Nick Fazekas led the game with 21 points and 10 rebounds while Tsuji followed with 20 points and three steals for the Brave Thunders. Big man Brian Butch’s eight-point effort including a pair of 3s in the second half also gave the team a boost.

Toshiba fell to the crafty SeaHorses in the series’ first two games, and many thought that it would quickly end in a sweep.

But with a 30-point performance by Tsuji, the Brave Thunders grabbed a victory in Game 3, and from that point on they seized the momentum for the remainder of the series.

Said Fazekas: “We took one game at a time, and we won the last three. We just took a piece at a time rather than looking at the top of the mountain, and we were able to accomplish it.”

Kita and captain Ryusei Shinoyama said that a long team meeting before Game 3 triggered a big change in the team’s attitude.

“To be honest, our mood wasn’t very good after we took the losses for two games in a row,” Shinoyama said. “But Nick and Madou (Senegalese-Japanese Mamadou Diouf) got us together and encouraged us by saying we would need to just do what we can do. And Tsuji led us with his play (in Game 3), and from then on, we got our energy going. I’m glad that it led to this championship for us. Nick and Madou showed a lot of leadership for us.”

Fazekas revealed how the team meeting went.

“After Game 2, it was like, looking up, how the heck are we going to win three games in a row?” said the 2013-14 season league MVP. “But we kind of gave away in Game 1. That one slipped away from us. (And) we kept telling ourselves, we are better than this team. We know a bit about this team. We know we can score on this team.”

Fazekas added that, having won Games 3 and 4, the Brave Thunders were a totally different bunch of players from what they were in the first two games.

“We had all the confidence in the world going in today,” he said.

What might have hurt Aisin was a right shoulder injury to J.R. Sakuragi, which he said he suffered in Game 1. Of course, he didn’t reveal the injury until the series was over, and he didn’t use it as an excuse.

The former UCLA inside player instead gave credit to the Brave Thunders.

“I think Toshiba’s done some homework,” said Sakuragi, a 39-year-old American-Japanese. “They put us in a pick and roll every time. It was hard for us to figure that out and they did it over, over, over and over again. So I give them credit. They’ve done their homework after the two losses in a row, they said they have to make a change so they made the change. It worked for them.”

Kita, who’s been at the helm for Toshiba since the 2011-12 season, praised his players for their growth both mentally and athletically.

In the 2012-13 JBL Finals against Aisin, the Brave Thunders took a 2-1 lead in the five-game series yet lost the final two games to finish as runners-up.

Kita said the experience his players had earned over the years was what made the difference this time.

“Our players have gotten more experience and have become more resilient to fight against adversity,” he said.

“In the JBL Finals, we played with just energy, and we got rattled in the end, making turnovers, and we lost.”

Tsuji emphasized that it was a championship accomplished as a team, not a group of individuals.

“Before the series, I said that Aisin’s players are great players individually, but we are nothing short of them as a team,” he said. “I think we showed that in this series.”

For the SeaHorses, Makoto Hiejima and Kanamaru had 19 and 15 points, respectively.