Like every job, there is work-related pressure in basketball.
How a team copes with the biggest pressure-packed moments is often the difference between winning and losing.
Alvark Tokyo forward Zack Baranski handled that pressure with flying colors on Monday afternoon. In the pivotal third quarter, he had 11 of his 13 points, giving the Alvark a much-needed offensive spark in an 82-76 victory, Tokyo’s second in as many days over the Niigata Albirex BB.
After the game, Baranski, who sank three 3-pointers in the third quarter, spoke about the pressure of his profession, but he said his team focuses on the joy of playing and bringing entertainment to the fans, not overanalyzing the mental challenges of each and every moment.
“We enjoy basketball. We like basketball,” Baranski said. “This (mindset) leads to a good performance.”
For the East Division-leading Alvark (22-5), this approach worked in the series finale.
Tokyo had six players reach double figures in points: Troy Gillenwater (18), Baranski, Daiki Tanaka (12), Diante Garrett and Shohei Kikuchi (11 apiece) and Joji Takeuchi (10).
Baranski, who entered the series averaging 9.2 points per game, had a quiet first half. He missed two 3-pointers and had two points on free throws.
Then, in the heat of the game, he heated up, scoring points in a hurry.
“The first half wasn’t good,” Baranski said of his performance. “In the second half, it went very well.”
Looking at the way the intense, physical game played out, Kikuchi said his team’s passing (17 assists to Niigata’s 11) was a key factor.
While Tokyo’s passing was often on target, coach Takumi Ito said he was pleased that his team was patient on offense, moved the ball around and “lots of passes led to assists.”
“We shared the ball,” he said.
Tanaka was the key catalyst, dishing out seven assists. Garrett had four assists.
Both teams finished with 36 rebounds, and the free-throw shooting totals were similar (Tokyo: 15-for-23; Niigata (13-for-17).
The Alvark’s relaxed demeanor paid off on long-range shots. In addition to Baranski’s 3-for-6 effort, Gillenwater canned 2 of 5 and Kikuchi drained 2 of 3 as part of Tokyo’s 9-for-25 — not a great percentage, but baskets that often came at key moments of the game.
Niigata, guarded tightly on the perimeter, was held to 3-for-21 shooting from beyond the arc.
There were six ties — 61-61, 63-63, 65-65, 67-67, 69-69 and 71-71, the last courtesy of Albirex big man Davante Gardner’s driving layup with 3:16 left — in the fourth quarter.
But to their credit, the Alvark, as instructed by Ito at halftime, committed to playing tenacious defense down the stretch to secure the victory.
Speaking to reporters after the game, Ito said he emphasized two adjustments for his team: tighter defense in the paint and on pick-and-rolls.
Gardner, who scored a game-best 30 points and grabbed nine rebounds, only took two shots from the field in the final period.
And though he played an excellent game, Gardner had a quiet fourth quarter (five points).
Garrett put the Alvark in the lead for good on a three-point play, converting a layup and a free throw with 3:01 remaining. That made it 74-71.
Niigata (15-14) pulled within 74-73 on a pair of Clint Chapman free throws. The Albirex’s starting power forward had eight of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. He also had six rebounds and a team-high two steals.
Gillenwater then made the first of two free throws, and Gardner repeated what his opponent did at the other end of the court, and it was still a one-point game (75-74) with 2:09 left.
Moments later, Kikuchi canned a big 3 from the left corner to stretch the Alvark lead to 78-74.
And after Gardner hit two free throws to make it a two-point game again, Takeuchi sank a long jumper from the right side to make it a two-possession game with 49 seconds remaining.
Tanaka accounted for the game’s final points at the charity stripe, calmly converting two shots with 18.1 ticks on the game clock.
When it was over, Ito spoke on the court, addressing fans and the media. He said it was “a super start for us.”
After Gardner buried a jumper from the top of the key to pull his team within 10-8 near the midway point of the opening quarter, the Alvark used a 9-2 spurt to take their biggest lead of the contest. During the run, Tanaka, a fan favorite, made a 3-pointer, a layup and a 2-point jump shot.
Ito didn’t need to elaborate on what happened next, though. His team lost its focus and the Albirex capitalized.
Niigata coach Kazuhiro Shoji’s squad closed out the first quarter on an 11-0 run, grabbing a 21-19 lead on Gardner’s high-arching bank shot.
The teams traded baskets for much of the second quarter.
The Alvark trailed 40-46 at halftime, when Ito gave his team the aforementioned pep talk about defense.
Sato, a skilled scorer pulling up for jumpers and an accomplished stop-and-pop shooter during the bj-league era, lit up the scoreboard with 10 third-quarter points. One of his long-range jumpers put Niigata in front 51-46 at the 4:57 mark. Sato finished with 20 points, including 7-for-11 from inside the arc.
But Tokyo kept its poise and embarked on a 15-4 run to take a 61-55 lead late in the third quarter.
That set the stage for the back-and-forth final stanza.
Niigata floor leader Kei Igarashi struggled with his shot, going 0-for-6 from 3-point range, and his three points all came at the free-throw line. He doled out eight assists.
After the game, Shoji noted that Takeuchi, a longtime Japan national team post player, made a profound impact in the paint for Tokyo.
“He did a strong job today,” Shoji said. “(In the B. League), he’s one of the top players at his position.”
Shoji said Tokyo was the better team on Monday in the open court, lamenting the Alvark’s 10-0 advantage in fast-break points.
B-Corsairs 83, Hannaryz 75
In Yokohama, Takuya Kawamura sank 5 of 6 3-point shots in a 20-point performance and Keni Yamada poured in 15 points as the hosts defeated Kyoto in the series opener.
Jeff Parmer finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and three assists for Yokohama (10-18). Ken Takeda added 10 points and Jason Washburn scored eight.
The B-Corsairs, who led 58-44 after three quarters, knocked down 10 of 20 attempts from 3-point range.
Yokohama outrebounded the visitors 43-34.
Kevin Kotzur paced the Hannaryz (13-15) with 21 points, 15 rebounds and four assists. Lawrence Hill scored 12 points, Koki Yabuuchi had 11 and Sunao Murakami chipped in with eight.
The hosts made 17 of 23 foul shots; Kyoto was 5-for-9.
Sunday rewind: The Alvark Tokyo earned a 77-68 victory over the Niigata Albirex BB on New Year’s Day at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
Diante Garrett topped the scoring charts for Tokyo, finishing with 16 points (including 8 of 9 at the foul line). Troy Gillenwater followed with 14 points, Daiki Tanaka scored 12 and Shohei Kikuchi 10. Joji Takeuchi contributed seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks on a day when he had quiet four-point output.
Davante Gardner was the leading scorer (20 points on 7-for-10 shooting) for Niigata. Clint Chapman had 17 points and 11 boards and Shunki Hatakeyama added 12 points.