With the best record in the entire league right now, the Kawasaki Brave Thunders have a legit chance to win the inaugural B. League championship.
But that doesn’t mean they’re about to let their guard down. The bitter experience they suffered two years ago taught them an important lesson on that front.
In the 2014-15 season, the Brave Thunders — then called the Toshiba Brave Thunders — were the reigning champions of the now-defunct NBL and in a strong position to defend their title.
But late in the season, they lost two of their core players in guard/forward Cedric Bozeman, who now plays for the Fukushima Firebonds of the B. League second division, and center Nick Fazekas to season-ending injuries. Their starting point guard, Ryusei Shinoyama, had been plagued by a leg injury since the beginning of the year as well. Those three players ended up being unavailable for the postseason, while some of the team’s other players also got banged up late in the campaign.
In the playoffs that year, the Brave Thunders secured a wild-card spot and squared off against the Aisin SeaHorses (now known as the SeaHorses Mikawa) in the best-of-three first round. The weakened Brave Thunders were completely roughed by the SeaHorses, and were swept with 90-58, 88-38 losses.
“Looking ahead, we want to get into the playoffs with our best players,” Brave Thunders head coach Takuya Kita said after a recent game. “It depends on the game and how we are playing, but ideally we want to share playing time among our players so that they don’t get worn out.”
Sharpshooter Naoto Tsuji, who was forced to lead the team in the playoffs two years ago, was injured during Friday’s game against the Toyama Grouses. He is expected to be out for around three weeks.
Kita, whose club has posted a league-leading 44-9 record so far this season, vividly recalls the late-season collapse of two years ago and it makes him even more cautious about how he’ll use his players for the remainder of this season.
“That’s it,” Kita said, when asked if he considers that experience to be a valuable lesson. “That time, Bozeman got hurt (with a shoulder injury) and then it put more burden on Nick. Nick’s playing time increased and he got hurt right before the playoffs (with a fractured foot). So we absolutely know how much it hurts (not to have your core players) and we want to avoid it. We want to get in the playoffs with our best lineup possible and we want to take advantage of what we learned from that experience.”
Fazekas, who went into the 2014-15 season as the reigning league MVP and ended up winning the scoring title with 26.1 points per game, said that Kita and the team has learned its lesson, but not just in terms of sharing playing time in games.
“During the week, with practice and stuff, that’s been cut back a lot, too,” said the American, who leads the league with 27.6 points per game this year. “I think Kita learned in that sense, too.”
Meanwhile, the Central Division club has more depth on its bench now, as players like guard Yuma Fujii, forward Kengo Nomoto and forward/center Yuya Nagayoshi have contributed significant minutes.
“Oh, for sure,” Fazekas said, when asked whether the team now has more players who can chip in. “If you’ve got depth, you continue to have the revolving door. Guys are coming in and giving quality minutes, not having to put the burden on me, Tsuji, Ryusei, all of us.”
Kawasaki forward Ryan Spangler, who missed games over the last two months due to a severe knee injury, has recently returned to the team (he has not played yet). During his absence, Japanese youngsters like Nagayoshi and Yuya Kamata have stepped up to fill the hole, and that has pleased Kita.
Kita said after an April 8 game at home that when Spangler returned to action, he would “have more options” because of the emergence of those Japanese players.
The B. League regular season will end on May 7 and the playoffs will begin on May 13.