The inaugural B. League championship pits two teams with established stars, deep benches, up-and-coming players, accomplished coaches and growing fan bases.
What’s more, Saturday afternoon’s Kawasaki Brave Thunders-Tochigi Brex showdown presents a clash of styles.
The top-seeded Brave Thunders were the league’s top offense (84.3 points per game) during the regular season, led the 18-team top flight in field-goal shooting percentage (48.4) and were No. 1 in assists (17.7 per game). In other words, coach Takuya Kita’s club is a fine-tuned offensive machine, not unlike a Mercedes zooming along on the German Autobahn.
On the other hand, the second-seeded Brex were the best defensive club (69.8 ppg) and top rebounding squad (43.5). Coach Tom Wisman’s team is scrappy and blue collar, but will fill the highlight reel, too, with jaw-dropping plays from time to time.
Which style will prevail in the title match, which is scheduled to tip off at 3:10 p.m. at Yoyogi National Gymnasium?
A lower scoring game figures to benefit the Brex, who went 46-14 during the regular season.
A run-and-gun duel looks to be the best strategy for the Brave Thunders, who had a league-best 49-11 record.
The Brex haven’t forgotten last season’s NBL semifinal series defeat to the Brave Thunders, according to Wisman.
“As for Kawasaki, I’m really looking forward to the challenge,” Wisman told The Japan Times.
He added: “We have had the toughest road to this point, so it’s only right that we face them for the championship.”
Meanwhile, league officials, of course, are delighted that Brex point guard Yuta Tabuse, the most recognizable face in Japan pro basketball and the only Japanese to play in the NBA, will be a part of the title weekend festivities.
About the head coaches
Brave Thunders coach Takuya Kita has a long history with the franchise formerly known by its corporate sponsor’s name, starting out as a player in 1995 until 2008. During the JBL days, he then served as Toshiba’s assistant coach from 2008-11 before taking over as the floor boss.
Kita, who turns 45 on Monday, guided the Brave Thunders to NBL titles in the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons. He hails from Ishikawa Prefecture.
Observing Kita guide his team throughout the season, as well as during timeouts and calling plays, he exudes confidence in his players, puts them in positions to utilize their strengths and runs offensive and defensive sets that fit the team’s personnel. For Kita, it all starts with league scoring king Nick Fazekas (27.1 ppg), a former NBA big man whose offensive skill set and consistency are equally impressive.
Speaking after Kawasaki secured its place in the title match last Saturday evening, Kita didn’t mince his words when he summed up the team’s latest victory. And indeed, he could have expanded his analysis to cite the entire season.
“Today,” he told reporters, “we played at a high level.”
Fazekas, the leading MVP candidate, summed up the team’s appearance in the final this way: “That’s the goal we set out for to start the season.
Kita’s counterpart, Wisman, an Illinois native, has coached overseas for decades. His younger brother Jim was a guard on the Indiana Hoosiers’ 32-0 team that won the 1976 NCAA Tournament under coaching legend Bob Knight.
So how did the Brave Thunders and Brex fare against each other during the regular season?
Two evenly matched teams each won once.
They met Jan. 21 and 22 in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture. The Brex took the opener 72-60, then lost the rematch 79-70. Fazekas was held to 21 points, a low total for him, in the first game before scoring 35 in the second contest.
To reach the title game, both the Brave Thunders and the Brex were forced to play Game 3 tiebreakers in their respective series against the Alvark Tokyo and SeaHorses Mikawa last weekend.
That 10-minute extra period, aka a mini-game, was a new wrinkle in the playoff format for the former NBL clubs, who experienced this relic of the bj-league playbook for the first time.
In the Tochigi-Mikawa series, the SeaHorses won Game 2 65-63, then fell 14-12 in the tiebreaker; Tokyo beat Kawasaki 78-77, then lost 26-18 in the mini-game.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Wisman reflected on the Brex’s path to the championship game.
“It was a very hard-earned win,” he noted late Sunday night after his club topped Mikawa, calling the SeaHorses “very, very tough.”
“So in that regard it is a very satisfying win. I feel we overcame them at near or very near to their best.”
He added: “I wasn’t a fan of the 10-minute third game, but maybe it has legs as both Kawasaki-Tokyo and our game today was pretty exciting from a fan point of view.”
From Wisman’s perspective, this is what it took to emerge victorious in the mini-game: “The difference was really down to who had the strongest will or desire and theirs was very high. We have a team that is full of heart and that’s basically what it came down to.”
The Brex outscored the visitors 25-8 in the fourth quarter in Game 2, but came up just short. That said, Wisman called it a positive sign entering the tiebreaker on their home court.
“Our bench players staged an amazing comeback in the fourth quarter, which gave us an opportunity to win in regulation and certainly helped us in the 10-minute extra game,” he said,” which I was already preparing for.”
The Brex identity
In a season that began in late September, Tochigi’s cohesiveness is at the core of its foundation. That was evident in the high-pressure mini-game and the same is true of the 60 regular-season contests that were staged before the playoffs began.
In a nutshell, the mini-game helped define who the Brex have become this season.
“It was really a team win in which everyone contributed,” Wisman said. “I’m very proud of our players and staff.”
Elaborating on the makeup of the squad, Wisman had this to say: “Veteran leadership has been paramount to what we have accomplished at this point, and will be even more critical this week. Of course that is spearheaded by Tabuse, but Jeff (Gibbs), Ryan (Rossiter), Tommy (Brenton), Kosuke (Takeuchi) and Furu (Takatoshi Furukawa) are also seasoned veterans in Japan.
“Everything we do is based on team and everyone has contributed in many different ways this season. The most recent cases were our bench players — i.e. (Naoya) Kumagai, (Hironori) Watanabe, (Yutaro) Suda and Tommy stepping up in the fourth quarter on Sunday, and Ryan demanding the ball in our last timeout before hitting the game winner.”
The 36-year-old Gibbs missed five games late in the season due to a knee injury before returning before the team’s postseason run. Versatile and hard-nosed are two characteristics that describe the way Gibbs plays. The 188-cm inside stalwart, who skies for rebounds against much bigger foes, often spoken about basing his game on Charles Barkley’s and also having a football player’s mentality out there on the court.
Indeed, NCAA Division III Otterbein (Ohio) University is hardly at the top of anyone’s who’s who list of schools for basketball stars, but Gibbs has carved out a niche in Japan since 2010, years after attending the Ohio school.
“Having Jeff back healthy has made our playoff run possible — couldn’t have survived without him — but also covering for him when he was out and being to rest (the 36-year-old) Tabuse while still winning the Eastern Conference and securing home court for both the quarterfinals and semifinals has been key,” Wisman said.
While reaching the title game is a big deal for the Brex and their fans, Wisman is focused on what he refers to as finishing the job against the Brave Thunders.
“It has been fun, but not yet satisfying,” he said. “Still one more job to do.”
In his second stint as the Brex coach, the well-traveled 68-year-old Wisman, whose coaching career has included stops in England, Qatar, Kuwait, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, has a chance to capture a second league crown with Tochigi. He guided the team to the 2009-10 JBL championship.
Wisman began coaching overseas in 1973 at Crystal Palace in England. His national team coaching stints have included gigs with Japan, England, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Qatar.
A growing legacy
Without much fanfare, Nishinomiya Storks guard Draelon Burns added another chapter to his remarkable resume in Japan over the past five seasons.
Helping lead the Storks to the B2 title last Saturday against the Shimane Susanoo Magic, Burns became a four-time title winner in Japan, doing so with three franchise in two different leagues.
He was the key pickup for Nishinomiya as it transformed from a solid team under first-year sideline supervisor Kensaku Tennichi into a championship-quality team.
Burns’ arrival in a Storks uniform made that possible.
Now, he’s relishing the satisfaction of another title after playing starring roles for the bj-league’s Yokohama B-Corsairs during their 2012-13 championship run and on the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ last two title-winning clubs in 2013-14 and 2015-16.
The DePaul University product entered the 2016-17 season as a free agent. Ryukyu’s loss became Nishinomiya’s big gain.
“This one means so much because I felt like people thought I wouldn’t be just as effective as I was in the bj-league,” Burns told The Japan Times.
What was the defining trait of the Storks’ season, when they captured the B2 Central Division title with a 43-17 record?
“The key was all of us believing in each other,” Burns said, “and believing we can beat any team in our league.
The team’s crowning achievement was a resounding 78-53 triumph over the Susanoo Magic, who were 51-9 during the regular season. The Storks outscored their foe 24-6 in the pivotal third quarter.
“The key in the title game was our defense, then on top of that our ability to score the ball,” said Burns, who had 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals in the title match. “We have so many weapons. So that’s another thing that made us tough to beat.”
Looking back on the playoff finale, Burns described it as a “battle until midway through the third quarter, where we had a pretty big lead.”
“But it was pretty nerve-wracking for me because I wanted it so bad,” he admitted.
Asked if his contributions on the aforementioned four championship-winning teams have cemented his legacy as one of the greats of the game in Japan over the past decade, Burns didn’t hesitate to offer his perspective.
“I think it says a lot,” Burns commented. “I’m a winner. I’m a leader. I’m a good teammate. A very coachable player and a hard worker, which helps leads to great teams winning championships.
“Yes,” he added, “I believe I should be on that list of some of the best players to come here and leave their mark — high on that list, I might add.”