An exciting new era for pro basketball in Japan produced an appropriate final chapter to close out its inaugural season on Saturday afternoon.
The first B. League Championship final delivered a tight duel between the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, last season’s NBL champion, and the Tochigi Brex.
Over the final several minutes, the second-seeded Brex were the better team, more efficient and more consistent, which led to their 85-79 victory at Yoyogi National Gymnasium before an announced crowd of 10,144.
Hustle, hard work and few costly miscues were all hallmarks of Tochigi’s run to the title, including in the championship finale, a game that featured no double-digit leads, but had 14 lead changes, nine ties and 94 points in the paint (52 for Kawasaki).
Brex players celebrated on the court seconds after the game ended, with captain Yuta Tabuse and Ryan Rossiter embracing strongly.
Indeed, it was symbolic of the special bond that defines their team.
The glitter and glamour of the trophy presentation capped the TV spectacle. By contrast, the defining trademark of Tochigi’s season is a grind-it-out work ethic. The Brex outrebounded the Brave Thunders 44-32.
Jeff Gibbs scored a game-high 25 points, 16 coming in the fourth quarter, and pulled down nine rebounds in 25-plus minutes. Rossiter finished with 12 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists in an understated master class. Tabuse added nine points and five assists.
“It’s a great team to be a part of,” Gibbs said in a post-game news conference. “I’m happy to be a part of this team.”
Brex forward Takatoshi Furukawa, who turns 30 in October, was selected as the B. League Championship final MVP. He scored 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, including 3 of 6 on 3-pointers.
“I couldn’t have won (the MVP) on my own,” said Furukawa, who averaged 11. 1 points per game during the regular season. “My teammates and all the people that were involved in this team helped us win the championship.”
Said Tabuse: “First off, I would like to express my respect for Kawasaki for having displayed battles through the quarterfinals, semifinals and this game.
“We have always played with the entire team, so I just trusted my teammates and tried to play along with our Brex fans.”
The first Japanese to play in the NBA then paid tribute to his entire organization.
“We owe all of our teammates, staff, front office, Brexie (cheerleaders) and more than anyone, our fans,” the former Phoenix Sun said. “Without (our fans), we would not be standing here right now, so we really appreciate them.”
Reflecting on the team’s championship journey, Tabuse had this to say: “We have accumulated things and were able to capture the title today. I felt things paid off for us.
“This is a championship that we won with the whole team. Like everybody on this team says, none of us say selfish things. We’ve tried to play as a team and as the season wore on, we got even better and it came out as a good result through this final today.”
For top-seeded Kawasaki, Nick Fazekas went 5 of 19 from the field but scored 23 points, including 13 of 13 at the foul line, and pulled down 11 rebounds. Ryan Spangler had 14 points and Ryusei Shinoyama 13. Naoto Tsuji, who was 1-for-7 on 3s, had nine points and a team-high four assists, while Mamadou Diouf scored eight points.
The Brex (51-15 including the playoffs) also captured the 2009-10 JBL title under veteran bench boss Tom Wisman during his first stint at the helm.
Wisman expressed after the game the pride that he has in his team, calling his players “all heart.”
He noted the hard road the team took to reach the final — beating the Chiba Jets, who were 44-16 in the regular season, in the quarterfinals, then ousting the SeaHorses Mikawa, who were 46-14, in the semifinals — and “to beat a team as good as Kawasaki today in the final makes me the proudest coach in Japan.”
He labeled his players “champions” after their gritty performance, which including holding the league’s No. 1 offense to 2-for-13 shooting from beyond the arc and 44.6 percent overall.
The Brave Thunders, last season’s NBL champions, finished with a 53-13 record.
Teamwork defines Tochigi success. Case in point: Gibbs missed a 3-pointer with about 7 minutes left in the game. Rossiter corralled the offensive rebound and scored on the putback, but more importantly gave his team its first lead of the fourth quarter, 68-67.
“Everybody buys in,” Rossiter, a Siena (New York) College alum, said.
“Everybody does their job.”
He added: “Today’s a perfect example. We didn’t care about individual stats.”
Fazekas made two free throws to put Kawasaki back ahead with 6:33 left, with Rossiter picking up his fourth foul on the play.
But the Brex never backed down. Gibbs, an energetic force at age 36, was relentless inside. On one rapid sequence, his layup was blocked.
He scooped up the loose ball and took a second shot. He missed. He grabbed the rebound and made a putback to it tie it at 74-74.
“I do everything I can to help the team out,” Gibbs said, specifically stating that it’s his “job down low to help the team there.”
Spangler made the first of two foul shots with 4:02 to play, making it a tie game (75-75) again.
In a scramble for the ball, Fazekas was called for an unsportsmanlike foul with 3:55 left. He and Gibbs were competing near halfcourt, Gibbs going for the steal. Gibbs made 1 of 2 free throws, but the Brex didn’t score on their possession that followed the penalty.
Fazekas did, however, at the other end, putting Kawasaki ahead 77-76.
For the Brex, consecutive inside baskets by Gibbs turned their tiny deficit into an 80-77 lead.
Spangler followed with two foul shots with 2:02 remaining.
After both teams missed shots, Furukawa buried a pull-up jumper from near the free-throw line.
Kawasaki had a costly turnover on its next possession.
Tabuse delivered a perfect pass to Gibbs, who scored a layup and sealed the win. Yusuke Endo accounted for the game’s final point, making the first of two free throws with 27.6 seconds left.
Kawasaki missed a pair of long jumpers on its final two shots.
“The game could’ve gone either way until the very end, but quality of some plays made the difference,” Kawasaki coach Takuya Kita said. “But our players were able to play in front of this big crowd and played to their best.
“It’s all on me for our loss. I feel responsible for letting them feel disappointed. But they did their best to promote the B. League.”
Shinoyama relished the experience of pro basketball’s grand arrival on the national stage on Saturday.
“First off, I enjoyed the mood in the final, starting with the pre-game entertainment,” Shinoyama said. “Having played basketball as much as I have, I’d never thought a day like this would come.
“But in the end, play quality on each play made the difference. I have an impression that Tochigi was better in terms of that.”
He went on: “Through today’s game, it was like Tabuse sent me a message that I still have a long way to go. Moving forward, I would like to be a point guard like him who has a lot of leadership and can raise the level of his team when it matters most.”
Early in the third quarter, Diouf brought the Brave Thunders within 49-48 on a pair of free throws. A Shinoyama jumper put them in front 52-51, with two Fazekas foul shots increasing the lead to 54-51 with 4:48 left in the period.
Spangler converted an old-fashioned three-point play with 6.3 seconds left in the third quarter. That gave the Brave Thunders a 63-61 lead.
Kawasaki won the opening tip and Shinoyama scored the game’s first basket on a layup, but missed a chance for a three-point play by misfiring at the charity stripe.
Furukawa canned a 3 from the left wing for Tochigi’s first bucket of the contest.
Spangler answered with a strong move inside as the Central Division champion Brave Thunders retook the lead (4-3).
It was a wide-open quarter, a spirited duel at both ends of the court.
Tsuji drove inside for a layup and gave the Brave Thunders an 11-9 lead. Moments later, Tabuse penetrated through the lane, jumped and banked in a layup, putting the Brex in front 13-11.
With 3:27 left in the back-and-forth opening stanza, Tabuse went to the free-throw line for two shots. He sank the first attempting, pulling the Brex within 17-16.
Coming off a pick set by Rossiter, Naoya Kumagae made a spot-up jumper as Tochigi took an 18-17 lead.
Tsuji then buried a jumper in the lane as the Brave Thunders snatched the lead right back.
Tochgi swingman Yutaro Suda’s 3-pointer tied it at 21-21 in the closing seconds of the first quarter.
About midway through the second quarter, Furukawa’s runner in the lane ricocheted off the backboard and sailed through the net. That gave the Brex a 32-27 lead. Furukawa punched his chest with a celebratory fervor after nailing the shot.
After an official timeout, Tabuse tossed a high lob that Gibbs pulled down like a wide receiver hauling in a touchdown reception in the end zone and converted into a layup, extending the advantage to 34-27.
Trailing 40-33, the Brave Thunders called a timeout with 1:21 to play in the half.
Fazekas, who led the league in scoring during the regular season (27.1 ppg), made two free throws with 15.9 seconds to play in the half to cut it to 43-37.
Furukawa scored 10 of his 13 first-half points in the second period.
Rossiter’s strong all-around play produced eight points, 10 rebounds and four assists before halftime.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.