The Kawasaki Brave Thunders are starting to hit their stride.
Led by a fierce determination to improve and dynamic defensive tenacity, the 2016-17 B. League championship runner-up Brave Thunders have reeled off six straight victories.
For the second day in a row, they seized control in the third quarter and cruised past the Sunrockers Shibuya 86-68 on Sunday afternoon at Aoyama Gakuin University Memorial Hall.
Kawasaki’s New Year’s Eve conquest featured 50 percent overall shooting, 24 assists against eight turnovers and four double-digit scorers: Nick Fazekas (21 points, 10 rebounds), Yuma Fujii (17 points, six assists), Ryusei Shinoyama (16 points, six assists) and Naoto Tsuji (11 points, four assists).
The Brave Thunders’ primary perimeter marksmen were stupendous, teaming up to make 10 of 18 3-point attempts. Shinoyama nailed 4 of 5, Fujii sank 3 of 5 and Tsuji converted 3 of 8. Takumi Hasegawa and Hiroki Taniguchi both made their lone long-range attempt.
In his second game in a Brave Thunders uniform, scrappy forward Lou Amundson, a well-traveled NBA veteran who has played for Utah, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Golden State, Indiana, Minnesota, Chicago, New Orleans, Cleveland and New York (428 regular-season NBA games), came off the bench for the second consecutive day. The 35-year-old UNLV alum had four points, four boards, a steal and a block in nearly 15½ minutes of court time. The 206-cm Amundson finalized a contract with Kawasaki earlier this week.
In the series opener, the game was deadlocked at 33-33 at halftime. On Saturday night, Kawasaki outscored the hosts 28-15 in the third quarter en route to a 75-61 triumph.
A similar story unfolded a day later. It was 39-39 at halftime in the series finale.
And then the Brave Thunders (18-10) elevated their performance at both ends of the floor in the third stanza. Their defensive focus disrupted the Sunrockers (18-10), who made 4 of 12 third-quarter shots.
At the other end of the court, Kawasaki coach Takuya Kita’s club heated up on offense, draining 4 of 5 3s and 7 of 11 2-point shots in the third.
The Brave Thunders outscored the Sunrockers 29-13 in the third quarter to take a 68-52 advantage into the final period.
Shinoyama, a deceptive left-handed shooter, scored 10 third-quarter points and Fazekas had seven to spark the offense.
Shibuya was unable to rally in the fourth quarter against Kawasaki’s stellar defense.
Leo Vendrame led the hosts with 14 points. He rebounded from a quiet 3-point outing in the series opener.
Guard Morihisa Yamauchi finished with 12 points and four assists for the Sunrockers, and Josh Harrellson also scored a dozen points and corralled a game-high 17 rebounds but also committed an uncharacteristic seven turnovers, a season-high total. Robert Sacre had 11 points and seven boards and Yuki Mitsuhara scored nine points and dished out five assists.
“Kawasaki did a good job of taking away my 3-point shot,” said Harrellson, a quality outside shooter who attempted three 3s (one make) but mostly looked for his shot inside due to the tight perimeter defense.
Reflecting on his high turnover total, the ex-NBA player added, “I’m a little frustrated with my turnovers, but I can fix that.”
Fazekas, meanwhile, spread some holiday cheer in front of a few TV cameras in the post-game news conference.
Addressing the fans, Fazekas had this to say: “(I want) to say hello to everybody and thank the fans for all of their support. That’s who we are doing it for.”
Looking back at the third quarter, Tsuji delivered the first highlight of the half by burying a floater in the lane.
Seconds later, Mitsuhara tied it at 41-41 with a layup.
Shinoyama answered with a 3-pointer from the right wing. Vendrame then missed a jumper. Fazekas followed with a leaner in the lane, increasing the Brave Thunders’ lead to 46-41.
With 6:27 to play in the third quarter, Fazekas converted an old-fashioned three-point play. He made a layup, then made a foul shot for a 49-41 Kawasaki lead.
That capped an 8-0 run.
Sunrockers coach Geoffrey Katsuhisa called a timeout to refocus his team.
Shibuya, however, never really recovered, pulling within six twice in the third, but Kawasaki quickly answered time after time with big scoring runs.
Fazekas’ hook shot beat the buzzer to close out the third with his team in firm control.
In the fourth quarter, Amundson exhibited his athleticism and smart hoop instincts, making sharp passes out of the low post to teammates on the perimeter. He also soared through the air for a layup that made it 80-62 with just over 2 minutes left.
“They stepped up and they made big shots,” Harrellson said of Kawasaki.
Katsuhisa thanked the fans for attending the game during a busy time of the year. “We thank you for your support,” he added.
Though he acknowledged his team hustled and played hard, Katsuhisa said “we have more to learn,” setting the stage for busy practices.
“We played a strong Kawasaki team yesterday and today,” he told reporters.
Kita praised his players for their effort and for their commitment to playing tenacious defense.
“It was a physical game yesterday and a physical game today,” he said.
As the focus shifts to the upcoming Emperor’s Cup and the second half of the regular season, Kita has mapped out what is the team’s No. 1 priority: defense.
“More and more, we are (getting) stronger on defense, because we practice it a lot,” he said.
Backup Brave Thunders forward/center Yuya Kamata, who played sparingly last season, exemplified that defensive energy over the weekend. Kita said Kamata was effective in helping energize the defense, providing a spark, too, when the team’s one on-the-court designation (league quota for imports) was in effect in the second and third quarters.
“Defense is the focus,” Kamata said of his role.
Forward Josh Davis, who had seven points in 14-plus minutes for Kawasaki, believes his team is headed in the right direction.
“We knew they are a good offensive team, so we had to get a body on them,” said Davis, citing Sacre and Harrellson as key focal points of the defense’s effort.
Aggressive defense helped force seven turnovers on Harrellson, Davis said.
And now with the addition of Amundson to the roster this week, Davis said the newcomer’s energy and defensive intensity have provided a big boost.
The arrival of Amundson has increased the team’s energy, according to Davis. Now, he said, “I think they are more excited and ready to work hard. . .”
“I think he’s doing pretty good,” Davis said. “At 35 years old and to be able to run. He’s been dunking in practice. So he still looks good to me.”
Asked what is the key for the Brave Thunders to reach the next level and be even close to first place in the East Division, he stated without hesitation that defense is the answer.
Said Davis: “We already know our team score. . . . If we continue to play our defensive assignments correctly night in and night out, I think we’ll be fine.”
SeaHorses 92, Diamond Dolphins 80
In Nagoya, sharpshooter Kosuke Kanamaru drained 6 of 11 3s in a 22-point outing and J.R. Sakuragi notched a triple-double (15 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) as Mikawa bounced back from a series-opening defeat.
Sakuragi posted a message on Facebook after the game stating that it was his first career triple-double. The former UCLA standout and NBA forward, who was known as J.R. Henderson before becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen, began his pro career in 1998.
“Nice way to end 2017,” Sakuragi wrote.
Daniel Orton scored 16 points for the SeaHorses (22-6) and Makoto Hiejima had 14. Isaac Butts chipped in with 10 points and 10 boards.
The Diamond Dolphins (11-17) trailed 48-28 at halftime, then faced a 74-50 deficit entering the fourth quarter.
Justin Burrell led Nagoya with 17 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Taito Nakahigashi and Yoshiaki Fujinaga scored 13 points apiece, with Fujinaga dishing out five assists. Craig Brackins poured in 12 points and Takaya Sasayama had 11.
Mikawa outrebounded the hosts 47-34.
Alvark 57, Jets 56
In Tokyo, in a defensive battle of East Division heavyweights, the hosts held off Chiba in a down-to-the-wire contest for a victory in the series opener.
The Alvark held a 31-27 lead at halftime, while the Jets trailed 42-40 entering the final stanza.
Seiya Ando paced Tokyo (21-6) with 12 points and Yudai Baba contributed 11 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals. Zack Baranski had eight points and Joji Takeuchi supplied seven points and seven boards. Alex Kirk finished with six points, 12 rebounds (six offensive boards) and two blocks. Brendan Lane also had six points.
The Alvark held a 48-39 edge in rebounds.
Tokyo was 22 of 62 from the field. Chiba made 19 of 66 shots, including 5 of 24 from long range.
Gavin Edwards scored a team-high 23 points for the Jets (19-8). Yuki Togashi had a 14-point effort and Aki Chambers added 10 points. Ryumo Ono was the team leader in assists (seven)
Dragonflies 68, Robots 55
In Hiroshima, Clint Chapman scored 14 points and the hosts knocked down 10 of 17 3s in a victory over Ibaraki.
The Dragonflies improved to 16-12.
Rick Rickert led the Robots (14-14) with 15 points.
Ibaraki sank only 5 of 26 shots from beyond the 3-point arc.
Wat’s 94, 89ers 85 (OT)
In Aomori, Keisuke Aita had 24 points and Joseph Burton provided 19 points, 11 rebounds and six assists for the hosts in an overtime triumph over Sendai.
Lakeem Jackson finished with 17 points for Aomori (8-20).
Ryunosuke Yanagawa paced the 89ers (13-15) with 19 points and Shugaku Izumi poured in 16 points. Angelo Chol also had 16 points and 17 rebounds. Kaito Ishikawa added six points and dished out 10 assists.
Longtime Sendai guard Takehiko Shimura surpassed the 2,000-assist milestone for regular-season games. He contributed five points and three assists. Shimura joined the 89ers in 2008.
B2 look ahead
The Earthfriends Tokyo Z play host to the Gunma Crane Thunders on New Year’s Day and Tuesday at Ota City General Gymnasium.
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