Basketball / B. League | HOOP SCOOP

Luka Pavicevic’s system was key to Alvark Tokyo’s title run

by Ed Odeven

The Alvark Tokyo embodied a team-first attitude throughout their title-winning season.

They kept things simple, demonstrating that well-executed fundamentals, not complicated tactics or endless mind games, are the recipe for success. They collected nine straight victories to cap their championship season, including an 85-60 victory over the Chiba Jets Funabashi on Saturday afternoon at Yokohama Arena.

After posting a 44-16 record in the 2016-17 season, one that didn’t see the Alvark advance to the B. League Championship Final, team management shook things up. The Alvark relieved Takuma Ito of his head coaching duties after two seasons in charge, replacing him with the more experienced Luka Pavicevic.

The team also retooled its roster, making rising star Daiki Tanaka a bigger focal point of its offensive attack. Excellent decision. He exudes confidence in his teammates and has a knack for making big plays in pressure-filled moments, as evidenced in the playoffs. They also brought in frontcourt standouts Alex Kirk, who had a game-best 23 points in the final, and Jawad Williams, whose buzzer-beating, long 3-pointer at the end of the first half gave the Alvark a jolt of momentum heading into the intermission. They also added guards Genki Kojima and Seiya Ando and rookie small forward Yudai Baba to the roster.

As the season began, Pavicevic’s club seized the opportunity that was in front of them, conquering opponents with stellar offense and aggressive defense. The Alvark, who went 44-16 again, were one of the elite teams throughout the season.

And they were especially impressive on Sundays, when other teams lost a step or two due to fatigue on the second day of back-to-back games. On the other hand, Tokyo went 21-6 on Sundays.

At the outset of every post-game news conference following a win, Pavicevic, who hails from Montenegro, always gave credit to the players for that day’s accomplishment. “I would like to congratulate my players” he would say before examining specific details of their latest victory.

The Alvark’s slogan for 2017-18 (“We”) was the right one for this team. It kept everyone focused on their mission — collective success, not individual glory.

Pavicevic, who turns 50 in June, grew up at a time before European basketball players were quite common in the NBA. He witnessed the success of the former Yugoslavia in international basketball competitions. His past experiences, including time at the University of Utah as a guard (1985-87), helped shape his no-nonsense approach to the game. As a coach, he piloted Alba Berlin to the German League crown in the 2007-08 campaign.

“Coach Luka is very detailed in his approach to the game,” Williams told Hoop Scoop. “He is definitely one of the smartest coaches I have encountered. His attention to detail on offense and defense is his best trait.”

Thirteen years ago, Williams helped the University of North Carolina capture the NCAA Tournament title against Illinois. So he knows what it takes to be the best. Looking back on the latest glorious moment in his distinguished career (one that included time as all-time great LeBron James’ teammate on the Cleveland Cavaliers), he said the team never detoured from its goal: to contend for a championship.

“I don’t think there was a clear-cut defining moment,” admitted Williams. “We went through a lot as team, losing three-four players every week because of the national team, battling injuries, and just getting to know each other. With these setbacks, we continued to work extremely hard every day.”

In the preseason, while preparing the players for their singular mission to be ready to shine in the playoffs, Pavicevic delivered the words that they needed to hear.

“His message was clear that he, like us, wanted to win,” Williams says now. “He also told us about the hard work we would have to put in to achieve our goals.”

Credit Pavicevic for deftly deploying Baba this season in phases of games that illuminated his skill set. The rookie was given chances to play through his mistakes and also congratulated by Pavicevic for his infectious energy and fan-pleasing, aerial forays to the hoop. He was an X-factor for Tokyo.

Or as Williams recalled: “He allowed Baba to be Baba, he allowed him to use his natural ability and athleticism, while molding Baba’s mind at the same time. I felt that as the year went on Baba got better and better.”

At power forward, Williams, a backup, and starter Joji Takeuchi, a longtime pillar of the Japan national team, were a dynamic duo, providing stability for 40 minutes. When games heated up, both veterans were always poised and focused. Their hoop smarts elevated the team to a higher level. Most impressively, egos never got in the way of winning.

“The substitution pattern worked for us because there were no secrets,” Williams noted. “He (Pavicevic) was honest. For example, Joji and I battled every day in practice, made each other better. Then we would play our 20 minutes. The tough practices prepared us to be able to go all out in limited minutes.”

In the championship game, nine Alvark players scored in the opening half. It was a revealing aspect of Luka Pavicevic’s system. Every player’s contributions were valued and needed to capture the championship.

And that’s the way it should be.