The Toyama Grouses, one of B. League’s premier offensive clubs, present a formidable challenge for opposing defenses.
They put points on the board in a hurry. The Grouses are No. 2 in the 18-team first division in scoring (84.3 points per game).
They also have a penchant for giving up more points than they score — they are dead last in points allowed (84.3) — and in each of their last eight defeats they have given up 80 or more points, including during a five-game skid in January. What’s more, Grouses foes are making 47.6 percent of their shots, the second-highest percentage in B1.
Indeed, it’s an ongoing dilemma.
Despite an up-and-down season, first-year bench boss Don Beck’s club is fighting for a playoff spot with 18 games remaining.
Toyama is 21-21 and sits 10 games behind the Central Division-leading Niigata Albirex BB, but in the hunt for the eighth seed along with the SeaHorses Mikawa (23-29) and Nagoya Diamond Dolphins (22-20).
Beck led the Alvark from 2010-15 while bridging the JBL and NBL eras, followed by a three-season stint guiding the WJBL’s Toyota Motors Antelopes before taking over at Toyama.
“In those eight years, we were always top three in defense,” Beck noted.
“And that’s certainly not the situation in Toyama. Basically, we are a very good offensive team. We are last place defensively, so that’s what we are continuing to work on game in and game out.
“Our biggest defensive problem is our transition defense, which is extremely hard to practice. It really takes a commitment from your players to get back and get to your spots.”
Looking back at Saturday’s 86-78 defeat to the Alvark, Beck stated that he was “very satisfied” with his club’s defensive performance in the first two quarters.
“Some of the defense we played today was OK,” he said on Sunday after Toyama’s 87-73 setback.
Elaborating on the team’s defensive shortcomings this season, Beck went on to say, “We really struggle with defensive transition and a lot of pick-and-roll defense and ball-screen defense, and that’s the area where we are focusing on. We need to get better in those two areas because most of the teams in this league run mid-high-ball screens, and we’ll continue to try to get better at it.”
The Grouses resumed their regular-season schedule after FIBA World Cup qualifying with two road games against the reigning champion Alvark Tokyo, followed by two games this weekend against the Ryukyu Golden Kings.
Beck described the Golden Kings as “an equally great defensive team, probably a championship-level team.”
“We have a very tough beginning to these last 20 games, but I liked the way we played yesterday and at times I liked the way we played today. I think we’re getting better,” Beck said after Sunday’s game.
Leo Lyons, a University of Missouri product, leads the Grouses in scoring (22.8 ppg, No. 3 in the B. League) and Joshua Smith, who attended UCLA and Georgetown, is No. 9 overall (19.2) and sixth in rebounding (10.9). The 138-kg Smith’s lack of mobility affects defensive rotations and tactics.
Other notable individual statistics: Naoki Uto is fifth in B1 in assists (5.0) and All-Star Game MVP Yuto Otsuka is eighth in 3-point shooting (37.2 percent).
As a team, Toyama is fourth in steals (7.0), sixth in 3-point shooting percentage (35.9) and seventh in assists (19.5).
Raising his game
On a team blessed with depth in the frontcourt and backcourt, Alvark coach Luka Pavicevic has the luxury of working closely with up-and-coming players and not forcing them to play major minutes every week.
Such is the case with Tokyo guard Takumi Saito, who is 22. He is averaging 3.7 points and 1.9 assists in 14 games in limited playing time.
Pavicevic sees the big picture by developing Saito and preparing him for the rigors of the pro game.
“The third point guard is a very important person,” Pavicevic commented on Sunday. “We took Takumi out of Meiji University for an internship last year, and we built him into a strong third point guard, which means Takumi can play anywhere in the B. League as a backup point guard.
“We are happy that he decided to stay as a third point guard because he had options to play (elsewhere). But I think he understands that being in a structured system like ours and competing for a spot with the guys like Ando and Kojima and playing with the teammates the Alvark has, he is getting even more ready to play at the highest level professional basketball.”
Despite limited playing time, Saito has shown flashes of stellar play, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the first quarter against the Grouses on Sunday.
“He has not been perfect,” Pavicevic said, “but he has helped us a lot to win important games.”
Has Saito been effective?
“In my opinion, he’s a top-level Japanese point guard which lacks size,” Pavicevic said.
“That’s going to be his challenge, and how far he can get. His skill set and mindset is the top — if there’s a top five, he’s in it. Basketball is also a physical game. We are all working for him to break through this big challenge.”
A look ahead
This weekend’s next round of action tips off on Friday as Shibuya plays host to Niigata in their series opener. The rest of the teams are back on the court on Saturday. The matchups: Ryukyu vs. Toyama, San-en vs. Tokyo, Shiga vs. Akita, Kyoto vs. Osaka, Tochigi vs. Mikawa, Yokohama vs. Chiba, Hokkaido vs. Nagoya and Fukuoka vs. Kawasaki.
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