The Alvark Tokyo excelled over the final two months of the regular season, elevating their play to match their impressive victory total from their title-winning 2017-18 campaign.
Winning 16 of 20 games in March and April, the Alvark completed the season with a 44-16 record.
Second-year head coach Luka Pavicevic’s team closed out the season on Sunday with an 81-74 victory over the Levanga Hokkaido at Arena Tachikawa Tachihi.
Hokkaido (10-50) dropped its final 22 games of the season, and coach Tomohide Utsumi’s team will next face the host Yokohama B-Corsairs in a playoff survival series — an attempt to stave off relegation to the second division.
The Alvark, who finished third in the East Division, now shift their focus to a road series against the Niigata Albirex BB next weekend in the B. League Championship quarterfinals. The series gets underway on Saturday. Since the calendar flipped to January, Tokyo has lost six times, falling only to East No. 2 Tochigi Brex and division champion Chiba Jets Funabashi, in 31 total games.
Montenegrin forward Milko Bjelica, a key offseason acquisition, came off the bench and scored a team-high 18 points for Tokyo. He made three 3-pointers (out of four tries), three 2-point shots and 3 of 4 free-throw attempts. Floor leader Seiya Ando contributed 13 points, Yudai Baba had 12 points with five boards, eight assists and five steals plus a block. Baba’s explosive quickness caused fits for Hokkaido’s offense, and the Levanga finished with 23 turnovers. Zack Baranski added four steals and a pair of timely 3-pointers for his offensive output on the day.
Alvark frontline anchor Alex Kirk made his presence felt with 10 points and three blocks. Veteran power forward Joji Takeuchi, a longtime Japan national team player, chipped in with 11 points and a pair of steals.
Standing on the court along with the entire team, Pavicevic commended his players while addressing the fans after the game. “They have fought very hard for 60 games,” Pavicevic said.
It was a difficult start to the season, he acknowledged. But the Alvark, who took a 19-10 record into January, steered the ship in the right direction.
To finish with 44 wins, Pavicevic acknowledged the players, coaching staff and medical training staff “pushed a lot in the second part of the season to end up with this (record).”
“We played 60 games to get to this point,” Pavicevic said, referring to the playoffs.
“We will try out best next weekend in Niigata to move on,” he added.
Pavicevic’s counterpart, Utsumi, noted that committing turnovers has been a problem for his club. He said turnovers were a critical factor in Sunday’s outcome, “but it was a good game.”
Looking at the weekend series as a whole, Utsumi admitted Tokyo’s 3-point shooting output (11-for-25 on Sunday; 11-for-19 on Saturday) helped carry the Alvark to two wins.
Like in the series opener, Tokyo performed better in the second quarter. On Saturday, it was 21-21 after one quarter; a day later, the Alvark led 20-18 after the opening stanza, then outscored the visitors 20-14 in the second, including a 11-0 that gave them a 31-21 advantage.
The big spurt started with an Ando layup, then back-to-back Ando 3-pointers. Bjelica capped the run with a 3 from the left wing with 6:25 remaining in the second quarter.
Turnovers were the big story of the first half. Tokyo committed zero; Hokkaido had 13. The Alvark capitalized on the Levanga’s miscues, taking a 14-0 edge in points from turnovers into the locker room at halftime.
Tokyo led 40-32 after two quarters. The Alvark increased their lead to 53-41 on Baba’s tomahawk jam with 5:29 left in the third. He was fouled on the play, but missed the free throw. Baba struggled at the line in the series finale, making 4 of 9 shots.
Doblas pulled the high-energy Levanga within 62-54 on a layup to close out the third.
Early in the fourth quarter, a Hokkaido turnover — produced by Baranski’s aggressive defense — led to a fast break at the other end, with Baba feeding the ball to Bjelica for a dunk. That made it 64-54. Moments later, after an Ando steal, Kirk slammed one down, again courtesy of a Baba pass. Hokkaido then called a timeout with 7:35 to play.
The Levanga got within 66-59 on two Mullens free throws with 6:56 left. Baranski then knocked down a left-corner 3-pointer to push the lead back to double digits, and Hokkaido never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
With two wins to conclude the regular season, Bjelica was in an upbeat mood in a post-game interview.
“It was our goal for these back-to-back games to play strong,” he said, “because this team is similar to (the team) we are going to face in the quarterfinals, Niigata: two big guys, two strong guys (Davante Gardner and Lamont Hamilton) who are an (offensive) load — have a low-post, back-to-the-basket (game). And I think today we showed our strengths … and it’s very important that we are finishing our season in a good way.”
Asked to analyze his own performance this season after overcoming a leg injury in the early going, Bjelica responded by saying, “I think in the past three months I played really, really good basketball, and personally I’m very satisfied I showed that I can make an impact here in this league, and I proved my quality here…”
The Levanga controlled the boards, which helped keep them within striking distance throughout the game. Their turnovers, however, proved costly as their offense was unable to muster a run greater than a 6-0 spurt that bridged the first and second stanzas.
Hokkaido’s Byron Mullens scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and bearded Spanish big man David Doblas had 16 points, 4 rebounds and five assists, as well as six turnovers, sharing the team lead in that department with Takehiko Orimo. Shusuke Yamamoto added 14 points and four assists. Japan hoop legend Orimo, still a factor at age 48, drained 4 of 5 3s for his 12 points.
Alvark small forward Kikuchi told reporters “it was a long season,” but a continuous focus on making improvements pushed the club since the season tipped off in the fall.
Diamond Dolphins 84, Rizing Zephyr 83 (OT)
In Fukuoka, rising star Shuto Ando missed a free throw with the season on the line with 6 seconds left in overtime, but buried his second attempt to give Nagoya the thinnest of leads.
The score stood as Fukuoka guard Shota Tsuyama’s 3-pointer was off the mark before the final buzzer.
With the victory, the Diamond Dolphins (33-27) clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season. They won their final three games to secure a spot in the postseason.
Nagoya will face the host Ryukyu Golden Kings next Saturday and Sunday, and, if necessary, in a third game on April 29.
Former NBA center Hilton Armstrong paced Nagoya with 22 points and hauled in 15 rebounds. Craig Brackins added 21 points and nine boards. Ando finished with 17 points, while Ryota Kobayashi dished out 10 assists.
Benjamin Lawson led Fukuoka (12-48) with 24 points along with nine rebounds and five assists. Eric Jacobsen had a stellar all-around game to wrap up the season, contributing 20 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, four steals and three blocks, while Tsuyama had 13 points and seven assists. Satoshi Ishitani chipped in with 10 points and 10 assists.
Evessa 52, Hannaryz 51
In Osaka, the Evessa prevailed in a defensive battle to salvage a series split with Kyoto.
Xavier Gibson poured in 17 points for Osaka (23-37) and Josh Harrellson grabbed 17 rebounds. Faye Pape Mour scored 12 points for the Evessa, who shot 33.9 percent from the field.
Julian Mavunga pulled the Hannaryz within one, making a 2-point shot with 22 seconds left. Neither team scored again.
David Simon led Kyoto (31-29) with 32 points and 13 boards. Mavunga had 11 points on 2-for-16 shooting, including 1 of 12 from 3-point range, and dished out six assists, but turned the ball over eight times.
The Hannaryz shot 34.4 percent overall.
Grouses 91, NeoPhoenix 79
In Toyama, coach Don Beck’s club relied on its Big Three in a must-win game to reach the playoffs, and it worked.
Leo Lyons had a team-best 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting, Josh Smith pumped in 23 points and snared 11 rebounds and Naoki Uto electrified the home fans with 20 points on 9-for-10 shooting for the Grouses (32-28), who take a four-game win streak into the B. League playoff quarterfinals.
Lyons and Uto each doled out six assists.
Up next: Toyama will travel to face the host Chiba Jets Funabashi next weekend.
Toyama led 54-39 at halftime.
Josh Childress had 35 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for San-en (22-38), which dropped its last five games of the season. Hayato Kawashima added 11 points.
Albirex BB 89, B-Corsairs 73
In Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, bench boss Kazuhiro Shoji’s squad extended its winning streak to 10, pounding Yokohama in the process.
Kei Igarashi and Amanze Egekeze scored 17 points apiece for the Albirex (45-15 overall, 24-6 at home). Egekeze hauled in 10 rebounds to complete the double-double, and MVP candidate Davante Gardner, the league’s leading scorer, had 10 points. Ryunosuke Watanabe corralled 11 boards (six offensive) for the Central Division champions.
Brandon Costner led the B-Corsairs (14-46, including 13 straight defeats) with 25 points and 11 rebounds. Ryo Tawatari had 17 points and five assists.
Jets 95, Sunrockers 74
In Tokyo, Shibuya’s scoring total decreased in each of the four quarters, and Chiba’s potent offense erupted for 53 second-half points.
The Jets rolled to their eighth consecutive victory. Gavin Edwards scored 21 points and corralled 11 rebounds, Michael Parker put 19 points on the board with nine rebounds and three steals and Shuta Hara poured in 16 points, with Trey Jones providing 15.
East Division champion Chiba (52-8) trailed 45-39 at halftime.
The Sunrockers went from 24 first-quarter points to 23, 15 and 12 over the final three periods.
Ryan Kelly finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists for Shibuya (27-33). Robert Sacre and Leo Vendrame scored 18 and 13 points, respectively.
Golden Kings 85, Lakestars 79
In Okinawa City, the West Division champion Golden Kings canned 13 of 25 3-pointers en route to victory over Shiga to complete a weekend sweep.
Gonzaga University alum Ira Brown, who had 14 points, spearheaded Ryukyu’s 3-point attack, knocking down 4 of 5. Jeff Ayres added 19 points, including four slam dunks, and 10 rebounds. Ryuichi Kishimoto added 16 points, making 4 of 8 3s. Kevin Jones contributed nine points and Narito Namizato eight for the Golden Kings (40-20).
The Lakestars’ Allen Durham was sent to the free-throw line for 19 shots, and he made 12. He finished with 30 points and 10 boards. Henry Walker added 16 points and seven assists, while Koyo Takahashi scored 14 points for Shiga (18-42).
The idle Tochigi Brex, who went 49-11 in the regular season, will take on the Kawasaki Brave Thunders (40-20) in the other quarterfinal series, which starts on Friday.
Sunday’s B2 scores:
Wyverns 84, Crane Thunders 78
Brave Warriors 80, Bee Trains 68
Earthfriends 72, Fighting Eagles 71
Firebonds 90, Robots 78
Five Arrows 90, Susanoo Magic 77
89ers 108, Wat’s 67
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5