Niigata Albirex BB coach Kazuhiro Shoji has been in an enviable position throughout the season.
Since the Albirex opener in October, Shoji hasn’t had a legitimate reason to make wholesale changes to his starting lineup.
Instead, the names of veteran guards Kei Igarashi and Shinsuke Kashiwagi, small forward Yuki Ueta, power forward Lamont Hamilton and center Davante Gardner have appeared in the starting five the majority of the time.
Two-time B. League scoring champion Gardner led the way with 60 starts, followed by Igarashi’s 59, Hamilton’s 56, Kashiwagi’s 55 and Ueta’s 45.
If something isn’t broken, why try fixing it?
Shoji’s starters played consistent, high-quality basketball all season.
In winning the Central Division title (45-15 record), Niigata closed out the regular season with 10 straight victories.
Now, they turn their attention to the reigning champion Alvark Tokyo. The teams will square off in the B. League Championship quarterfinals this weekend. Game 1 is on Saturday in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, at the Albirex’s home gym. If the series is tied after Sunday’s contest, Game 3 would be held on Monday. (The league’s previous mini-game playoff tiebreaker on the same day as Game 2 was scrapped in the offseason.)
At 24-6, Niigata posted the second-best home record in the top flight behind Chiba (26-4).
It’s been reported before that Igarashi and Kashiwagi bring veteran savvy and confidence to the team. Above all, both playmakers made smart decisions running the team’s offense. Exhibit A: They combined for 475 assists and 195 turnovers.
Shoji’s not complaining about those numbers.
In the frontcourt, former St. John’s University forward Hamilton and mobile 203-cm, 132-kg pivot Gardner get the bulk of the shot opportunities. Of the team’s 1,243 2-point baskets, Gardner made 609 and Hamilton converted 270; Igarashi was third with 97. They also had roughly 1,200 of the team’s 2,254 total rebounds.
“Everybody knows their role and what to do,” said Gardner, who pointed out that proper rest during the week is a big factor for his club. “On the court, we handle business on the weekends.”
Indeed, Gardner, a 27-year-old Marquette University alum, and Hamilton form a potent one-two frontcourt punch for the title-chasing Albirex.
Just ask Tokyo coach Luka Pavicevic.
“They have built a good team,” Pavicevic said on Sunday, crediting Shoji and his coaching staff, “and they have built a good (overall) game and improved on the defensive end as well.”
The Alvark and Albirex split a pair of games on Dec. 8-9 in Niigata, with the hosts winning 68-63 in the opener and losing 86-83 in the rematch.
“They play at their own pace, which is specific because of their presence and their play down low,” Pavicevic said, noting the inside domination of Gardner and Hamilton, a 208-cm veteran.
Gardner said the key to beating Tokyo is to dictate the pace.
After all, a dynamic transition game is the Alvark’s trademark, the Virginia native said.
“They love to push the ball and run, so if we stop that, we’ll be OK,” Gardner told The Japan Times. “We’ve got to control all 40 minutes to come out with the win.”
Which is something Gardner is confident will happen in the best-of-three series.
“Some people didn’t expect us to go this far and win this many games, and now we are here and we’ve just go to finish and get a championship,” he said.
The dynamic duo help set the tone on offense. Gardner averaged 27.6 points per game in the regular season. Hamilton scored 16.4.
One key part of the Albirex’s ascension from a 28-32 team last season was having Hamilton for the entire campaign. He was a major midseason acquisition last season, appearing in 30 games.
“We are (among) the most dominant bigs in this league,” Gardner said. “So that’s why we are here right now.”
On their court synergy, Gardner summed it up this way: “We fit each other perfectly on the court.”
With similar personalities, they feed off motivating each other.
“We both play with a chip on our shoulder and go hard,” Gardner said, “so that really helps us.”
During a conversation with Hamilton, it’s immediately clear that he’s a fierce competitor. His thoughts on this weekend’s Albirex-Alvark series spell that out clearly. Said Hamilton: “I definitely think it’s a good matchup. They’re a tough team, we’re a tough team. So it should be a great matchup, and we have home-court advantage, so that should be a plus on our side.”
As Niigata’s team chemistry and foundation have solidified over the past several months, Hamilton considers Shoji’s decision to embrace broader communication with his players to be a big step forward. Since his arrival last season, he pointed to Shoji’s willingness to “start listening to the players more and just hearing the players out and trying to understand the players more.”
Continuity has also helped Gardner thrive while teaming up with Igarashi or Kashiwagi on the offensive end. “Those two guys are among the top guards in the league,” Gardner commented. “I’m there to set a hard screen and get them open for shots and drives to the lane.”
He continued: “It’s my third year (here) with Kei, and we have a lot of chemistry together.”
Hamilton agreed that Niigata’s success to date revolves around team relationships.
“The system works well because we all play for each other and care for each other,” the 35-year-old New York City native said, “and that makes a big difference.”
While he’s considered the leading MVP candidate by many league observers, Gardner insisted he isn’t concerned about that.
“I just go out there to win,” he said. “I just wan to win games, win championships. I want to do great, but I want to do better as a teammate for the team I’m on.”
In Hamilton’s opinion, the dynamic duo’s efficient play together — scoring points in bundles, rebounding, rejecting shots and more — is fueled by their thirst for winning.
“I think that we play great together,” he said. “I think we are actually one of the best duos in the league right now. We complement each other’s game.”
Naturally, opponents have noticed that, too.
“They work really good together since the beginning of the season,” Alvark forward Milko Bjelica said.
Other first-round matchups
The East Division champion Chiba Jets Funabashi, who won a league-high 52 games this season, play host to the Toyama Grouses (32-28) at Funabashi Arena on Saturday, Sunday, and, if necessary, Monday.
The West champion Ryukyu Golden Kings (40-20) face the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins (33-27) in Okinawa City, starting on Saturday, too.
Elsewhere, the East runner-up Tochigi Brex (49-11) face the visiting Kawasaki Brave Thunders (40-20) at Brex Arena in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, with Game 1 on Friday night. If necessary, a Game 3 is set for Sunday.
Predictions: Albirex in three; Jets in two; Golden Kings in three; Brex in two.
Mindset of defending champs
The Alvark’s 44-16 regular-season record, which was identical to last season’s, was not a foregone conclusion.
Tokyo collected 16 victories in their final 20 games to do it again.
On Sunday, Pavicevic was asked if last season’s title inspired and helped guide his team throughout this season.
He argued that last season’s achievement wasn’t an intangible factor in this season’s pursuit of excellence.
“Generally,” he told reporters, “it’s very tough to do the back-to-back championships.
That, of course, hasn’t stopped the Montenegrin mentor from trying.
He brought up the example of the Boston Celtics, who won their latest NBA championship in 2008 with Doc Rivers at the helm and Kevin Eastman as one of his assistants. Pavicevic said he heard Rivers and Eastman talking about “how they tried to refresh the team’s desire and their appetite after the championship.”
“It’s difficult to come back with the same appetite and the same heart,” he added, referring to the season after a title.
Conversely, he stated, teams that didn’t win it all in the previous season are affected this way: “Their appetite is growing, their motivation is growing.”
In his talks to Alvark players and staff, Pavicevic has stressed the significance of remembering that each season holds a separate identity.
And he should know. Early in his pro career, the former Jugoplastika/Pop 84 point guard was a part of three straight FIBA European Champions Cup (later known as EuroLeague) title-winning teams in the 1988-89, 1989-90 and 1990-91. He became one of five players with that distinction on his resume.
“It never has to do anything with the year before,” Pavicevic declared. “What happened happened, stays chronicled, but it has nothing to do with what’s going to happen into the next (season).”
More Alvark talk
Star guard Daiki Tanaka missed last weekend’s games against the Levanga Hokkaido in Tachikwa due to a hamstring injury. His status for this weekend’s playoff series is questionable. Tanaka averaged 10 ppg and dished out a team-high 218 assists this season.
The Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka, who began a crowd-funding campaign recently in an attempt to secure the necessary funds to be given a B2 license, will not renew head coach Bob Nash’s contract for the 2019-20 campaign, it was announced on Wednesday.
And so, if the team competes in the B. League next season, Fukuoka will have its third bench boss in less than a calendar year. Ryuji Kawai was fired after the team’s poor start last season, and Nash took over just a few weeks into the season. The Rizing Zephyr went 12-48 in 2018-19, their first season in the top flight.
Kensaku Tennichi, who guided the Osaka Evessa to three straight titles in the now-disbanded bj-league’s first three seasons, is poised to return to the team as head coach for the upcoming season, a league insider told this newspaper recently.
Tennichi’s latest stint in the pro ranks was with the Nishinomiya Storks (2016-18). He led the Evessa from 2005-10 before taking over at Ashiya University from 2010-16.
Final B1 stat leaders
Scoring: 1. Gardner (27.6), 2. Kyoto’s David Simon (24.3), 3. Akita’s Justin Keenan (22.8), 4. Kawasaki’s Nick Fazekas (22.3) and 5. Toyama’s Leo Lyons (21.8).
Rebounding: 1. Osaka’s Josh Harrellson (12.3), 2. Tochigi’s Ryan Rossiter (11.3), 3. Gardner (11.0), 4. Fazekas (10.9) and 5. Toyama’s Joshua Smith (10.6).
Assists: 1. Kyoto’s Julian Mavunga (8.5), 2. Ryukyu’s Narito Namizato (6.5), 3. Chiba’s Yuki Togashi (5.5), 4. Akita’s Takuya Nakayama (5.4) and 5. Igarashi (5.2).
Blocks: 1. Akita’s Kadeem Coleby (2.4), 2. Simon (2.1), 3. Hamilton (1.5), 4. Chiba’s Michael Parker (1.4) and 5. Harrellson (1.3)
Steals: 1. Nakayama (2.2), 2. Tochigi’s Jeff Gibbs (2.1), 3. Parker (2.1), 4. Tokyo’s Yudai Baba (1.5) and 5. San-en’s Hayato Kawashima (1.5).
Final B2 stat leaders
Scoring: 1. Gunma’s Thomas Kennedy (27.9), 2. Ehime’s Andrew Fitzgerald (27.0) and 3. Kagawa’s Terrance Woodbury (24.4).
Rebounding: 1. Shimane’s Gregory Echenique (13.7), 2. Gary Hamilton (13.5) and 3. Nagoya’s Garrett Stutz (12.9).
Assists: 1. Hamilton (7.5), 2. Kumamoto’s Takumi Furuno (7.3) and 3. Nishinomiya’s Draelon Burns (7.2).
Blocks: 1. Yamagata’s Chukwudiebere Maduabum (2.6), 2. Shinshu’s Wayne Marshall (2.1) and Hiroshima’s Jamari Traylor (1.9).
Steals: 1. Aomori’s Cullen Russo (2.2), 2. Fukushima’s Yuji Kanbara (1.8) and 3. Burns (1.8).