Two powerhouse East Division teams are right where they want to be.
The Alvark Tokyo need one more victory to capture back-to-back B. League titles, while the Chiba Jets Funabashi can claim their first league title by avenging last May’s 85-60 defeat to the Alvark in the final at Yokohama Arena.
The Kanto rivals meet again on Saturday afternoon at the same venue. Tipoff is 3:10 p.m. A national TV audience can follow the live action on NHK.
The top-seeded Jets reached the final by eliminating the Tochigi Brex in a two-game series last weekend at Funabashi Arena.
The seventh-seeded Alvark ended the West Division champion Ryukyu Golden Kings’ title hopes in Game 3 of their semifinal series on Tuesday night, winning 72-60 in Okinawa City. The Golden Kings had triumphed in Game 2 to extend the series to a winner-take-all finale.
Will an additional two days’ rest be a big boost for the Jets?
“I think that the final is a good opportunity to prove that we are the toughest team,” Alvark floor leader Daiki Tanaka, one of the Alvark’s three Japan men’s national team players (along with Yudai Baba and Joji Takeuchi), said after Game 3 in Okinawa.
Chiba coach Atsushi Ono’s club is firing on all cylinders. The Jets (52-8 before the playoffs) ended the regular season with eight straight victories and have won four more times since then.
The Jets were the league’s premier scoring team this season, averaging 86.0 points per game. They were also first in overall field-goal shooting (49.9 percent), 3-point shooting (38.9) and assists (21.1). The Jets’ opportunistic defense also caused fits for their foes; they collected a league-high 483 steals. Their one glaring weakness: free-throw shooting (66.0 percent, which ranked 16th out of 18 teams).
The Alvark averaged 78.2 ppg and had the second-fewest total turnovers (568) in the circuit. They had the third-best free-throw shooting accuracy (76.0). Statistically, the club was in the middle of the pack in a number of categories, but found a way to win more times than not, especially in the latter stages of the season. The defending champs closed out the season with 16 victories in 20 games.
In analyzing the challenge of beating the Jets, Tokyo coach Luka Pavicevic, who’s in his second season at the helm, pinpointed three key areas: limiting the impact of Chiba’s transition offense, defending their pick-and-roll offense led by backcourt star Yuki Togashi and defending against impactful scorers Gavin Edwards and Josh Duncan inside.
Looking back on the season and the run-up to it, Pavicevic told The Japan Times on Wednesday night that several factors combined to make it a difficult journey to return to the final.
The Alvark, he said, “have been hit by many adversities since the decision to sacrifice the last two weeks of preparation by participating in the FIBA Asia Club Championship in Bangkok.”
He added: “The decision had been made in the interest of the Japan national team’s fight to secure the Olympic spot in case the national team doesn’t qualify at the (2019 FIBA) World Championship in China. By entering the season completely exhausted by the five-game tournament, the Alvark have taken a long path of contesting many adversities that followed as a result of that decision.”
Pavicevic cited veteran forward Jawad Williams’ season-ending injury (Achilles tendon rupture) in late March, the death of guard Genki Kojima’s father after Kojima returned to the rotation after being sidelined for six weeks due to an injury and Tanaka’s recent hamstring injury at the end of the regular season.
“The team has had a really rocky and dangerous voyage to come to the finals in Yokohama,” Pavicevic said.
“Are the resources exhausted, spent? Or is there more left for the final step? It remains to be seen.”
From what he’s witnessed, Chiba has had a “calm and steady season,” one that included five wins in six games against his club: 76-57 on Dec. 16, 81-70 on Jan. 23, 76-62 on March 13, 59-57 on April 13 and 87-76 on April 14. Tokyo beat host Chiba 76-72 on Dec. 15.
Alvark fans and foes have also seen the continued development of second-year pro Baba, whose impact on a game can be immediate and in all facets. For instance, the explosive leaper didn’t have jaw-dropping stats in the first half against the Golden Kings on Tuesday, but by halftime, he had already filled the box score with numbers in all five key categories — points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
Last May, Pavicevic made these remarks after the final: “Yudai’s role on this team is very important. He brings energy, he brings courage, he brings initiative and he brings speed and intensity on both ends of the floor.”
Energetic and savvy Jets power forward Michael Parker has played an instrumental role in his club’s success, according to Pavicevic, who noted that Parker’s impact under the revamped import quote rules this season (two per team for four quarters) is magnified. All-around standout Parker, a naturalized Japanese, is a stabilizing force, especially on defense.
In recent weeks, the skill set of veteran forward Duncan, a Xavier University, has also become even more visible. Exhibit A: 18 points and seven rebounds in nearly 23 minutes off the bench on Sunday. Togashi’s 21-point, eight-assist performance set the tone for the Jets in their series-clinching win over Tochigi.
A year ago, Alvark big Alex Kirk led the way with 23 points on 11-for-15 shooting in the final and Tanaka scored 15 and dished out five assists, with Baba providing 14 points and three steals. The Jets were hampered by 17 turnovers.
Now, Togashi says it’s a challenge for him to step up in the rematch. (He was mostly held in check in last year’s final: seven points and five assists.)
“I have to play a good game in the final,” he told reporters on Sunday.
End of an era
Longtime Kawasaki Brave Thunders head coach Takuya Kita has stepped down, the team announced on Wednesday.
As a player, assistant coach and head coach, Kita spent two dozen seasons with the franchise. He became head coach in 2011.
After his playing career for the team then called the Toshiba Brave Thunders, he joined the coaching staff as an assistant in 2008.
Kita guided the Brave Thunders to a pair of NBL titles (2013-14 and 2015-16, the now-dissolved circuit’s final season). He also led them to a title runner-up finish in the inaugural B. League campaign the next year, posting a league-best 49-11 record and a 15-game winning streak.
This season, Kawasaki went 40-20 and placed second in the Central Division before losing in the playoff quarterfinals. In 2017-18, the Brave Thunders had a 41-19 record.
“I was very sorry that I could not meet the expectations of all the fans,” the 47-year-old Kita said in a statement. “From joining the Toshiba Brave Thunders to the current Kawasaki Brave Thunders, I was happy to be engaged in basketball on the scene for a total of 24 seasons with players and coaches. Thank you to everyone who gave me a mission and made me grow up to this point.”
Kenji Sato, one of Kita’s assistants since 2011, steps into the spotlight as the team’s new bench boss.
“I want to continue growing with my players and fans,” said Sato, a Brave Thunders player for nine seasons before joining Kita’s staff. “Let’s fight together again.”
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