Basketball / B. League

Alvark prevail in title thriller

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

A year ago, the Alvark Tokyo built a 10-point cushion by halftime, then overwhelmed the Chiba Jets Funabashi in the second half of the B. League Championship Final, winning by 25 points.

Saturday’s showdown was a two-point game at the break.

This time, Tokyo’s 19-point lead vanished, but top-seeded Chiba’s spirited rally fell short as the Alvark collected their second title in as many years under Montenegrin bench boss Luka Pavicevic, winning 71-67.

“Back-to-back (championships) is almost impossible,” a beaming Pavicevic declared, basking in the glow of the team’s glorious achievement before an announced crowd of 12,972 at Yokohama Arena.

“I’m happy for my team that they achieved this dream,” he added.

Despite early struggles this season, Pavicevic urged his players to trust the process.

“I told my players in December when we were struggling to stay calm,” said Pavicevic, who guided Tokyo to the seventh seed, a wild-card spot, in the eight-team playoffs by winning 16 of its final 20 regular-season games.

His message?

“Our time will come,” he recounted. “We just need to be healthy and we just need to pick up the game right before the playoffs. It’s good that this group believes me, playing and attacking as one.

“They knew it, they were waiting for it, they were ready for it and they took it.”

The Alvark went 44-16 in each of their title-winning seasons. In the playoffs, they swept the Central Division champion Niigata Albirex BB in the quarterfinals on the road before knocking off the Ryukyu Golden Kings in a tough three-game semifinal series that ended on Tuesday in Okinawa.

Chiba swept the Toyama Grouses and Tochigi Brex to reach the final.

After three quarters, the Jets, who had a league-best 52-8 regular-season record and rode a 12-game win streak into the final, faced a 64-45 deficit.

Pavicevic’s team outscored the Jets 29-12 in the third quarter.

The script was flipped in the fourth.

Chiba coach Atsushi Ono’s club responded to the pressure, using a 14-0 spurt to cut it to 64-59 after the second of back-to-back Yuki Togashi 3-pointers with 4:32 remaining. Jets fans chanted and clapped with delight as the rally picked up steam.

With 4:13 left, Tokyo center Alex Kirk missed two free throws, but got a do-over on the second miss due to a lane violation. He made it, giving Tokyo a 65-59 lead.

A Gavin Edwards jam off a beautiful dish from Togashi in traffic kept the Jets within striking distance, trailing 67-61.

The Jets pulled within 69-67 on a Togashi 3-pointer with 27 seconds left. But a costly turnover 10 seconds later took away a big possession for them.

Kirk, a University of New Mexico alum, swished two free throws with 10.6 seconds remaining for the game’s final points, though Togashi (3-pointer) and Michael Parker (putback) attempted shots before the final buzzer.

“We lost to the Alvark once again, but personally in terms of this year, we have created such a great team,” Togashi said. “We came up short, but we still played better as a team.”

The Jets found their offensive rhythm in the fourth, scoring 22 points while also holding the Alvark to seven.

Togashi lit up the scoreboard with 10 of his 19 points in the final period. Edwards, who set countless picks for Togashi, had 11 of his game-high 20 points in fourth and pulled down eight rebounds. Perimeter marksman Shigehiro Taguchi added 14 points off the bench.

For Tokyo, Daiki Tanaka, last season’s B. League Final MVP (15-point, five-assist performance), came up big again. Tanaka had a team-high 16 points on 6-for-18 shooting with four assists.

He missed the final two games of the regular season while coping with a hamstring injury.

Kirk finished with 15 points, nine boards and two blocks, while Seiya Ando contributed nine points, with Zack Baranski and Joji Takeuchi each scoring six points.

Tokyo small forward Yudai Baba, who started only 12 of 59 regular-season games, was penciled into the starting lineup in all six playoff games. The Toyama Prefecture native shined in the final with 12 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two steals. Baba, a second-year pro and Japan national team player, was named the B. League Final MVP.

The Alvark won the battle on the boards (49-36), including a 14-6 edge on the offensive glass.

Asked about his club’s rebounding edge, Kirk said that it was one of the keys to victory. He noted that one of the Jets’ strengths is the collective rebounding skills of Edwards and veteran power forward Michael Parker, who snared 10 boards. He wanted to limit their effectiveness. (Exhibit A: Chiba outrebounded Tokyo 39-33, including 17-5 on offensive boards, in last year’s title clash.)

“For me,” Kirk said of his approach, “it was do the best (that) I can to keep Gavin off the glass, and obviously that’s not easy just because of his athletic ability, his speed and everything like that.”

Kirk commended the 198-cm Baba for his 12-rebound effort.

“That’s huge,” Kirk said before adding, “he had grown-man rebounds today.”

Tokyo led 16-15 after the first quarter, a 10-minute stretch in which Togashi (10 points) and Edwards scored all of Chiba’s points.

The Alvark took a 35-33 advantage into halftime.

Takeuchi drained back-to-back 3s for Tokyo’s first baskets of the second half. The second 3-ball made it 41-35, Tokyo. Indeed, it gave the Alvark a boost.

After the game, Ando revealed that the first 3-pointer was a set play going into the second half, and he said that it was “a good feeling” to commence the half.

Looking back at that stretch of the game, Pavicevic stated that “to win a championship, everybody has to be on the top level, and so was Joji.”

Speaking to reporters, he continued: “Second, to get Joji open, we had to do the right readings. Chiba is trying to mask the defenses around the pick-and-roll, and it is very important that the pick-and-roll users anticipate and that they understand where the help is shifting. . . . Joji was ready … and he hit big shots.”

The Alvark controlled the third quarter. Their ferocious defense limited the Jets’ scoring opportunities and open looks, and it was significant that Chiba was 0-for-4 on 3s in the third because of their reliance on the outside shot.

Tokyo used an 11-2 game-changing run to pull ahead 52-39 with 5:15 to go in the third. Ando, Kirk and Tanaka put the ball in the hoop during the pivotal spurt.

Montenegrin forward Milko Bjelica, a key offseason pickup who was battling a fever this weekend, made it 62-45 on a 3 with about 1:30 left in the third, and a Tanaka jumper gave Tokyo its biggest lead (64-59) with just under a minute remaining in the quarter.

“The whole team came together in the third quarter,” Pavicevic said, “and went up on Chiba by (19) points and that’s not easy to do.”

He added: “The breaking point was the great defense we did throughout the third quarter, shutting down the rebounding, shutting down the transition and shutting down the pick-and-rolls of Togashi. We didn’t give him any space. . .”

When it was over, the Alvark’s title celebration, spontaneous and euphoric like a year ago, was a stark contrast to Chiba’s solemn disappointment.

“We are full of regrettable feelings because this was the last game of the season,” said Ono, in his third season at the helm.

“We performed up to how we prepared,” he added, “but we made some mistakes in terms of judgment, and that made the difference.”

In the paint

After suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in March, Alvark forward Jawad Williams underwent surgery in the United States and began physical rehab for the injury. The University of North Carolina alum and ex-Cleveland Cavaliers player returned to Japan and joined his team throughout the playoffs to offer encouragement and support. . . . Asked afterward if Pavicevic’s reputation as an elite-level basketball coach in the former Yugoslavia and beyond will rise because of the Alvark’s second straight title, Bjelica said that this championship simply “confirmed” what he already knew.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.