Basketball

New Zealand gets best of Japan's 'Big Three' in warm-up game

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Japan’s men’s national team was left with a bitter pill to swallow after a 104-87 loss against New Zealand on Wednesday in a warm-up game at Culttz Kawasaki for the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China.

The Akatsuki Five had defeated the same opponent 99-89 in Chiba on Monday.

Ethan Rusbatch scored a team-high 16 points for New Zealand and four other players finished in double digits for the Tall Blacks, who punched their World Cup ticket with a 10-2 record during the Asian qualifiers.

Japan’s Rui Hachimura led all scorers with 19 points and pulled down nine rebounds. American-born Japanese center Nick Fazekas was right behind the star with 17 points. Athletic forward Yudai Baba, who participated in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas last month, chipped in with 12 points, 10 of which came from the free-throw line, where he was 10-for-12, and two steals.

“We got off to a bad start in the game. We tried to regroup in the second half, but (New Zealand) is a tough team that’s competed in the World Cup multiple times and we couldn’t stop their momentum,” said Hachimura, who was drafted by the Washington Wizards in the first round of June’s NBA Draft. “But we want to work harder from here on out.”

Yuta Watanabe, who had been sidelined since he hurt his right ankle during a recent training camp, made his comeback to the floor and was in the starting lineup for head coach Julio Lamas’ squad. The 24-year-old forward, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies on a two-way contract, scored 6 points playing in 10 minutes, 49 seconds.

“It was fun to play out there,” Watanabe said, referring to playing with Hachimura and Fazekas forming “Japan’s Big Three” for the first time. “I’d been told (I’d) play 10 minutes today. I hadn’t been able to practice since I got injured and I need to learn more about our strategies. But it felt good to be able to play for the first time in a while.”

Unlike Monday’s contest, this was “a practice game” for the two sides. Both teams registered 14 players each. Akatsuki Five fan club members were allowed to watch the contest.

Japan will compete against Argentina, Germany and Tunisia on Aug. 22, 24 and 25, respectively, at Saitama Super Arena, in another set of warm-up games.

The FIBA World Cup will kick off on Aug. 31 in China. Japan’s first game against Turkey will be held Sept. 1 in Shanghai.

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