SAITAMA – With the FIBA World Cup just around the corner, the Japan men’s national team will head to China with confidence, but also with some issues that need to be fixed.
The squad played a series of warm-up games against New Zealand, Argentina, Germany and Tunisia in preparation for the World Cup, which kicks off on Saturday. Japan will also face Tunisia in a practice game on Tuesday in Tokyo before departing for Shanghai, its first-round site for the World Cup.
Japan played three contests before full-house crowds at Saitama Super Arena, falling against world No. 5 Argentina and Tunisia while pulling off an upset of Germany. The team posted a victory over New Zealand in its first exhibition earlier this month.
“We competed against three tough teams and gained valuable experience and confidence by earning a win over Germany,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas said after the 78-76 loss to Tunisia on Sunday. “So we were able to see the potential of what we could do at the World Cup. But we are facing European countries and the Dream Team, and in order for us to compete on par against those teams, we’ll still have to make adjustments.”
The East Asians will take on Turkey, the Czech Republic and the United States in Group E of the opening round.
For Sunday’s contest against Tunisia, Lamas rested ace player Rui Hachimura, the Washington Wizards’ first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft, and starting point guard Ryusei Shinoyama, who injured his right thumb. So the result could have easily gone the other way.
As Lamas and some of his players stated, posting wins over New Zealand and Germany, who are both placed higher in the FIBA rankings helped the team build confidence.
“To be honest, these three games (at Saitama) have given us confidence,” Yuta Watanabe, who is one of the team’s core players, said. “We played well against Argentina and Germany. Tunisia’s rank isn’t so high (at No. 51), but they have a good center (Salah Mejri), who has played in the NBA.”
In addition to playing three close games in Saitama, the Japanese team showed resiliency down the stretch in each, a trait the country has lacked in previous years.
During Saturday’s 86-83 win over the Germans, Japan bounced back from a 12-point deficit and came through in crunch time by rallying around Hachimura and Watanabe, the latter being the only Japanese player with NBA experience.
“We beat Germany, and although we ended up losing to Argentina and Tunisia, we recovered from the deficits we had in the first half in the second half,” Watanabe said. “We have room to improve going toward the World Cup, but I think we can move forward with confidence.”
Long-time national team forward Kosuke Takeuchi said Japanese players used to be intimidated when taking on powerhouse teams. But he said beating teams like Australia last year during the Asian qualifiers and Germany in Saitama has given Japan a new outlook.
“We now have players like Rui and Yuta, plus (Yudai) Baba and (Makoto) Hiejima, who challenged in America (in the NBA Summer League) this year. They have brought their experiences to this team and it’s guided us in a positive direction,” the 34-year-old Takeuchi said. “We’d been afraid just by the name (of opposing teams), but that’s no longer the case and we are going into every game with a stronger mentality now.”
Meanwhile, reducing errors, among other issues, will be key to Japan’s hopes of reaching its potential at the World Cup.
Lamas and many of his players stressed that they would have to improve their defense and rebounding. Watanabe said if Japan does not rebound well against opponents like the U.S., then those teams are going to make second-chance shots at a higher rate. That’s a scenario that would seriously hinder Japan’s chances of winning.
The team is also conscious of relying too much on Hachimura, who carried Japan to a pair of warm-up wins by scoring over 30 points in those games.
“Rui was leading us, so other guys around him tried to follow him,” Watanabe said after the German game. “We’re not going to win with just Rui’s scoring against the world’s best teams. So I tried to step up as well.”