DONGGUAN, CHINA – Despite playing without two key members, the Japan men’s national squad expected to have a tough contest against another competitive team.
But probably not this tough.
The team remains winless at the FIBA World Cup after a crushing 111-81 defeat to New Zealand in a classification round game at Dongguan Basketball Center on Saturday.
Center Nick Fazekas single-handedly guided Japan with 31 points, but it was far from enough.
In the first quarter, the naturalized Japanese player scored 17 points, helping the Akatsuki Five hold a 29-29 tie after the opening period.
But New Zealand seized momentum at the start of the second quarter with a 16-3 run, then pulled away from Japan the rest of the way.
The Tall Blacks relied heavily on their high-paced, offensive-oriented game, which enabled them to be the second-highest scoring team (94.7 points per game) in the 32-nation field behind Serbia, entering Saturday.
Japan, which went 1-1 in a pair of home exhibitions against the Oceanians last month, didn’t have an answer for the Tall Blacks on this day.
The Akatsuki Five, who were allocated to the classification round after going 0-3 in the first round in Shanghai, missed star forward Rui Hachimura (knee injuries, general fatigue) and starting point guard Ryusei Shinoyama (fractured left toe, which was sustained in Thursday’s 98-45 loss to the United States).
“New Zealand is a team that attacks in transition using pick-and-rolls and early offense,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas said after the game. “We were certainly careful about it. But we could not really carry out our game plan.”
Meanwhile, Fazekas, who had been more like a sidekick to Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe in the tournament, took the spotlight for Japan in this game. He made 5 of 7 3-point attempts and grabbed nine rebounds, including five offensive boards.
“Rui’s an important part (of the team),” said the 34-year-old center, who had 24 points in the first half. “But at the same time, I got a lot of faith in the 10 guys that played today. I feel like those 10 guys were capable of beating New Zealand, capable of beating Montenegro (our next opponent). So I just tried to lead the way, just tried to show, ‘I’m coming out, I’m going to compete, I’m not going to lay down.’ So that’s what I tried to do at the beginning. I tried to get the guys to kind of follow my lead.
“We had the 29-29 first quarter, but after that, we just kind of beat ourselves. Just looking at the stats, we had a poor shooting percentage (34.7 percent overall). When you give up 111 points, it’s going to be very hard to win.”
Daiki Tanaka, who finished with 10 points, was Japan’s only other double-digit scorer. Watanabe and Yudai Baba, who showcased some explosive plays against the United States, had nine points each.
Watanabe said that his team “played a shameful game.”
“I don’t think there’s as much of a gap (with New Zealand) as the game indicated today,” said Watanabe, who is serving as a co-captain for Japan at the FIBA World Cup. “We just failed to respond to how they played against us.”
For New Zealand, which went 1-2 behind Brazil and Greece in Group F in the first round, shooting guard Corey Webster led the team with 27 points, five rebounds and six assists. He knocked down four 3-pointers. Power forward Isaac Fotu and Webster’s younger brother Tai Webster chipped in with 23 and 15 points, respectively.
New Zealand made 55 percent of its 3s (18 of 33) and handed out 27 assists, including Tai Webster’s nine
Lamas, who guided his native Argentine to a fourth-place finish at the 2012 London Olympics, admitted that the losing streak in China has been a shock to his players.
“Because we came in the World Cup in good shape, the four straight losses have hurt our team,” Lamas said. “Hopefully, we’ll come up with a win in our final game.”
Japan meets Montenegro at 3:30 p.m. (JST) on Monday.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5