Basketball / B. League | B. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Teams regroup after long layoff for season's stretch run

The revamped playoff format, which was revealed on Tuesday, created a different reality for teams in the hunt for the 2019-20 title: a smaller margin of error.

Every possession, every quarter, every half and every game will have a greater impact on the season’s final outcome, especially during the seven top-flight playoff contests.

Instead of eight teams getting the opportunity to vie for a spot in the semifinals in best-of-three quarterfinals, the revised schedule now features a winner-take-all setup. Pro sports leagues throughout Japan, including the J. League and NPB, have postponed or canceled events due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

The B. League will resume its regular-season schedule on Friday. Games through April 1 will be held behind closed doors without fans, but media will cover games from venues across the nation. The relaunched regular season is now scheduled to end on May 4.

The quarterfinal series, originally set to be played between April 23 and 27, is now set for May 6 or 7.

The two semifinal series are also now set up as single-elimination marquee matches on May 9. The semis were previously scheduled for May 1-5.

The rescheduled B. League final, now set for May 11 at Yokohama Arena, pushed back the playoff finale by a couple days. It was originally scheduled for May 9.

Eight of 16 B1 teams have winning records with nearly two-thirds of the 60-game campaign completed. The two-time reigning champion Alvark Tokyo, Utsunomiya Brex and Kawasaki Brave Thunders lead the way with identical 30-9 records. The Chiba Jets, who are seeking the ultimate glory after back-to-back title runner-up finishes, are 28-11. The Emperor’s Cup champion Sunrockers Shibuya (26-13), Ryukyu Golden Kings (25-14), Osaka Evessa (24-15) and Shiga Lakestars (21-18, winners of five straight) also sit above .500.

Alvark coach Luka Pavicevic, who’s in his third season at the helm, reflected on the league’s current situation in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.

Regarding the long layoff (B1 teams have not played since Feb. 16 or 17), the Serbian mentor stated that it “could not be avoided.”

Pavicevic admitted that there will be a “possible dip in performance” for certain teams, but this is “something we have to expect and deal with.”

When the topic of the unexpected recess during the season due to the coronavirus was mentioned, Pavicevic said that it will cause greater difficulties for some teams than others.

“For some teams,” he told The Japan Times, “the break came in the wrong moment; other teams needed this pause, to refresh, regroup, pause and rebuild their name after the very busy schedule in the first 39 rounds.

“In my opinion, it’s almost as if a new season is starting from the beginning. We will have to start from zero ground and compete with most of the teams to reach the best possible performance as soon as possible. The biggest challenge for us will be to navigate through the tough schedule of the East Conference games in a positive way. With these 21 games left, it will be a great fight in the East to reach the playoffs or fight for the better seed.”

Resuming the season again presents challenges for all teams, according to Pavicevic, who recognizes the significance of staging games at this difficult time due to the coronavirus.

“Competitive shape is not easy to maintain without games; neither the focus nor inspiration for practice, considering the uncertainty of the present moment,” Pavicevic conceded. “However, I think that the motivation will be very high and so will be the level of energy and intensity of the players who had an unwanted rest.”

He continued: “I hope that the packed ending goes well, keeping everyone’s health and that competition continues in a fair way and positive way and bringing joy to basketball fans in Japan, who will not be able to follow it from the courts anymore.”

The SeaHorses Mikawa (17-22) and Toyama Grouses (16-23) are also vying for the second playoff spot in the Central Division, with both trailing Kawasaki by a big margin.

Despite missing two-plus weeks of the season from late February through Wednesday, SeaHorses forward J.R. Sakuragi believes his club’s players have stayed in tip-top physical shape.

“I don’t think it’s that much of a concern,” Sakuragi told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “Because the players’ condition can be monitored during the week and necessary adjustments can be made as far as the intensity of the training.

“The break is actually a good thing because injuries normally occur around this time due to fatigue. Players have a chance to heal and strength train to regain muscle that was lost.”

Is longtime Mikawa coach Kimikazu Suzuki’s squad getting enough practice time to stay in competitive shape for the rest of the season and a possible trip to the playoffs?

“I can’t speak for other teams, but we are definitely getting enough practice time,” said Sakuragi, a second-round pick of the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1998 NBA Draft. “We play real games in practice and push each other to play hard. Players care about winning and losing so it makes it competitive.”

Asked if he believes the SeaHorses can maintain their position as the Central Division’s No. 2 team and secure a playoff berth, Sakuragi said yes.

“We are currently not in the wild-card position,” Sakuragi noted. “But we are confident that we will finish second in our conference and secure a playoff spot.”

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