There was no one to blame, but it was certainly a disappointing way to end the season for the Kawasaki Brave Thunders.
Last Friday, the B. League announced it would call off the remainder of the 2019 to 2020 campaign due to COVID-19, and would not declare a league champion.
All year, Kawasaki had been in a good position to shoot for its first title since the men’s top-tier circuit was inaugurated in 2016. At the point of the season's suspension, the Brave Thunders had a 31-9 record for the league's second-best winning percentage of 77.5.
In the end, the Central Division crown wound up being the only title the Brave Thunders earned as a team this year.
Speaking to reporters in a video news conference, veteran point guard and captain Ryusei Shinoyama said the team had been desperate for its first B. League championship after a far-from-satisfactory performance last season.
“Very,” said Shinoyama, when asked how disappointing it was for the team to miss a potential league title this year. “I just came back from an injury, so it was like I was ready to help my team achieve what we were trying to do.
“It wasn’t a cancellation that was anyone's fault,” he added, “so we are going to have to avenge this frustration next year.”
Shinoyama, 31, dislocated his left elbow — his shooting arm — in late December and was out until returning to the court on March 15 against the Levanga Hokkaido.
Nick Fazekas, Kawasaki’s best offensive player, said that it was a “strange way to end” the season and that it felt “a little unlucky” to have the team's potential championship run wrapped up before it could happen.
“We felt like we did have the best team and we were a little unlucky when it came to the All-Japan (Championship, in which Kawasaki finished runner-up),” he lamented. “We felt like we would be healthy enough in the playoffs, and we had a really good chance to win it.”
Fazekas, who finished second in points (23.2 per game) and third in rebounding (11) this season, added that the team was “happy with the results” it put out this year.
The 2018 to 2019 season was perhaps the Brave Thunders' worst since the B. League was launched. The team rarely played in sync throughout the season, and ended up being annihilated by the Utsunomiya Brex — then called the Tochigi Brex — in a series sweep in the first round of the playoffs.
Fazekas insisted that year's squad did not “have the right mix of guys,” while off-season upgrades before the 2019 to 2020 campaign changed “the outlook of the team.”
Last summer, Kawasaki acquired All-Star forward Naoya Kumagae and shooter Yuto Otsuka while also signing imports Jordan Heath and Mathias Calfani. Uruguayan Calfani saw his season end in December with a knee injury, but all four arrivals contributed to the team’s run.
Shinoyama, whose outgoing character has made him a league star, said that winning was not the only objective for the team but that it was its “mission” to provide its fans “courage and energy” through its players’ performance — on and off the court. That said, he thinks the Brave Thunders met those objectives in the abruptly shortened season.
The two national team regulars expressed regret about the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics but agreed it was the correct decision, and that their aspirations to compete on sport's biggest stage remain unchanged.
“It’s another disappointing way to have to postpone that,” said Fazekas, who naturalized in 2018 and represented Japan at last year’s FIBA World Cup in China. “But hopefully, by the time the Olympics come around next year, we’ll be back in a better place and the Olympics will still be a big place to set the world back on the right path.”
Shinoyama thinks the extra year could be a valuable period for Japan basketball in general, including the national squad, to develop further.
“In terms of (Japanese) basketball, it can develop every day, every week and every month,” he said. “The B. League finished its fourth year and every season, we’ve improved.
“If this year’s national team faced next year’s national team, I believe next year’s team would be better. So every player and league gets better, and hopefully, we can go into next year’s Olympics being more than ready.”