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The Kawasaki Brave Thunders are determined to accomplish big things with their signature “Big Lineup.”

With the 2020-21 playoffs around the corner, the Brave Thunders are currently seen by many as one of the league’s legitimate title contenders.

Kawasaki extended its record since Feb. 6 to 22-3 following Saturday’s dominant 108-88 win over the Sunrockers Shibuya. That result extended the team’s winning streak to seven games, including a pair of two-game series sweeps against powerhouses Chiba Jets and Utsunomiya Brex.

One of the major components that have made the late-season run possible for the Kanagawa Prefecture club, which finished runner-up in the league’s inaugural 2016-17 campaign, is that their Big Lineup is working so effectively.

Per the league regulations, each team is allowed to use up to two import players on the court. Yet because 207-centimeter MVP center Nick Fazekas is a naturalized player, the Brave Thunders can use three foreign-born players, giving them an advantage over other teams.

While other teams can do the same with a naturalized player, Kawasaki’s corps stands out with their versatility and high basketball IQ, which make it possible for the team to adjust to any opponent or situation.

Fazekas, along with fellow big men Jordan Heath (208 cm), Mathias Calfani (204 cm) and Pablo Aguilar (203 cm), have become the core of the Brave Thunders’ strategy as they look to capture their first B. League championship.

“We struggled to adjust to their Big Lineup,” Alvark Tokyo guard Seiya Ando said after their 92-72 loss to Kawasaki at Todoroki Arena on Wednesday night. “They were almost as good as they could possibly be — that’s my honest impression of them.”

Kawasaki head coach Kenji Sato speaks to his players during Saturday's game against the Sunrockers. | COURTESY OF THE KAWASAKI BRAVE THUNDERS
Kawasaki head coach Kenji Sato speaks to his players during Saturday’s game against the Sunrockers. | COURTESY OF THE KAWASAKI BRAVE THUNDERS

Earlier in the season, the Brave Thunders struggled to capitalize on the Big Lineup. While using three foreign-born players gave a size advantage, it occasionally forced the team to play at a slower pace on both sides of the ball.

But head coach Kenji Sato and his staff have found ways to make up for the weaknesses, adding more ball movement and finding ways to take advantage of mismatches created by defensive switching.

Support from import players has reduced the burden on Fazekas, especially on offense when others can come through and score from inside or outside — even when the former NBA player is heavily guarded.

Through Saturday’s games, Fazekas averaged 20.5 points — the fewest in his nine-year career in Japan — but also recorded 3.7 assists, tying last year for his best.

The Brave Thunders have recorded 23.5 assists on average this season, topping the first division.

The Alvark and Brave Thunders shared a two-game series to open the 2020-21 season last October, and Ando noted how differently the latter team looked after changing its use of the Big Lineup.

“Fazekas has the ability to make passes like a guard, so for example he’ll do things like dribble the ball from the backcourt on his own and dish lob passes,” said Ando, who played alongside Fazekas for Japan at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. “And it was something that they didn’t do against us in our season-opening series. So having played against them again, I felt that they are playing as well as they’d like to with their Big Lineup.”

The Big Lineup gives opponents problems as well. Sato said that because his imports are tall but fast, the team is now able to protect the rim better. Individually, Heath is the reigning shot-blocking leader and Aguilar currently ranks second in steals with 1.9 per game.

In the first round of the 2018-19 postseason, Kawasaki was completely tamed by Utsnomiya’s ferocious trap defense and wound up being swept to end its season. In the two games, the Brave Thunders gave up a combined 21 steals and committed 30 turnovers.

But against today’s Kawasaki, there may not be any teams capable of defending as boldly as the Brex did two years ago.

Brex head coach Ryuzo Anzai said after a 75-67 loss to Kawasaki on Tuesday that his team attempted to blitz their opponents. He added, however, that his team could not do so because committing multiple defenders to the Brave Thunders’ Japanese guards would free up their imports, giving them a better chance to score using their size advantage.

“We tried to use (traps) a few times today,” Anzai said after the April 25 game. “It was about timing, but we were a little hesitant about that.”

Kawasaki point guard and captain Ryusei Shinoyama insisted after the aforementioned sweeps of the Brex that the Big Lineup has worked “more effectively” since it captured a title at the All-Japan Championship in mid-March.

“Utsunomiya is one of the top contenders for the championship,” he said. “To beat a team like that on the road, it certainly gave us confidence.”

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