Despite his team not having home-court advantage throughout the upcoming postseason, Kawasaki Brave Thunders star center Nick Fazekas says his team is confident and “the team to beat” in the Eastern Conference.
Fazekas’ statements may have merit. The team ended the regular season on a high note with a seven-game winning streak. During that stretch, the Brave Thunders swept a trio of powerhouse clubs — the Chiba Jets, Utsunomiya Brex and Sunrockers Shibuya.
Yet despite the late-season run, Kawasaki finished third in the conference with a 43-16 record and will face the Osaka Evessa starting Saturday in a best-of-three quarterfinal round.
“We just feel like we’re the team to beat, where we’re sort of the favorite going into this thing,” Fazekas told The Japan Times in an online interview last week.
For most of the 2020-21 season, Kawasaki struggled to build consistency, which in part came from a series of injuries to some of their core players. That was especially the case in the middle of the season as the team went 5-8 between Dec. 13 and Feb. 3.
Fazekas, who obtained Japanese citizenship in 2018 and has been one of the team’s leaders, revealed that an 86-85 loss to the Shimane Susanoo Magic on Jan. 31 was a turning point for he and his teammates.
“After we lost that second game against Shimane, we kind of all (talked) heart to heart,” Fazekas said. “We all were like, let some emotion get involved in the locker room. And some guys said some things and I really think that after that game we were going to figure this thing out, and from that point forward, we tried to use the ‘Big Lineup’ a little bit more.
“I was adamant that we used it, I felt like that was going to be the best line for us. And from that point forward, we really tried to work that into our repertoire. And that’s become such a big piece of why we’re winning, I believe.”
The Big Lineup refers to the team’s use of three foreign-born players on the court rather than the usually allowed two — possible because of Fazekas’ naturalized status. Kawasaki’s four foreign-born players are tall and versatile, giving them a lot of advantages at both ends of the floor.
“(Defenders) can’t help (each other) too much because (of) the ability for the three of us to be able to pass, catch, shoot,” the 207-centimeter former NBA player said. “It’s just become a really deadly combo for us.”
Elsewhere, the development of the team’s Japanese players is also notable and Kawasaki’s squad is as deep as any team in the league. Fazekas said that all of his teammates have “a lot of confidence.”
“These guys come in and get to play a little bit more freely, knowing that we do have 12 guys, that we do have a lot of different lineups, that we do have a lot of different directions that we go,” the 35-year-old said. “So if you go in there and you make a mistake, it’s not that big of a deal.”
Fazekas has captured two league titles since arriving in Japan, both in the National Basketball League when the team played as the Toshiba Brave Thunders. That’s not a feat they have achieved since the launch of the B. League.
But this year may finally be their year. Asked if this year’s team is the best he has played on during his nine years in Japan, Fazekas paid respect to his past teams but added that this year’s Brave Thunders are “better in the sense that we can go so big and have so many skilled players.”
“So yeah,” said Fazekas, whose team fell to the Brex in the championship game in the circuit’s inaugural 2016-17 season. “This is probably the best thing that I’ve been on since I’ve been here.”
This season, the 2016-17 B. League MVP has averaged 20.7 points and 9.7 rebounds — both career lows in Japan. But as Fazekas always says when playing for Japan’s national team, he is totally fine if someone else picks up the slack as long as his team wins.
His accuracy has been at career-high levels, with impressive shooting percentages of 53.4% from the field, 44.3% from outside the arc and 84.8% from the free-throw line this year.
“There’s always been a goal of mine to always try to go for 50/40/90,” Fazekas said. “And I was at like, 53/44/85.
“I don’t know if anyone else in the league is shooting those kinds of percentages — all three across the board. So I was happy with the way I shot. Of course, back in the day when I first was here, I’d get 27, 28 (points) doing all that. But yeah, I’ve always sort of prided myself on efficiency. And I feel that’s where it’s at.”
The Brave Thunders will certainly enter the playoffs with chips on their shoulders, following the pandemic-enforced cancellation of the 2019-20 postseason the team thought it had a legitimate chance of winning.
The 2018-19 campaign, which ended with Kawasaki being demolished by the Brex in the playoffs’ first round, was perhaps one of the rockiest seasons Fazekas has experienced in his career.
But Fazekas said that if his team wins it all this year, it will all pay off after the 2018-19 season inspired the club to rebuild its squad.
“Thinking about that experience (two years ago), and thinking about how frustrating it was, it kind of makes this experience a little bit more sweet and (makes me) a little bit more grateful,” the University of Nevada alumnus said. “Because we have a team. That’s a special team and a team that can arguably be the best team in the league. So now to me, it’s like we need to try to take advantage of this because I’ve been on the other side, where this team isn’t even close to being one of the best.”
Meanwhile, Fazekas could be busy after the season is over, with a possible spot in the Akatsuki Five at the Tokyo Olympics awaiting him.
He said that he has not really dwelled on the games, focusing instead on the Brave Thunders.
“I don’t know what direction the national team’s going. With Ryan (Rossiter of the Brex) and Gavin (Edwards of the Chiba Jets Funabashi) having Japanese passports now, it’s like, who knows what’s going to happen?” Fazekas said. “But it’s not really my focus right now. I got my chance to go to the World Cup (in 2019), and that was a fun experience. And it was an experience that I’ll probably never forget.”
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