Midway through the second quarter against Spain on Monday night, Japan managed to bounce back and successfully tie the game at 26-all when Yuki Togashi and Rui Hachimura knocked down consecutive 3-pointers.
And the Akatsuki Five showcased some other highlight-worthy plays like a Hachimura monster slam over Pau Gasol, another off-turnover dunk by Yudai Baba and back-to-back shots from behind the arc by Kosuke Kanamaru.
But overall, all the host nation took back from Saitama Super Arena was a harsh lesson in why their European opponent is the defending Olympic champion and ranks No. 2 in the world.
Japan, competing in its first men’s basketball tournament at the Summer Games in 45 years, could not come up with answers to star Spanish guard Ricky Rubio in particular during its 88-77 loss.
The challenge of containing the Minnesota Timberwolves veteran first fell to Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe, who is long and is known for his defensive excellence. Later in the contest, Baba, another solid and athletic defender, was tasked with guarding Rubio.
At the end of the day, however, their efforts barely affected the 2019 FIBA World Cup MVP, who ended up with a game-high 20 points and nine assists.
Rubio posted a plus/minus of +27, meaning that his team scored 27 more points than his opponent while he was on the court — the highest such figure in Monday’s game. He had zero turnovers as well.
Japan tied in the second quarter while Rubio was on the bench. But the guard returned to the floor after a Spain timeout and the team looked a lot different from that moment on. Japan was completely tamed by Rubio, who scored nine points and made three masterful assists in the last five minutes before halftime.
Those five minutes were a nightmare for Japan, for whom the tied game quickly descended into a 48-28 deficit.
“Once we figured out how to play defense, how to run open court, get some stops, we played our game,” Rubio said after the game. “We did better on both ends of the court and that helped us make the run and we kept the lead in the second half. That’s it.”
Japan still took away some positives from the defeat. The world’s 42nd-ranked country – lowest among the 12 participating teams at these Tokyo Games — never backed down and continued to compete throughout the 40-minute contest, outscoring Spain 28-21 and 21-19 in the final two quarters.
Despite the result, the performance demonstrated a team mentality that has improved since the 2019 FIBA World Cup, when a shell-shocked Japan struggled to play its game against some of the world’s best — including the United States — and returned home with a disappointing 0-5 record.
“Obviously, Spain is a great team. They’ve got a lot of good players. They won the World Cup two years ago,” Japan co-captain Watanabe said. “But we competed throughout the game. They made a great run at the end of the second quarter, but we never gave up. We just competed until the end. I’m happy with our effort in the game.”
Japan head coach Julio Lamas echoed Watanabe’s thoughts: “I think we played better than two years ago. It wasn’t good enough to beat Spain today but we felt comfortable (with the way we played) in the second quarter.”
The Akatsuki Five will need to have the same mental readiness and start clicking a little earlier than they did against Spain when they face Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic and his Slovenia at 1:40 p.m. on Thursday.
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