Yuta Watanabe covered his face with his jersey and a towel, sat on the bench for a few minutes and reflected on a disappointing Olympic tournament.
After three humbling games at the Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese men’s basketball team showed that it still has plenty of work to do to close a wide gap between Japan and the world’s best teams.
Japan made an early exit from the Games having gone winless, ending their tournament with a 97-77 loss to Argentina in their final Group B contest at Saitama Super Arena on Sunday.
Both teams had gotten off to an 0-2 start and needed to win to stay alive.
Japan trailed by as many as 14 in the first half, but went on a nice run to bring its deficit down to four points at the beginning of the second half and managed to stay in the game through the third quarter. But the South American team took their play up a notch in the final quarter, preventing the Akatsuki Five from notching their first Olympic win in 45 years.
Argentina’s ageless bigman Luis Scola scored a game-high 23 points on 5-for-8 3-point shooting and Denver Nuggets point guard Facundo Campazzo chipped in with 17 points and 11 assists.
Japan’s ace Rui Hachimura didn’t have his usual shooting touch and was limited to 13 points. Yudai Baba entertained viewers with a pair of slam dunks and led the team with 18 points while Watanabe was the team’s second-leading scorer with 17.
Japan, which was competing in its first Olympics since the 1976 Montreal Games, showed that it lacks depth, as it got just six points from its bench compared to 31 for world No. 4 Argentina.
Japan had to compete without Gavin Edwards, who injured his left shoulder during Thursday’s 116-81 loss to Slovenia.
Japan, which is ranked No. 42, was not expecting to start winning at the highest level of international basketball right away. After going 0-5 in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, it had set a goal of getting one win at these Games.
But the harsh reality is that it lost all of its three games by an average margin of 22 points, perhaps indicating that a win was too lofty of a goal.
“I think we are better than (we were) two years ago. This is so important. Our players are better and our team is better. Our defense is better, our rebounding is a little better,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas said. “I checked the advanced stats to know this. This group was tougher than the one in the World Cup. We had zero experience back then. Now we have it, not as (much as) Argentina and Spain, but we have it now.”
Hachimura held his head up because Japan has “just started” and is “still a young team.”
“Now we need to have more experiences like this, more games like these as a team,” the forward for the NBA’s Washington Wizards said. “It sucks because we lost three times on our home court. We did everything we could have done. We’ve just got to get better.”
Scola, who is 41 and competing in his fifth straight Summer Games, said that Japanese basketball is “in a good place” because it already has talent.
“They just need to get over the hump,” Scola said. “They need to believe that they can beat good teams and they will be (able to) because they have enough talent. Hachimura is a top player. Watanabe is a very good player. The other guys are role players but they are good. They shoot the ball well. They are trained well. They’ve got a lot of discipline. They’ve got a lot of potential here in Japan.”
He continued: “I think they’ve got a good future here for basketball. They just need to work a little bit and believe they can be a good team. They don’t have much history. They haven’t done many things in the past. But they’ve got to think big and they are going to achieve good things.”
With the win, Argentina, the 2004 Olympics gold medalists, earned a spot in the quarterfinals as a wildcard. Germany took the other wildcard position.
Slovenia, France, Australia, Spain, the United States and Italy also moved through to the knockout stage.
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