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Japan Cruises Past Kazakhstan in Teams’ FIBA Asia Cup Opener

The Akatsuki Five outscored their Group C opponent 55-20 in the second half, turning a close game into a rout.

Yuta Watanabe scored a game-high 21 points and Keisei Tominaga made a big impact with 13 third-quarter points, helping set the tone for Japan in its FIBA Asia Cup opener on Wednesday, July 13.

The Akatsuki Five trailed 48-45 at halftime, then overwhelmed Group C opponent Kazakhstan over the final 20 minutes en route to a 100-68 victory in Jakarta.

“I was very happy with our effort throughout the game,” Japan coach Tom Hovasse said, “but in the second half our defensive effort and energy, I think, went to another level. And that’s what we need to do moving forward.”

Kazakhstan coach Oleg Kiselev said his opponent had a stellar performance.

“The national team of Japan fought very hard and they did a very good job,” Kiselev told reporters after the match.

In addition to his 21 points and 8-for-15 shooting from the floor, NBA veteran Watanabe, a restricted free agent, had eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks while playing a team-high 29-plus minutes. It was Watanabe’s first game for the national team since last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

“Offensively, he found his way as an experienced player would,” Hovasse said of Watanabe, who has played for the Memphis Grizzlies (2018-20) and Toronto Raptors (2020-22). I don’t think his shot was on, but he knows how to score.”

Japan big man Luke Evans, an inside anchor for the B.League’s Fighting Eagles Nagoya, added 17 points and nine rebounds. Yudai Nishida contributed 16 points, including 4-for-5 on 3-point attempts. Other key contributions came from backups Yutaro Suda (nine points) and Yuki Kawamura (eight points and a game-high eight assists) and starting point guard Yuki Togashi (six points and five assists).

Analyzing Kawamura’s performance in just over 13 minutes on the court, Hovasse said: “He’s a young guy, but he’s confident. He knows his role. I thought he was great tonight. He really made an impact on the game.”

Opportunistic Defense

Holding Kazakhstan to 20 second-half points was a direct result of “some [defensive] adjustments that carried over to the second half,” Hovasse noted.

“I think the adjustments that we made on the defensive end really changed the game.”

Breaking down what happened on the court, the Akatsuki Five coach explained, “They weren’t getting open looks. They weren’t attacking the paint. We caused a lot of turnovers, and what that did was it got us going on the offensive end and in transition.”

Japan finished with a 25-2 advantage in fast-break points. 

The team’s speed was also on display on defense. Japan utilized its quickness and aggressive tactics to make 18 steals, with six players finishing with two or more steals, including Nishida and Tominaga with three apiece.

Third-Quarter Turnaround

Tominaga, a University of Nebraska guard, provided a big spark in the third quarter as Japan pulled away from Kazakhstan. He sank 3 of 4 3s in the third and scored all of his 13 points during the game-changing period.

Dmitriy Gavrilov made two free throws with 5:19 to play in the third quarter, giving Kazakhstan a 57-55 lead.

Tominaga then helped ignite Japan’s 17-4 scoring spurt to close out the third. He knocked down a 3 to put Japan ahead 60-55 at the 3:34 mark. He drained another 3 to stretch the advantage to 69-59 with 2:05 left in the quarter.

For good measure, Tominaga made a steal and flushed a 3 through the net with 47 seconds remaining in the third. That gave Japan a 74-59 lead, the same numbers that appeared on the scoreboard at the start of the final stanza.

“This game will be good for his confidence moving forward,” Hovasse said of Tominaga, who’ll enter his junior season at Nebraska this fall.

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Energy and Hustle

Defensive tenacity was a hallmark of Japan's dynamic third-quarter effort Japan made eight steals in the quarter.

Kazakhstan finished with 23 overall turnovers, and Watanabe was front and center in the Akatsuki Five's disruptive tactics on defense, teaming up with up-and-coming national team players like Kawamura and Tominaga, both of whom are 21.

“I thought Yuta was like playing off their energy in the second half,” Hovasse said of Watanabe’s synergy with the team’s younger players.

“I could see joy from that. The young players are hungry and they have a lot of energy. … It was fun to see.”

Kiselev said rebounding was a key factor in the game, noting Japan had 49 rebounds to Kazakhstan’s 35.

Japan shot 36-for-82 from the floor and held its opponent to 22-for-54.

Kazakhstan’s Roman Marchuk, who scored a team-high 15 points, said Japan’s runaway victory was a big surprise.

“We never expected that the [final result] would be what happened,” Marchuk stated.

Looking at how the second half transpired, Kiselev summed it up this way: “We can conclude that we ran out of energy.”

A Look Ahead

Kazakhstan faces Iran on Friday, July 15.

In the group phase of the tournament, Japan, ranked 38th in the world, faces Group C foe Syria on Friday and world No. 23 Iran two days later.

Australia defeated Iran in the FIBA Asia Cup final in 2017, in the previous edition of the continental competition.

The 16-nation FIBA Asia Cup runs through July 24.

Author: Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward's [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.


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