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[ODDS and EVENS] Gunma Crane Thunders Cap Storybook Season with B. League Second-Division Title

Fifth-year coach Fujitaka Hiraoka, a steady, resolute figure on the sideline, and his players completed their remarkable journey with a 98-75 victory over the Ibaraki Robots in Game 3 of the B2 finals.



The Gunma Crane Thunders celebrate their title-clinching victory in Game 3 of the B. League second division playoff finals on May 24 in Ota, Gunma Prefecture. (B. League)


OTA, GUNMA PREFECTURE ー Truth be told, the Gunma Crane Thunders didn't have a perfect season, but they came pretty darn close. 

Let's begin by mentioning that they went 29-0 in home games in the 2020-21 B. League season. The second-division powerhouse went on to win 52 of 57 overall games in the regular season, then conquered the Yamagata Wyverns, Koshigaya Alphas and Ibaraki Robots in the playoffs. (To put their magical 52-5 record in context, consider that the NBA's Golden State Warriors set a league record with a 73-9 record in the 2015-16 season, and the Chicago Bulls went 72-10 in 1995-96.)

Fifth-year coach Fujitaka Hiraoka, a steady, resolute figure on the sideline, and his players completed their remarkable journey with a 98-75 victory over the Robots in Game 3 of the B2 finals on Monday, May 24 at Ota City Sports Park Civic Gymnasium.

Previously, Hiraoka was often overlooked when the topic was about top-caliber pro basketball coaches in Japan. That's changed now. The 47-year-old, who began his coaching career as a Niigata Albirex BB assistant in 2005, has reaped the rewards of hard work, smart game-plan strategies and a commitment to fundamentals.

The Crane Thunders didn't win a B. League-record 33 consecutive games by accident (from October 16 to February 6; then, after a loss to the Sendai 89ers on February 13, they strung together another 15-game victory streak). Hiraoka kept his players focused and hungry ー and maybe a bit ruthless in pursuit of their goals.

A native of Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, Hiraoka didn't jump up and down and brag about the team's title when he was handed a microphone after the game as Crane Thunders fans were soaking up the euphoria of victory. (Watch highlights of the game here.)

Instead, Hiraoka displayed humility and a one-for-all mindset.

"I was able to win the championship with the support of everyone," Hiraoka told the crowd.

RELATED STORY: [ODDS and EVENS] Gunma Crane Thunders' Epic Win Streak Accentuates Team Chemistry, Talent

Team leader Michael Parker said:  "It was a great game. We came out with a lot of energy. We knew we had to start strong after a tough loss yesterday, and I think we did it, so it was great."

Great is the perfect word to describe the Crane Thunders' season. 

Their only home loss of the regular season and playoffs came in game No. 63, the one Parker cited.

The series began in Ota City on Saturday, May 22, with the hosts winning 94-80. The Robots extended the series to the limit with an 83-80 road victory in Game 2 on Sunday, May 23. 

"I was really tough on the players, and asked them to play [tough] until the end," Hiraoka revealed later, reacting to the Game 2 defeat. 

Two days later, the franchise that played its first game in the now-defunct bj-league in 2012, the Crane Thunders were champions.

By virtue of advancing to the finals, both clubs earned promotion to B1 (aka the first division) for the 2021-22 season. This year, there were 20 B1 teams. The league decided to increase the size of B1 to 22 clubs for next season.

Veteran guard Masaashi Obuchi, who has played for the Crane Thunders since 2013, expressed joy while putting into words what the team's promotion to B1 means to him.

"We played in front of many fans and achieved the goal we set before the season," Obuchi, an Ota Technical High School graduate, was quoted as saying by the Jomo Shimbun, a local newspaper.

Impressive Play in Series Finale

En route to their title-clinching win, the Crane Thunders attacked the basket again and again. They also dominated inside, as evidenced by the points-in-the paint breakdown: Gunma 66, Ibaraki 30.

It was an upbeat, high-intensity celebration of basketball from start to finish for the participants. It was an exciting spectacle to observe for the 1,902 masked spectators on hand to witness the final game of the B2 playoffs.

Former University of Montana center Brian Qvale scored the Crane Thunders' first basket in the championship series finale, a layup 13 seconds into the game. Veteran playmaker Trey McKinney-Jones, a former Indiana Pacers shooting guard who was a very active presence in all facets of the game throughout the series, registered an assist on the play. 

Hiraoka's club never trailed.

It was a perfect reminder of their level of play this season.

The champions demonstrated confidence and proficiency in making both routine and spectacular plays.

For instance, when Justin Keenan drained a jump shot from the left side late in the first quarter, he wasted no time or effort on the play. A catch-and-shoot jumper. Bang! The ball sailed through the net for a 21-9 Gunma lead with 1:07 left in the opening stanza.

Indeed, Gunma didn't disappoint the hometown supporters, jumping out to a 23-11 by the end of the first quarter and taking a commanding 49-30 advantage into halftime.

Center Brian Qvale scored a game-high 28 points, blocked four shots and played with high intensity. (B. League)

Positive Vibes Entering Halftime

Parker, a star in Japan pro hoops since the 2007-08 season when he joined the bj-league's expansion Rizing Fukuoka squad, made an emphatic point as he walked off the court to head back to the locker room. The 39-year-old clapped vigorously, punctuating the mood of the moment for his teammates: upbeat and positive.

As I scribbled down notes during the first and second quarters inside the gym and then glanced at the halftime statistics on my smartphone, one thought kept popping into my head: Ibaraki will need to play a perfect second half to have a shot at beating Gunma.

Throughout the third quarter, the Crane Thunders maintained their ultra-high level of performance and the Robots were unable to pull within striking distance.

Entering the final period, this is what the scoreboard displayed: Gunma 73, Ibaraki 57.

Parker, Kasai and their teammates led from start to finish. (B. League)

Moments later, the Crane Thunders owned a 23-point cushion after Reiya Nozaki canned a 3-pointer from the left wing. That gave Nozaki 20 points on the night, and McKinney-Jones dished out his eighth and final assist on the play with. Ibaraki bench boss Rich Glesmann then called a timeout with 7:59 remaining before Gunma's date with destiny was official.

Repeatedly on the run to capitalize on their overall team speed ー instead of relying on slow-the-game-down tactics ー the Crane Thunders showcased their emphasis on running and impressive teamwork in a quick sequence near the 4-minute mark. 

Kohei Kasai corralled a rebound after an Ibaraki shot missed its intended target, and the Crane Thunders' up-tempo offense kicked into gear. It led to Qvale's pinpoint pass to Parker, who executed a back-door cut perfectly, catching the ball and jumping before unleashing a powerful dunk. That gave the hosts their biggest lead of the game, 91-65.

That sequence also underscored what was a common theme throughout the season. "It's show time" was the Crane Thunders' slogan this year, and an apt description of their entertaining style of play, too.

A Complete Effort for the Champs

Monday’s duel ended appropriately with the ball in the hands of a Crane Thunders player. Backup guard Ryo Yamazaki grabbed a defensive rebound with 1 second remaining. (After all, they controlled ー and usually dictated ー what happened during the long season on their incredible run to the title.)

Then the celebration began for Hiraoka and Parker, Qvale and Keenan and their teammates and the ecstatic home team’s fans.

Gunma finished with a 26-7 edge in fast-break points. Clearly, Ibaraki needed to win this game within the game to have a chance at capturing the title.

McKinney-Jones, who scored 20 or more points in five of the Crane Thunders' seven postseason games, was named the B2 playoffs MVP. Though he had a quiet game as a scorer (five points), the high-energy small forward contributed 10 rebounds and eight assists, including several razzle-dazzle passes, for the victors. 

Several of his teammates had banner performances, and there were plenty of Gunma highlights in each of the four quarters. Parker poured in 20 points and had 14 rebounds, six assists and a steal. Qvale led the club with 28 points on 13-for-18 shooting and was a defensive menace, repeatedly frustrating Robots players and blocking four shots. 

Nozaki, who averaged 7.0 points in 57 games (six starts) during the regular season, knocked down 8 of 13 shots en route to 20 points and made three steals. He also matched his season-high output in points. The overall picture: It was a vivid reminder of the 25-year-old's talents and upward trajectory as a player.

Keenan, an NCAA Division II Ferris (Michigan) State alum, who played for the Akita Northern Happinets before joining retooled Gunma in the offseason (as did newcomers Parker and McKinney-Jones, among others), put his stamp on the game with 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting and a pair of steals.

Putting the Robots' Season in Perspective

Like the Crane Thunders, the Ibaraki Robots have been a solid B2 team since the B. League's inception in 2016. (The team's year-by-year records are as follows: 32-28 (2016-17), 38-22 (2017-18), 35-25 (2018-19) and 26-21 (in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.)

First-year head coach Glesmann, who previously coached the B2’s Ehime Orange Vikings for the previous three seasons, was pleased that his team was able to end Gunma's aforementioned home winning streak. By doing so, the Robots were playing for the title in the final game of the season.

In the playoff finale, Kohei Fukuzawa poured in 21 points, including five 3-pointers. Chehales Tapscott and Marc Trasolini scored 20 and 14 points, respectively.

"I have mixed emotions obviously," Glesmann told JAPAN Forward in a phone interview the day after the game. "We played really well in Game 1, and to beat them and end their 34-game home winning streak in Game 2 was awesome, and then I just felt yesterday we ran out of gas and just ran into a buzzsaw. I wish we had a better game yesterday."

He added: "I really wanted, first and foremost, to get to a Game 3. ... They were undefeated at home all season here. They've got two games here, if you can win one of them and go to Game 3, then you've got a shot.

Glesmann, who guided the Robots to a 41-16 record during the regular season, acknowledged that his team had to have an exceptional performance to win Game 3. 

Instead, Gunma shot 35-for-58 on 2-point attempts, while Ibaraki made 17 of 42 on Monday. The Robots struggled to score consistently, and the Crane Thunders put points on the board in a hurry.

"There's just no margin of error," the Massachusetts native noted, referring to playing against Gunma. "If you miss, especially long [shots], they are just off to the races and they killed us in transition."

Glesmann didn't hesitate when he was asked to analyze his final opponent of the 2020-21 season.

"They are the best B2 team I've ever seen, and it's not even close, obviously," Glesmann declared.

Now, he looks ahead to the challenge that lies ahead for the Robots.

"We just went from B2 to B1, and it's exciting but it's a process," Glesmann said.

He continued: "My goal for us next year is to want to come in and keep playing up-tempo, fast basketball, unselfish and give the Robots a competitive identity is what I think that our No. 1 goal should be."

A Look Ahead to the B1 Championship Series

The Utsunomiya Brex eliminated the Kawasaki Brave Thunders last weekend in the top-flight semifinals, winning 68-65 and 96-78.

Coach Ryuzo Anzai's club, which had the first division's best record (49-11) this season, faces the Chiba Jets in the best-of-three finals on Saturday, May 29 (3:05 p.m.), Sunday, May 30 (3 p.m.) and, if necessary, Tuesday, June 1 (7:05 p..m.) at Yokohama Arena.

The Jets earned a trip to the finals by beating the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the other semifinal series, which was held at Okinawa Arena. Chiba, which had B1's second-best record (43-14), defeated the hosts 96-85 in Game 1 on May 22, then dropped the second contest 84-78 the next day. In Monday's deciding game, the Jets won 89-71, with six Chiba players scoring in double figures, including Shannon Shorter (17 points), Gavin Edwards (14) and Shuta Hara and Sebastian Saiz (12 apiece).

In the regular season, Utsunomiya and Chiba met four times. The Brex won the teams' final three encounters.

The Jets triumphed 87-78 at home on October 17, followed by an 85-68 loss the next day. 

The Brex won 84-64 on January 23 at home, and completed the weekend sweep with an 88-76 victory a day later.

Utsunomiya's three wins over rival Chiba this season were by a combined 49 points.

The motivational forces of playoff basketball ー chiefly pride and bragging rights ー could help produce tighter games. Both teams are well coached and have a good mix of younger standouts and established stars.

The Brex retain a number of key players from their 2016-17 title-winning squad, while the Jets have the collective reminder of their championship runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019 on their minds.

This observer believes both teams have a legitimate shot at winning the title. It appears up for grabs.

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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