Tougher defense and a more up-tempo style enabled by a new generation of players can propel Japan to its first men's wheelchair basketball medal at the Tokyo Paralympics, veteran forward Hiroaki Kozai says.
Japan opened its Tokyo Games campaign with a 63-56 victory over Colombia at Musashino Forest Sport Plaza on Thursday, and while Kozai gave the performance only a "B+" grade, he said the team managed to stick to its key defensive principles.
"It wasn't like how we wanted to play, but it was our first game and I guess we were a little nervous," said Kozai, who contributed nine points and five assists. "But we found a way to win. Our defense was good."
The 33-year-old said the Japanese team had become faster and more agile after incorporating a new crop of players following the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, in which Japan finished ninth after being tipped for a medal.
Kozai, who is playing in his fourth Paralympics, said the one-year postponement prompted by the coronavirus pandemic had given the youngsters extra time to develop.
"They got better. Our defense is better too. Those young players push really hard, and play real quality defense. Our pace of the game is much faster," he said.
The Kanagawa Prefecture native lauded rising star Renshi Chokai for anchoring Japan with a triple-double performance against Colombia.
The 22-year-old guard, who made his Paralympic debut in Rio, logged 15 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists to reach the statistical benchmark rarely seen in wheelchair basketball.
"I saw when he had something like 14 rebounds and 15 points, and I was like, 'oh wow!'...that's awesome," Kozai said.
Japan center Kei Akita led all scorers with 24 points, while Colombia forward Jhon Hernandez kept the South Americans in the contest with 21.
Having started slowly against Colombia, Japan will need greater intensity from the tipoff in their second Group A clash against South Korea on Friday, Kozai said.
"Korea is tough. They play really well against us. We need to come out stronger," he said.
Kozai, who returned to Japan in 2019 following several seasons playing professionally in Germany, said Japan's hopes for a medal rest on its defense.
"Because we are not tall, our defense is the biggest key," he said. "We had a couple of test games before this tournament started and our defense was good, so if we play our defense, our quality, we should be able to get the podium, I think."