Maki Takada, captain of an improbably successful Japanese women’s basketball squad, is the tall one on her team, which is to say, she’s 6-foot-1. That’s a tough predicament in the women’s game, where teams can get a lot of mileage out of sheer size. The American women, heavy favorites to win Sunday’s gold medal final, punched their ticket there thanks to scoring from a long-limbed, reliable frontcourt trio of 6-foot-5 A’ja Wilson, 6-foot-4 Breanna Stewart and 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner. What’s the secret to winning when the average height of your team is 5-foot-9?
The secret may just be to radiate tall-person confidence. The Japanese women were ranked 10th in the world heading into these Olympics, and they’d lost their 6-foot-4 star Ramu Tokashiki to an ACL injury. But they’ll meet those American women in the final following their huge 87-71 semifinal upset of France on Friday. If they’re not expected to win, they don’t mind. That’s been true all tournament. Whatever happens to the team—and Japan’s style means the chance of something weird happening is non-zero—they’ve been the best basketball story of the Olympics.
My love of the Akatsuki Five, as they’re known, began last week, when they played Team USA in the second game of group play. I was in a grumpy mood to start; mostly because the game was at 12:40 a.m., but also because the American women, winning but sluggish and turnover-prone, hadn’t been making the late nights worth my while. Pretty soon, I was in a great mood: The run-and-gun Japanese team was fascinating. They lost to the U.S. in that game, 69-86, but they played as if they’d been built to suit my own exact aesthetic preferences.
They’re too small to drive to the lane normally without being blocked, so their finishes at the basket tend to be acrobatic. Where they can’t win one-on-one matchups, they rely on speedy and deceptive ball movement, often in the form of a whipped-around outlet pass or a sneaky post entry cut. In today’s game against France, 28 of Japan’s 32 field goals were assisted. Their clear strength is from three-point range; I often found myself surprised when one of their threes didn’t go in. Against France, they shot a pretty typical 50 percent from outside.
In Japan’s quarterfinal game against a very good Belgium team, maybe the most fun Olympic basketball game I’d ever seen, every player turned into Damian Lillard for the last five minutes, making one outrageous circus shot after another. Sharpshooter Yuki Miyazawa finished that game an incredible 7-of-13 from three. The dagger finally came from guard Saki Hayashi, who hit a three with 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter to get Japan the 86-85 win. For Belgium, the Hayashi bucket must have been extra painful. She had done the same thing to them in a FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament game in 2020, which she finished with eight threes. On defense, Japan warms my college basketball-loving heart. The rebounding battle isn’t one they’re well-positioned to win, but they try (and actually won it against France!). Mostly, they make life hard for opponents with full court presses and annoying traps.
“They have a style of play which is difficult to play against,” Team USA coach Dawn Staley said after the U.S.-Japan group stage game. “They are calculating when it comes to that, they are disciplined in playing that way, and it’s worked out. I do think they’re in a position to medal here. Just because of their style of play, they’re efficient and they put you back on your heels.”
Japan has never won a medal in basketball, on either the men’s or women’s side. The women are coached by Tom Hovasse, who played at Penn State in the ’80s and spent two games and four minutes with the Atlanta Hawks after that. Hovasse also radiates tall-person confidence. (Probably because he is, at 6-foot-8, actually tall.) When he took the national team job in 2017, he told everyone his goal was to beat the U.S. and win a gold medal. The year before, in the Rio Olympics, the women had lost to the U.S. in a quarterfinal game where Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore went a little bit nuts. “They thought I was crazy,” Hovasse told the AP. “They don’t think I’m crazy anymore. We have a legitimate shot if we continue to play with this level of energy and determination.” They’re one game away.