Inaugural bj-league playoffs to rock Ariake this weekend

by Kaz Nagatsuka

No matter where your team is seeded, if you lose, you go home — that’s how the bj-league playoffs go.

News photoJohn Humphrey won the Scoring Title in the bj-league’s first season, averaging 23.2 points per game for the Tokyo Apache.

The 2006 bj-league postseason will tip off on Saturday at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum. The final will be held the following day there, and the winner will be the inaugural champion of Japan’s first professional basketball league.

The four top teams from the 40-game regular season made it to the playoffs. Records determined seeding, but there are no other benefits of regular-season success, something that does not suit everyone.

“There must be advantages (for upper-seeded teams),” said Kensaku Tennichi, head coach of the top-seeded Osaka Evessa, who had the best record (31-9) in the regular season.

Osaka is still the favorite to win the whole thing. It has the best offense in the league (84.6 points per game), while its defense was second (74.4 allowed per game), capitalizing on its four powerful Americans (forwards David Palmer, Jeff Newton and Lynn Washington, and guard Matt Lottich).

Tennichi, who said his team won’t slack off entering the playoffs, unexpectedly named bench players Palmer and Haruyuki Ishibashi as key players.

Palmer had the second-best scoring average (17.6 ppg) to Washington (20.4) on the squad, and guard Ishibashi was fifth in 3-point field goal percentage (36.8).

“We’re emphasizing more on scoring,” Tennichi said of the reason.

The Evessa’s opponent, Sendai, is thought to be an underdog in the playoffs. The fourth-seeded 89ers are the only team that has a losing record (18-22).

But Sendai head coach Honoo Hamaguchi is hoping to astonish those who have low expectations for the team.

At the beginning of the season, the 89ers got off to a great start as they were 8-4 in the first two months of the season. But their key player, forward Mamadou Diouf, broke his left foot in early January and quickly slowed down. The 89ers were 4-10 in January and February.

The tough situation improved in March, when the club acquired forward Jimmy Miggins. After that, the 89ers regained some momentum.

“Any team would stall if it lost its main foreign players,” Hamaguchi said. “So we endured well.”

Sendai was 2-6 against the Evessa this season. But the 36-year-old Hamaguchi doesn’t necessarily think his team is overmatched against Osaka “as much as people may be thinking.”

Actually, the 89ers beat Osaka 64-62 at Namihaya Dome in their final meeting on April 9.

There are more reasons for Hamaguchi to fight tough. He said he wants to propose suggestions that can make the league better and more attractive. One of the things is the number of foreign players.

The bj-league does not have a limit on the number of foreign players, and Osaka often played its four foreigners together.

Hamaguchi does not think it is beneficial for the league’s and Japan’s basketball future.

“Personally, there should be one foreigner on the court,” he said. “If there are four foreigners on the court like Osaka, there is no chance for Japanese players to play.”

But he knows the proverb, “Might is right.” And he knows he can’t persuade anybody unless his team wins. So the playoffs will have significant meaning for him and his team.

“We’ve got to win before anything else,” Hamaguchi said.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 seed Niigata Albirex (29-11) will take on the third-seeded Tokyo Apache (20-20).

With the league’s best defense (71.7), Niigata will try to contain Tokyo’s swift, run and gun-type offense, which was second (84.4) in the league with this season’s scoring leader John “Helicopter” Humphrey (23.2).

Niigata, meanwhile, plays arguably the most organized ball in the league. Focusing on center Nick Davis (19.2 ppg, 15.53 rpg), the bj-league’s leading rebounder, the Albirex can score from anywhere while posing a nearly impenetrable team defense.

Niigata had three-game losing streak in early March, and head coach Masaya Hirose said it was a precious experience for the team.

“We learned that if we show timidity on the court, it can cost a game,” he said. “We, especially young players, learned from the games.”

Hirose said he was pleased that the team’s young guns like guards Takamichi Fujiwara and Kimitake Sato stepped up as the season wore on.

Niigata was 6-2 against the Apache this season.

But Tokyo’s William Pippen is not scared.

“They got six wins out of eight games (against the Apache),” Pippen said. “But the two wins we got were pretty big, and we sent message that we can beat them.”

The semifinals will begin at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, with the 89ers-Evessa game, followed by the Apache-Albirex contest at 4 p.m.

The winners will play in the final at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, after the third-place match, which start at 3:00 p.m.

Tickets are available for both days.