Christmas is only three days away, but it’s probably safe to assume the Niigata Albirex BB players and coaches have already received the one gift they wanted from Hoops Santa: to be in first place at this stage of the season.
Niigata, winners of five straight, have a four-game lead in the bj-league standings after recording back-to-back wins over the Toyama Grouses last weekend.
Credit head coach Masaya Hirose, whose tenure dates back to 2000 when the team played in the JBL, for guiding the team in its transition to the bj-league.
Hirose’s club is doing the fundamental things it takes to win games consistently.
Exhibit A: Niigata turned the intensity up a notch in the second half of last Saturday’s 82-78 victory, outscoring the Grouses 49-27. Hirose uses center Nick Davis, who scored 30 but was 4-for-16 from the free-throw line (you can expect that he’s shot extra free throws this week, huh?), as his go-to guy. And the team gets solid production from several others, including veteran Makoto Hasegawa, who poured in 14.
Exhibit B: If someone has the hot hand, Hirose will be sure he gets the ball with regularity. In Sunday’s 98-61 win, forward Matt Garrison scored 31 points and was 9-for-10 from 3-point range (his previous-best output was four 4s).
The Takamatsu Five Arrows and Osaka Evessa, who have identical 8-6 records, are tied for second place. The Sendai 89ers are next at 7-7, followed by the Oita HeatDevils and Tokyo Apache at 6-8 each, the Saitama Broncos at 5-9 and the Toyama Grouses at 4-10.
WEEK 7 FLASHBACK: It was an action-packed weekend for the league on Dec. 16 and 17, featuring two double-overtime contests, one on Saturday and another on Sunday.
The host Oita HeatDevils were locked in a classic Saturday night duel with the Osaka Evessa, a game in which five players on each team scored in double digits. But the HeatDevils prevailed by a 101-95 margin. Mikey Marshall paced the winners with a 26-point, nine-rebound, four-assist, two-steal, one-block efforts in 49 never-stop hustling minutes. Andy Ellis had 22 points and Yukinori Suzuki showcased his passing skills with five assists.
In the loss, three Osaka players had double-doubles: Lynn Washington (27 points, 17 rebounds), Jeff Newton (17, 12) and David Palmer (22, 11).
A day later, the Evessa returned the favor, winning 70-60. Washington had a team-best 20 points and Masashi Joho scored a season-high 19. Oita’s Chris Ayer had 15 points in the loss.
Sunday’s hardwood marathon took place in Kasukabe, Saitama Pref., where the host Broncos and Sendai 89ers played 50 minutes before anything was decided. Saitama earned a 97-90 double-OT victory, winning the battle on the boards (56-34) in the process. Marcus Toney-El’s 23 points led the Broncos, while Gordon James (22 points, 18 rebounds), Andrew Feeley (19), Taishiro Shimizu (18 points) and Kazuki Hara (nine) made significant contributions.
For the 89ers, Michael Chappell put 27 points on the board, Ryan Blackwell had 22, Kenichi Takahashi 12 and Shinya Sato and Mamadou Diouf 11 apiece.
In the teams’ Saturday meeting, Sendai topped Saitama 86-74. Blackwell scored 31 and Chappell had 21. James 24-point (9-for-12 shooting), 16-rebound, two-assist, one-block outing displayed his inside talents.
At Ariake Colosseum, the first-year Takamatsu Five Arrows swept their series against the Tokyo Apache.
Offensively, it was an impressive weekend for Motofumi Aoki’s club. Takamatsu thrashed the Apache 108-89 last Saturday. Isaac Sojourner scored a game-high 20 points, while Rasheed Sparks and Yu Okada had 18 apiece and Julius Ashby added 17.
What’s more, the passes were zipping through the passing lanes like a bowling ball producing strike after strike for Takamatsu — eight Five Arrow players had two or more assists. This gave the team good looks all game (33-for-54 on two-point shot attempts).
Tokyo’s John Humphrey scored 19, Michael Jackson had 15 and five steals and Taketo Aoki had 12 in his first double-digit game since Nov. 12.
In their Sunday rematch, Takamatsu defeated Tokyo 92-68. Reggie Warren scored a game-best 19 points for the visitors and Sparks had 14 as well as 14 assists and six steals. Jackson had 17 for Tokyo, which finished 1-for-19 from 3-point range.