Entering the final weekend of the regular season, the first-place Osaka Evessa are right where they want to be.
OSAKA EVESSA PHOTO
But the bj-league’s defending champs will conclude the regular season without a big piece of the puzzle: center Jeff Newton.
Newton is sidelined by a dislocated joint in his right shoulder, team spokesman Katz Murai confirmed this week.
Newton sustained the injury in the first half of the Evessa’s March 18 loss to the Takamatsu Five Arrows.
He did not play in Osaka’s two victories last weekend over the host Oita HeatDevils. He will not play this weekend against the Tokyo Apache, who are 0-6 against the Evessa this season and have lost 11 straight games.
Murai said the team trainer expects Newton to be ready to play on April 21, when the Evessa (28-10) take on the Oita HeatDevils in the playoff semifinals at Ariake Colosseum.
The Niigata Albirex BB and Five Arrows will square off in the other seminal. The winners meet on April 22 for the bj-league title, while the losers face off in the third-place game.
Will Newton have enough time to recover from the injury? Will he be in playing shape on April 21? Will he be rusty after not playing in a game for more than a month?
In the meantime, look for 2005-06 league MVP Lynn Washington, a power forward, to handle a bigger portion of the work load in the middle.
Since coming back from a four-game injury absence in February, Washington has returned to form.
He’s scored in double digits in all 12 of those games and has had seven straight double-doubles, including a 37-point, 11-rebound effort against the HeatDevils last Sunday.
Newton, who helped Indiana make an improbable run to the 2002 NCAA Final Four, has had a terrific all-around season for Osaka.
His 15.2 ppg is third on the team. He’s the team leader in rebounds (465), steals (54), blocked shots (80) and minutes played (1,273).
For a big man, he’s an adept passer, with 86 assists to his credit.
FLASHBACK: The Albirex edged the Toyama Grouses 88-83 last Saturday.
Naoto Kosuge nailed 4 of 6 3-point attempts and finished with 17 points and Nick Davis had 11 points and 14 boards for the victors.
Matt Garrison, who scored 14, was the lone player Niigata coach Masaya Hirose used for more than 30 minutes.
Jerod Ward and Nile Murry scored 24 points apiece for the Grouses.
In their Sunday rematch, Niigata won 79-67.
Davis (23 points, 12 boards), Garrison (15 points), Makoto Hasegawa (eight points) and Antoni Wyche (five assists) led the Albirex to their 24th win of the season.
The host Saitama Broncos topped the Sendai 89ers 83-73 in their series opener.
Saitama’s Gordon James finished with 21 points and 20 rebounds, while Kosuke Shimizu (20 points, 5-for-7 from long range) and Andrew Feeley (21 points) also made significant contributions.
Mamadou Diouf led Sendai with 22 points.
A day later, Sendai edged Saitama 86-82.
Michael Chappell scored a game-high 31 points, Diouf added 27 and Hikaru Kusaka dished out five assists for the 89ers.
The Tokyo Apache’s woes continued last weekend, losing their 10th straight game on Saturday. In their 79-73 setback, Five Arrows center Julius Ashby blocked five Apache shots in the final quarter. He finished with six rejections and 13 points.
Rasheed Sparks had 18 points and seven assists and Reggie Warren chipped in with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
For Tokyo, John “Helicopter” Humphrey scored 25 and Kohei Aoki, continuing his late-season surge to stardom, produced 23.
In the Apache’s final home game of the season, Joe Bryant’s club dropped a 92-73 decision to Takamatsu on Sunday.
Warren (23 points, 19 boards), Ashby (18 points, 14 boards), Sparks (16 points) and Yu Okada (17 points, eight assists) lifted the Five Arrows to their 24th win in 38 contests.
Humphrey (25 points), Aoki (20) and Hideki Katsumata (a season-best 15 points) led the Tokyo offense.
The Evessa defeated the Oita HeatDevils 89-76 on Saturday, getting 28 points from Washington, 25 from David Palmer, 20 from Matt Lottich and a nine-point, seven-rebound effort from Kazuya Hatano. For Oita, Andy Ellis, who has the league’s most recognizable beard, put 21 points on the board.
A day later, the Evessa held on for an 81-76 win. Palmer had a team-best 19 points and Ellis had 30, but his team shot just 9-for-19 from the free-throw line.
LEAGUE LEADERS: As the regular season winds down, Japanese players are in the top three in these statistical categories: assists (Kusaka, third, with 4.0 per game); free-throw shooting (Aoki, first, 92.7 percent; and Hasegawa, second, 86.1 percent); and 3-point shooting (Saitama’s Kazuhiro Shoji, first, 45.4 percent).