John Neumann arrived in Fukuoka last September to coach a team without an identity, a team with a tricky spelling and a team that has quietly and courageously produced an impressive opening chapter.
The Rizing Fukuoka, winners of seven of their last 10 regular-season games, including six in a row to end the season, sneaked into the bj-league postseason with an exclamation point punctuating the feat. Neumann’s club finished one game ahead of the Oita HeatDevils in the standings.
Fukuoka now shifts its focus to Sunday’s wild-card contest against the host Takamatsu Five Arrows. Tipoff is 2 p.m.
The expansion Rizing won 20 of 44 regular-season games, posting a 2-4 record against both of the teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings — the Five Arrows (30-14) and the Osaka Evessa (31-13).
Half of Fukuoka’s wins came against the league’s last-place teams. It went 6-0 against the league’s other first-year team, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, and 4-0 against the Toyama Grouses.
A year ago, Takamatsu had a similar welcome-to-the-league experience, advancing to the title game and placing runnerup to the Evessa, who captured their second title in as many seasons.
Naturally, the Rizing hope to continue on the same path. But they relish their underdog status heading into the wild-card showdown.
“There is no pressure on us,” Neumann said by telephone from Fukuoka on Wednesday. “We are not supposed to win this damn game. We’ve already had a great year and accomplished more than anybody thought we were supposed to do.
“Ask nine out of 10 people if we would’ve made the playoffs, and 99.9 percent would’ve said no. And so, for us to be here, we deserved it, we’ve worked hard, we didn’t fold and we had to win games on the road, which we did, and that’s something that I am really happy about.”
Five of the Rizing’s final seven wins were in away games.
Neumann spoke in a confident tone of voice, with more than a hint of satisfaction about guiding his team to a playoff appearance.
Put yourself in his shoes and you would do the same thing.
Like the other five teams that qualified for postseason play — the Tokyo Apache and Niigata Albirex BB square off at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gym in Sunday’s Eastern Conference wild-card matchup, while the Evessa and the East’s top team, the Sendai 89ers, wait to meet the respective winners on May 3 in the semifinals at Ariake Colosseum — the Rizing have endured mettle-testing challenges this season.
In December, point guard Jun Nakanishi, a productive all-around player, suffered a season-ending knee injury. This forced Neumann, who averaged a mind-boggling 40.1 points per game at the University of Mississippi in 1971, to give veteran floor leader Tsuyoshi Kawazura a bigger role at the point.
In January, forward Michael Parker joined the Rizing and played in the team’s final 27 games (22 starts).
In that time, the 202-cm performer became the league’s top theft artist, picking up steals at a rate of 2.6 per game (70 overall). What’s more, he blocked 42 shots, cleared 10 or more rebounds in eight games and averaged 17.0 points games, including a single-game best of 32.
“I think with the addition of Parker, who can do so many things defensive and offensively (our team got the spark it needed),” said the veteran coach.
Due to his unique size, Parker’s “long arms enable me to do more things as a coach,” Neumann continued. Parker, by the way, has been called upon to defend twos, threes, fours and fives.
Furthermore, Fukuoka often employs a full-court press, doing so with a penchant for forcing turnovers (the Rizing made 425 steals, getting 50 or more from five players).
And now Fukuoka faces the Five Arrows, the league’s highest-scoring team (92.7 ppg). In both games of their most recent series, the victor topped the century mark in points; host Takamatsu triumphed 112-79 on March 8 and Fukuoka bounced back for a 105-96 victory a day later.
“To beat them, the key will be our defense, which will change many times during the game,” decided Neumann, who has made coaching stops in China, Cyprus, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia in a long career that has spanned the globe after his playing days in the NBA and ABA were finished.
Power forward Reggie Warren is the Five Arrows’ top scorer (No. 3 in the league at 21.5 ppg), but center George Leach, off guard Yu Okada, point guard Rasheed Sparks, the two-time All-Star Slam Dunk Contest champ, as well as Steve Horne, Satoshi Takeda and Hiroyuki Kikuchi give Takamatsu coach Motofumi Aoki a wide range of scoring options.
“Okada is a tremendous outside shooter,” Neumann said, calling him “possibly the league’s best pure shooter.”
Okada drained 115 3-pointers (40.9 percent) and, as Neumann noted, if he gets on a roll, he can bury a bunch of 3s in a hurry.
Sizing up the significance of the contributions made by Leach, Warren and Sparks, Neumann said the starting trio plays very well together.
“You have to disrupt their rhythm,” Neumann stated.
He added: “We have to try to control the rhythm of the game and just play to have fun and not look at it as a must-win game.”
But looking back at the stellar transformation of the Rizing from an also-ran into a team that can now win three postseason games and grab the 2007-08 league title, a few key building blocks must be highlighted.
Point guard Kazuyuki Nakagawa, a former Takamatsu Five Arrows player with experience in the USBL and ABA, joined the club in February, adding much-needed experience in the backcourt.
Center Jeffrey Price played 1,610 minutes, the third-most time on the court in the league and average 16.2 ppg. Neumann paid him a big compliment when he referred to him as the “backbone of the team,” and praised him for his work ethic and off-court leadership.
Forward Joshua Peppers, who turned 23 in April, scored 22.2 ppg, the No. 2 scorer in the league despite playing with an injured ankle for the past 1 1/2 months.
High-energy guard Michael Gardener, who possesses the ability to control the boards, drive to the hole, dish the ball from any spot on the court and score 30-plus points every game, is now playing at his most consistent level since joining the club.
Twenty-two-year-old Akitomo Takemo, who had 11 games with seven or more points since making his bj-league debut on Feb. 8, has provided a glimpse of the future of this team: young, athletic, quick and able to knock down a 3-pointer on every possession. He made 27 in 352 minutes of playing time.
THE LAST WORD: “We’ve just come together and seemed to jell right at the right time. . . . This is when you want to jell: right before the playoffs start,” Neumann said.