Saturday’s first bj-league semifinal contest provides a classic storybook plot: the two-time reigning champions vs. the hot upstart team.
The Osaka Evessa (31-13) face the Rizing Fukuoka (21-24) for the right to represent the Western Conference in Sunday’s title contest against the Tokyo Apache-Sendai 89ers winner. Tipoff is 2:30 p.m.
Fukuoka picked up two victories in six games against the Evessa in the regular season.
“Fukuoka’s a very dangerous team because of their free style,” Tokyo coach Joe Bryant said.
Rizing coach John Neumann has used a keep-the-opponent-guessing approach all season, especially on defense, using a tantalizingly tight press, a man-to-man defense and a zone with equal success.
Neumann has concocted a defense that causes headaches for foes. Midseason pickup Michael Parker led the league with 2.6 steals per game and teammate Michael Gardener was tied for No. 2 (2.1).
As a team, the Rizing had 424 steals in the regular season, with five players picking up 50 or more.
Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi is well aware of that fact.
“They are looking for their opponents to make turnovers,” Tennichi said. “They look to make steals and to make fast breaks. That is one of their strengths.”
Exhibit A: Neumann’s club made 20 steals and nailed 11 of 20 3-pointers in a 112-94 wild-card win over the host Takamatsu Five Arrows on April 20.
Asked about the just-mentioned statistics, Tennichi said his team “cannot allow them to do that.”
Nevertheless Fukuoka point guard Tsuyoshi Kawazura, the team’s captain, said his club’s mental approach to the game has changed dramatically since January, when it lost seven of eight games.
“After we experienced that stretch, we had to understand what we had to do,” he said. “Now we have confidence much more than before.”
For Osaka, perhaps the biggest X-factor will be ex-Oita HeatDevils standout Mikey Marshall, who finished with 19.5 points per game, was tied for second in the league in steals (2.1 per game), and had a team-best 212 assists and back-to-back triple-doubles in April.
“Mikey helped us to get our game fast and aggressive, especially on the defensive end,” Tennichi said. “He is one of our biggest defensive threats. He can play perimeter guys and sometimes bigger guys. He is so active on the defensive end.
“He can block shots from behind. I think defensively and in terms of getting our game faster he was aggressive on the fast break. That’s the biggest thing he brings to our team.”
The Evessa didn’t make big changes since last season. Sharpshooter Naoto Nakamura was among the league’s top three in 3-point and free-throw shooting accuracy. Amd point guard Matt Lottich remains a gifted scorer with a knack for making smart decisions with the ball.
Center Jeff Newton is an anchor in the middle, and Kazuya Hatano at small forward, Lynn Washington at power forward and reserve guard Haruhito Shishito provide steady production.
Yet the Evessa refuse to rest on their laurels.
“It’s very important that we don’t underestimate the third-place team,” Tennichi said. “So we just focus on the semifinal only right now, and so this is good for us. Fukuoka beat Takamatsu and I think they got some feeling (on how) to win at the end of the season.”
The Rizing’s improved play in the final weeks of the regular season can be directly linked to the team’s added depth at point guard, according to Kawazura.
With the addition of Kazuyuki Nakagawa and Akitomo Takemo for the stretch run, Kawazura said his body condition has improved.
“I have less stress than before,” he said, admitting playing major minutes were taking a toll on his body. “Now I don’t need to worry about everything.”
Washington, the league’s 2005-06 MVP, played in Osaka’s first six games and returned for the final eight after sustaining a serious knee injury. He played solid basketball in the last eight games, with double-digit outputs in each of them.
“Of course I am happy we got the first-place (spot) and of course I didn’t want Lynn to get hurt early in the season,” Tennichi said. “But he came back . . . and I think we are in good shape to get a championship.”
Whenever he steps onto the floor, big Lynn exudes confidence that is contagious.
Just ask Lottich, who has earned a pair of title rings since joining the Evessa.
“We proved we can do it,” Lottich said in an October interview. “Somebody’s got to take it (the title) away from us.”
The Rizing embrace that challenge.
“I don’t think people really believe we have a chance to beat Osaka,” said Gardener, who scored a game-high 34 points in his team’s wild-card win. “But we’ll show people they’re wrong.”
Gardener cited three things as key ingredients for his team to win this game: defense, camaraderie and having fun.
“Whenever we’re having fun, we play well,” said Gardener, whose team has won eight of its past 11 games.
“I hope that the (two-week break) doesn’t affect our game, our momentum,” he added.
Said Parker: “We know we’re on a pretty good roll right now. Offensively, defensively in the second half of the (Five Arrows game), it seemed like it all came together for us.”
During that well-deserved break, the team has focused on conditioning and basketball fundamentals.
“Neumann likes us to run, run, run on the court,” Gardener said with a laugh. “It’s only basketball but I feel like I ran a marathon all week.”