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Sun blocks out Sendai in first game

by Ed Odeven

HAMAMATSU, Shizuoka Pref. — Sun Ming Ming didn’t steal the spotlight in his highly anticipated bj-league debut, but he enjoyed a respectable outing in the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s first game of the 2008-09 season.

Sun played 21 minutes and scored 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting in a 93-77 victory over the Sendai 89ers at Hamamatsu Arena on Saturday.

The Chinese giant, who is taller than any player in NBA history, including China’s first NBA superstar (Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets), maintained a humble demeanor after the game.

“I don’t care about statistics — points, rebounds, assists — as long as we win,” he said.

“I just try to do the best I can.”

Sun scored his first basket of the game — his team’s first two points, in fact — on a dunk.

It was unlike most dunks this reporter and the 2,205 fans in attendance had ever seen.

The 236-cm center stood on his tiptoes, extended his long right arm and in a swift, forceful motion jammed the ball through the cylinder. Naturally, it’s the kind of play Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura will expect the big fellow to make more frequently as the season progresses.

Sun’s speed doesn’t remind anyone of Usain Bolt’s, but he does command attention when he occupies space in the lane.

“Ming Ming played very well,” said Phoenix point guard Michael Gardener, who suited up for the Rizing Fukuoka last season. “On a scale of one to 10, I’d give him a 10.5.”

Why?

“Because he did everything coach told him that he should do,” Gardener added. “We know his (mobility) from side to side is kind of lacking, but he did a great job. Well, at times we can only pick and choose to play man to man defense, but we played man-to-man for very long stretches of times with him in the game.”

For the fans, there was a high level of curiosity in watching a player as tall as Sun, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa’s starting center, appear in a game. For his teammates, a similar mind-set existed.

“With him in the game, just his presence, it gives us guards a chance to be more aggressive on the wings knowing that we have a guy that’s 8 foot (7-foot-9, actually) out there,” Gardener said in an excited tone.

The Phoenix, who left the JBL after the 2007-08 season, took a 21-20 advantage into the second period. They stretched the lead to 49-34 at the break by outscoring the 89ers 28-14 in the second stanza. This included an 8-0 spurt highlighted by a Gardener 3-pointer, an Andy Ellis jumper and a Josh Peppers layup.

By halftime, the free-wheeling hosts had found their niche on offense. Gardener ran the show from the point, pushing the pace and making quick, smart decisions with the basketball. His teammates spaced the floor effectively, moving inside and outside and shooting confidently. Sun set his share of picks in the high post, too.

“He’s a fun coach. He wants us to get the ball and attack,” Gardener said of Nakamura.

Nakamura said he was pleased with his team’s productivity on the fast break. He praised his team’s guards for their quick decision-making and said his American players displayed passion and high energy in the season opener. He used the words “clever” and “efficient” to analyze the offense.

Simply put, the Phoenix had a better shooting game than the out-of-towners. Nakamura’s club made 60.5 percent of its 2-point attempts (23 of 28), while the 89ers were 18 of 43 (41.9 percent). At the free-throw line, the Phoenix sank 23 of 28 shots. Sendai was 11-for-22.

“We had a lot of wide-open looks,” 89ers coach Honoo Hamaguchi said, “but we missed a lot of shots. Tomorrow, we need to be more aggressive.”

The Phoenix held double-digits leads for the entire third quarter. Peppers, the league’s third-leading scorer in 2007-08 while he played for Fukuoka, picked his spots throughout the period, slashing through traffic, attacking the basket and capitalizing on his scoring chances with a 10-point stanza, including a perfect 6-for-6 at the line.

The 89ers rallied in the fourth, cutting a 20-point lead to 78-68 after Chris Holm’s inside basket with 3:46 to play.

Holm hit the first of two free throws to make it 78-69 moments later. Then Oguchi buried an off-balance jumper and Ellis pushed Phoenix’s lead back to 12 on a strong inside move at the 2:25 mark.

Sendai didn’t get closer than nine the rest of the game.

After the game, Sun said he won’t put pressure on himself to post gaudy statistics at this stage of the season.

“We have 51 more games,” he said. “I just want to keep getting better, keep improving.”

Sun, who had two rebounds and one steal, also admitted his physical fitness can get better.

“After the first quarter, I was so tired,” he said. “My legs are tired, but that (happens) after long days of training.”

Peppers scored a team-high 20 points for the Phoenix. Four teammates also reached double figures: Gardener (16), Masahiro Oguchi (15, 4-for-6 from the field and 6-for-6 at the charity stripe), Ellis (11) and Sun.

Also Saturday, the host Niigata Albirex BB edged the Tokyo Apache 79-77 despite 30 points from John Humphrey. Naoto Kosuge led the Albirex with 21 points.

In other games, the Saitama Broncos beat the Toyama Grouses 81-78, while the Takamatsu Five Arrows beat the Oita HeatDevils 87-62.