The bj-league’s version of interleague play returns this week as all six weekend series pit Eastern Conference clubs against their Western Conference foes.
Two series in particular — Sendai 89ers vs. Osaka Evessa and Takamatsu Five Arrows vs. Tokyo Apache — are expected to offer the most intrigue.
The 89ers (20-18) take a four-game winning streak into this series. Sendai fans will also witness the 89ers debut of high-scoring small forward Josh Peppers, the former University of Central Florida, Rizing Fukuoka and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix player.
Peppers, who was released by Hamamatsu in December, returns to Japan for the season’s stretch run. His all-around offensive skills give Honoo Hamaguchi’s club another scoring option, and it’ll be interesting to see what impact Peppers will make for the third-place team.
Entering this series, Sendai and Osaka (24-14) haven’t played this season.
Also of note, Evessa forward and former 89er Ryan Blackwell, a fan favorite in Tohoku, will play his first game against his former team on Saturday. It should be an emotional reunion for Blackwell, his former teammates and the 89ers’ passionate fans.
The Five Arrows (26-12) still have an outside shot at winning the Western Conference title, but it won’t be an easy task. They trail the Ryukyu Golden Kings (29-9) by three games with 14 regular-season games remaining. The teams, however, play twice more against each other, a much-anticipated April 11-12 series in Okinawa.
This weekend, however, Takamatsu’s focus will be a dangerous Apache club, which will enter this series hungry to bounce back after an 85-77 overtime loss to the Shiga Lakestars on March 6.
Tokyo brings a 24-14 record into this series.
This weekend’s other series are as follows: Oita HeatDevils (7-31) vs. Niigata Albirex BB (16-22), Toyama Grouses (10-28) vs. Ryukyu Golden Kings, Shiga Lakestars (14-24) vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (27-11) and Rizing Fukuoka (16-22) vs. Saitama Broncos (15-23).
Veteran poise: Lakestars point guard Takamichi Fujiwara, who previously played for Niigata, has quietly earned a reputation as one of the league’s better point guards.
Averaging 7.7 points per game, the 31-year-old floor leader exudes confidence and patience in running the Shiga offense.
“It’s very important to have an experienced point guard,” Tokyo coach Joe Bryant said. “Most of those guys on Shiga are very young . . . so you need an experienced point guard. And if you just look at his numbers, assist-to-turnover ratio (169 assists, 67 turnovers), he’s doing a great job of running that team.”
Fujiwara turned the ball over five times, matching his season high, on March 5, when Tokyo beat Shiga 92-82. A day later, he had two turnovers, six assists and 12 points, including 2-for-4 from 3-point range, in Shiga’s triumph.
Truth be told, the 182-cm Fujiwara is a physical presence when he weaves through traffic with the ball, plotting his next move at the defense’s expense.
“I think when he plays against us, even last year, I think that Darin (Satoshi Maki) does a good of being physical with him,” said Bryant.
“Don’t allow him to get into the paint where he can pass and kick the ball out the way he loves to do,” Bryant revealed.