Who will be crowned the 2008-09 bj-league champion?
That answer won’t arrive until May 17 at Ariake Colosseum. In the meantime, it’s time to focus on the first-round matchups for the playoffs.
The three-time defending champion Osaka Evessa (35-17, 19-7 at home), the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed, meet the third-seeded Takamatsu Five Arrows (33-19, 14-12 on the road) on Saturday and Sunday at Moriguchi City Gymnasium in Osaka Prefecture. The opener is set for 5 p.m. and the rematch is slated for 1 p.m.
If both teams win one game, there will be a 5-minute mini-game, a new wrinkle in this season’s playoff format, played immediately after the conclusion of the second game. The winner will advance to the Final Four at Ariake.
The Western Conference’s other first-round pairing pits the top-seeded Ryukyu Golden Kings (41-11, 22-4 at home) vs. the No. 4 Rizing Fukuoka (22-30, 13-13 on the road). The two games will be played at Naha City Gymnasium, and both games will tip off at 2 p.m.
Clearly, Ryan Blackwell, a former Syracuse University and Sendai 89ers standout has given the Evessa a boost in the frontcourt since he made his season debut on Feb. 21, averaging 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
His 80 assists, 28 steals and 14 blocked shots proved his all-around value to coach Kensaku Tennichi’s club in the season’s stretch run.
The Evessa have won nine straight games entering the playoffs, including a pair of victories over the Five Arrows on April 18-19.
Tennichi knows what type of production he’ll receive from Blackwell, power forward Lynn Washington (25.9 ppg, 12.9 rpg) and Nile Murry (20.0 ppg, 5.4 assists per game). But it’s unclear how productive shooting guard Naoto Nakamura, who has missed the past four games with a leg injury, will be after the layoff. Nakamura is Osaka’s fourth-leading scorer (8.6 ppg).
In addition, gritty small forward Kazuya Hatano, considered one of the premier Japanese defenders in the league, has been bothered by an ankle injury in recent weeks. He only played two minutes against Takamatsu on April 19 and missed the next two games.
Guards Jun Nakanishi, an 11-point scorer in the season finale, and Shota Konno, who had three double-digit scoring performances in the season’s final four games, may be called upon to play bigger roles on both ends of the floor.
Their impact on the game could factor into whether Osaka advances to the Final Four or has an early exit from the playoffs.
But in the final analysis, Tennichi will rely on Washington, a 41-point scorer in the season finale, to set the tone for the team.
For the Five Arrows, power forward Gordon James, who has missed the past 10 games while rehabilitating a knee injury, is slated to return to the lineup against Osaka. The dominant rebounder could be the team’s X-factor.
Center Babacar Camara, who had 110 blocked shots and scored 17.0 ppg, gave the team a boost after leaving the Toyama Grouses and filling the void left by George Leach’s season-ending injury in January.
Perimeter standouts Kazuyuki Nakagawa, Yu Okada, Matt Garrison and Rasheed Sparks made most of the team’s 443 3-pointers this season, with Nakagawa converting them on 40.2 percent of his attempts.
Sparks remains an outstanding defender when he’s at the top of his game.
Nakagawa’s season debut on Jan. 17 coincided with the start of a 10-game win streak. His steady ball-handling (98 assists, 41 turnovers) played an integral role in the team’s high-powered offense.
The Golden Kings have been the league’s best team since opening the season with an 18-point win over Fukuoka on Oct. 11. They went 13-0 to start the season.
Balanced scoring has been a hallmark of first-year coach Dai Oketani’s club. Jeff Newton (17.9 ppg) is the top scorer, followed by Anthony McHenry (15.5 ppg) and Shigeyuki Kinjo and Chris Ayer (13.2 ppg apiece).
Point guard Naoto Takushi led Ryukyu’s skillful defense with 99 steals. McHenry topped the charts with 85 blocked shots, while Newton had 79 and Ayer 64.
On the other hand, the Golden Kings are a poor free-throw shooting team (66.3 percent).
For coach John Neumann’s Fukuoka club, which secured its second straight postseason appearance on the final week of the regular season, the challenge of making the Final Four will likely occur without injured star Michael Parker.
The league’s leading scorer, Parker missed the final three games of the season with a knee injury. On April 22, Neumann said Parker would be sidelined for two to three weeks.
In Parker’s absence, Marlyn Bryant (17.6 ppg), Kohei Mitomo (7.1 ppg), Tsuyoshi Kawazura (6.4 ppg) and Takanori Goya (6.1) will be expected to pick up the scoring slack.
Parker’s overall impact — points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, terrific court awareness and basketball IQ — will be difficult to replace.
Note: Look for a preview of the Tokyo Apache-Sendai 89ers and the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix-Niigata Albirex BB playoff series in next week’s bj-league notebook.