“Never underestimate the heart of a champion,” were the words then-Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich used in 1995 to describe his resilient team, which was on the verge of winning its second straight NBA championship.
Those precise words articulate the importance of Osaka Evessa power forward Lynn Washington to his team, the only dynasty in bj-league history.
Washington provided the spark for Osaka when it needed it on Sunday: in a 10-minute mini-game against the Takamatsu Five Arrows held after Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.
In this “bonus quarter” at Moriguchi City Gymnasium in Osaka Prefecture, Washington was the star of the show, scoring 16 points, pulling down seven rebounds and doing everything in his power to guarantee his team would come out on top, which it did, 31-17.
Osaka, the three-time defending league champion, has earned a trip to the Western Conference final, a one-game showdown against either the Ryukyu Golden Kings or Rizing Fukuoka, who meet on Tuesday and Wednesday in the other conference semifinal series in Naha.
The Five Arrows forced the decisive mini-game by beating the Evessa 88-64 in Game 2.
Power forward Gordon James led Takamatsu in points (19) and rebounds (12). Shooting guard Yu Okada, who had zero points on 0-for-10 shooting in Game 1, bounced back with a 15-point effort to go along with five rebounds and six assists. Center Babacar Camara, a native of Senegal, added 14 points and seven boards, while Rasheed Sparks contributed 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists, Matt Garrison had a 12-point outing and Kazuyuki Nakagawa had nine points.
Takamatsu found a natural inside-outside rhythm on offense in the early going. Camara, coming off a 30-point performance in the series opener, scored the game’s first basket at the 9:16 mark of the first quarter and Okada made a 3-pointer moments later.
Okada had already knocked down two 3s by the 5:08 mark, and the Five Arrows had jumped to a 12-4 lead.
It was important for Takamatsu to get the 25-year-old Okada into the flow of the game quickly on offense. After all, he’s a guy who had made 103, 115 and 134 3-pointers in the 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, respectively. And his ability to stretch the defense by making 3-pointers opens up room near the basket for the team’s big men.
The Five Arrows held a five-point lead after one quarter and took a 49-36 advantage into the locker room at halftime. After three quarters, they extended the lead to 68-49.
Holding a 17-point cushion early in the fourth quarter, Takamatsu used a 12-3 run, ignited by an Okada 3-pointer with 9:02 remaining, to pull ahead 80-54.
Takamatsu led by as many as 26 points in the final quarter.
In Game 2, Blackwell was Osaka’s top scorer with 22 points and also had 11 boards. Washington (14 points, 11 boards) and Justen Naughton (10 points, 10 boards) also had double-doubles.
Jun Nakanishi, who scored 18 points in the Evessa’s 88-81 Game 1 triumph, had zero points in this game. Shota Konno, who scored a season-high 19 points in Game 1, was held to five points. Both players were non-factors on offense.
Despite what happened in Game 2, Osaka coach Kensaku Tennichi was able to quickly get his players focused on the task at hand: winning the 10-minute mini-game.
Since the start of the 2005-06 season, Tennichi has relied on Washington to be the Evessa’s fiery leader, inspiring his teammates to greatness.
This approach worked again on Sunday afternoon. Washington led by example.
At 3:20 p.m., nearly 2 1/2 hours after the start of Game 2, the teams stepped back onto the court for a winner-take-all mini-game, the first of its kind in the bj-league.
Osaka pulled ahead 12-6 after five minutes, then used a 13-3 run — it started on a Washington basket, followed by a Nakanishi 3-pointer — to take a 16-point advantage with 1:17 left in the mini-game.
For Takamatsu coach Motofumi Aoki’s squad, a valiant effort in Game 2 was followed by disappointment moments later, a painful sensation that will linger throughout the long offseason.
For the Evessa, feelings of relief and jubilation were equally shared.
Another championship is still within their reach.