Despite the fact that the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix rely on Michael Gardener to carry the offense, coach Kazuo Nakamura’s team had multiple scoring options this season, including a 236-cm center named Sun Ming Ming, who can dunk without jumping, and Marcus Morrison, who averaged 17.8 points per game.
The Phoenix won the Eastern Conference’s regular-season crown with a 36-16 record and averaged a league-high 90.7 points per game in their first bj-league campaign.
Tokyo Apache coach Joe Bryant bestowed upon Gardener a nickname that is a worthy compliment. Bryant called him a “poor man’s Allen Iverson.”
“You’ve really got to figure a way to stop him,” Bryant added.
What Bryant and others around the bj-league have said repeatedly is that the speedy Gardener is a gifted scorer.
The proof is in the numbers. The 182-cm Gardener averaged 25.5 ppg game, the third-highest output in the league. And he helped his own cause with a league-high 6.8 assists per game. In addition, his 2.3 steals per game ranked second in the league.
The team formerly known as the OSG Phoenix — it previously played in the JBL — faces the Apache in Saturday’s Eastern Conference final at 7 p.m. at Ariake Colosseum. The winner advances to Sunday afternoon’s bj-league title game against the Osaka Evessa-Ryukyu Golden Kings winner.
Tokyo, the 2007-08 championship runnerup squad, knocked off the Sendai 89ers in the conference semifinals last weekend, and Hamamatsu got past the Niigata Albirex BB in the other semifinal series.
Now the teams renew their rivalry, but for the first time in the playoffs. In the regular season, the Phoenix posted a 6-2 record against Bryant’s club.
“I think it is a game everybody wants to see,” said Apache forward John “Helicopter” Humphrey, Tokyo’s most recognizable star who has played for the squad since 2005. “We are going to battle it out and see what happens.”
The Apache (33-19 in the regular season) added Julius Ashby, the Takamatsu Five Arrows’ starting center from their 2006-07 championship runnerup squad, in the offseason, solidifying the team in the post. Forward Tizzo Johnson and guard Kosaku Yada are newcomers, while forward Dameion Baker, a guy Bryant describes as “kind of our Ron Artest,” rejoined the squad in midseason. The coach added that Baker gives the Apache a solid blend of defense and scoring punch similar to Artest’s contributions for the Houston Rockets.
Returnees Nick Davis, Ashby and Humphrey anchored the frontcourt, and a strong mix of wing and backcourt players, including Cohey Aoki, Darin Satoshi Maki, Jumpei Nakama and Masashi Joho, gave Bryant’s club the foundation to compete for a title this season.
“Most of the same guys are back,” said Maki, one of the league’s top defensive guards. “We have a good hunger. We can’t just expect to be back in the final. Bottom line is we’ve got to win a championship.”
In last season’s final, Aoki, Tokyo’s super sub, was poked in the eye during the second quarter against the Evessa, leaving the game after just one minute of playing time. He went to the hospital for X-rays and didn’t return to the game.
“I still say this today,” said Bryant, “if we had Cohey in the finals, we would have won the championship. And I believe that wholeheartedly, because if you look at last year’s game, we did a great job defensively on the great players that they had and the score at halftime was 26-26 and Cohey only played one minute.
“If normal Cohey comes in and plays, Cohey comes in and gets 10 points, and we are up (by 10 points). Simple.”
Well, what won’t be simple on Saturday is keeping Gardener from taking a plethora of 3-point shots. He shot 515 3s this season, just a shade under 10 per game.
All told, the Apache took 963 3-pointers as a team. (You can think of Gardener’s 3-point shooting as akin to a baseball player with a green light to attempt a stolen base at any time.)
In the Apache’s two victories over the Phoenix, vastly different styles of play emerged.
On Dec. 14, five Tokyo players scored in double figures, with Joho and Aoki leading the offense with 24 and 23 points, respectively, in a 105-90 triumph.
On March 28, Tokyo outscored Hamamatsu 18-3 in the second quarter, Ashby blocked six shots and Gardener was held to 2-for-21 from 3-point range in a 72-68 Apache victory.
Will Tokyo rely on a run-and-gun style of play against Hamamatsu?
Or will it try to slow it down and keep the score in the low 70s?
Foul trouble could be a key factor in determining the flow of the game.
Tokyo has the benefit of homecourt advantage at Ariake, where it went 18-8 during the regular season, but the Phoenix were 18-8 in away games. What’s more, the Apache already experienced the nerve-rattling pressure of the Final Four last May.
On the other hand, Hamamatsu enters this weekend with a chance to achieve a goal Nakamura spoke about during his introductory news conference after the Evessa beat Tokyo in last season’s title game.
“We’ll go for the championship from year No. 1,” Nakamura stated.
Both coaches have put their teams in a position to earn their first bj-league title. And now one game will decide which team will earn that enviable opportunity on Sunday.