OSAKA – Reaching the Final Four is an annual objective for the Osaka Evessa, but it’s only the first step.
Winning a title is the team’s only goal every year, and the Evessa, led by rookie coach Ryan Blackwell, are two wins from making that goal a reality.
Osaka played pesky, in-your-face defense and smart, aggressive offense to beat the Rizing Fukuoka 85-74 in Game 2 of the bj-league’s Western Conference semifinals on Sunday at Sumiyoshi Sports Center.
“We just believe in each other and everybody gets the job done,” said Evessa point guard Kenny Satterfield, a late-season newcomer who scored 13 points off the bench.
Blackwell’s team, which finished second behind the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the nine-team Western Conference in the regular season, will face the Okinawa powerhouse for the third straight season in the Final Four. The winner of that May 21 game will face either the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix-Niigata Albirex BB winner in the championship game the next day at Ariake Colosseum.
Blackwell retired as a player following last season and replaced Kensaku Tennichi, who led the team to three titles and four championship game appearances in five seasons, as Osaka’s bench boss. Tennichi watched both weekend contests from the stands, including Saturday’s 79-66 Evessa win.
Osaka held Fukuoka, the West’s No. 3 playoff seed, well below its scoring average (89 points per game) in each of their last three showdowns, including the Rizing’s 86-71 defeat on April 24, the teams’ regular-season finale.
“Hopefully we can get a championship in my first year as coach,” said Blackwell, flashing a smile.
He added: “I’m just proud of these guys. They fought hard and battled. (It will take) two more games to reach our goal, but we can get it done.”
Osaka made 13 of 14 fourth-quarter free throws to seal the win. The hosts made 33 of 44 foul shots; Fukuoka was 6-for-15. In other words, with the game clock stopped, the Evessa scored 27 more points, a significant factor in the win.
“Offensively, we shared the ball, kept the pressure on them and attacked them,” Blackwell said.
Power forward Lynn Washington, the Evessa’s emotional leader and on-court catalyst, scored a game-high 27 points, increasing his offensive output by one point in Game 2 of the series. He made 11 of 12 shots at the line and hauled in eight rebounds.
“Our goal is to win a championship every year,” Washington said, repeating a line he’s used many times.
Former NBA floor general Satterfield, the league’s leader in assists this season, had 12 points in the fourth quarter, which kept the Rizing on their heels in the game’s pivotal period.
Trailing 56-43 after three quarters, Fukuoka closed the gap to 63-57 and 72-67 in the fourth, getting a 3-pointer from sharpshooter Akitomo Takeno (15 points, four steals) on the latter occasion with 2:13 to play
Blackwell then called a 60-second timeout, and Satterfield sank a 3-pointer to give Osaka a little breathing room — a 75-67 lead to be precise.
Veteran swingman Billy Knight, a key offseason acquisition, added 18 points and nine boards for the Evessa, while backup guard Michael Katsuhisa had eight points and center Wayne Marshall scored seven.
Michael Parker, the Rizing’s co-top scorer along with Nile Murry with 21 points, cut the lead to 77-69 with 1:06 to play, but never got any closer the rest of the way. Two seconds later, Satterfield made two free throws to make it a 10-point game and slam the door on Fukuoka’s comeback hopes.
The Evessa held a slight edge in rebounds (49-44), partly a result of the Rizing attempting so many more shots from the field. Coach Tadaharu Ogawa’s club was 30-for-80, including 8-for-24 on 3s, while Osaka was 24-for-47, including 4-for-7 from long range.
After a 2-for-17 effort from beyond the 3-point arc on Saturday, Blackwell didn’t need to remind his players that high percentage shots are taken from close range.
Or as he put it: “I didn’t tell them not to shoot it, but I think they knew that we had an advantage attacking and we wanted to keep attacking to keep the pressure on them — go inside to Wayne, go inside to Lynn — and put the pressure on their guys and keep them in foul trouble.”
Rizing guard Jun Nakanishi, a former Evessa player, fouled out after scoring five points. (Three teammates were one foul away from disqualification.)
Ogawa called Osaka a “strong team” during the post-game interview. He was disappointed with his team’s shooting, saying the performance at the foul line was bad. He also said his team’s aggressive defense did not produce the results he had hoped for.
“It’s a young team,” Ogawa said, “but we need to continue to make improvements.”
In the regular season, Osaka and Fukuoka each won three times against the other team, but the Evessa have now won three straight, getting a big boost from Satterfield and Taiwanese center Tseng Wen-ting (six points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks) as the rotation has exhibited significant improvements in recent weeks.
Washington believes Satterfield and Tseng are an integral part of the team’s championship quest.
“Having Kenny (and Teng), both those guys know how to play,” Washington said. “You ask them to score points and they probably can score. You ask them to just run the team and play defense, they just do whatever they’re asked and that falls within our team concepts, just to be unselfish and to play within the flow of the game.
“As long as everybody on our team does that, I see us winning the championship.”
Tseng chipped in with six points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. His defensive presence enabled Blackwell to use a 2-3 zone for major minutes against Fukuoka.
The ploy worked — again.
“We played today and yesterday in stretches as well as we’ve played,” Blackwell said, crediting his team’s defense for its effort in the series. “When we are playing our best defense, and especially in the zone (that’s a key for us).”
Defensive awareness played a big role in the win, especially in challenging Fukuoka’s role players to score on a regular basis.
“We knew we had to try to do a good job defensively on Parker and Takeno and just make the other guys scorers,” said Washington, who played tight defense on Parker all game. “Just make them play not how they like to play, make them uncomfortable, make them play how they are not used to playing. And that’s what you have to do with teams that only have two go-to options.”
The Rizing, the out-of-towners, faced a 35-29 deficit at halftime.
Osaka, however, closed out the half on a 14-2 run fueled by strong defense, using a 2-3 zone effectively and challenging Fukuoka’s shooters to beat them from the perimeter.
Hideki Katsumata, Katsuhisa and Tseng all made big shots during the spurt as the Evessa’s second unit made major contributions. Playing aggressively, Katsumata found his shooting groove as he drove to the hoop. Tseng’s slam dunk produced the final points of the half and put the red-clad home fans in a happy mood before the 20-minute intermission.
“We needed a spark,” Blackwell said later, referring to Katsuhisa, whose aggressive play was instrumental during the aforementioned spurt.
Knight topped the scoring chart with 10 first-half points and Washington had eight. The Evessa had a chance to extend the lead to doubled digits but had mediocre free-throw shooting in the opening half (14-for-22
Tseng continued his fine play in the low post on defense, keeping his hands up, moving his feet, challenging every shooter in the lane and rejecting a pair of shots before taking his seat in the locker room for a quick breather.
For the Rizing, Murray had a team-high eight points before the break. Fukuoka’s shooters struggled to hit shots consistently for the second straight day, making only 11 of 38 shots.
Note: Visit The Japan Times website for a recap of Sunday’s other playoff games.