Final Four weekend brings three teams to Tokyo that were expected to be here and one that joined the mix by a less conventional route.
The defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, the three-time champion Osaka Evessa and the 008-09 title-winning Ryukyu Golden Kings were all popular choices to be in the hunt for the title before the bj-league’s sixth season tipped off in October.
This, however, has been anything but a typical season.
The Niigata Albirex BB, on the other hand, were considered a playoff-bound team, but the Sendai 89ers and Tokyo Apache, led by Honoo Hamaguchi and Bob Hill, respectively, appeared to have stronger teams and had better won-loss records before the March 11 earthquake. When those two Eastern Conference teams and the Saitama Broncos canceled the remainder of their games, though, the fourth-place Albirex emerged as a likely Final Four choice from a conference that also features the historically bad Toyama Grouses, who have had five consecutive losing campaigns, and the expansion Akita Northern Happinets.
The Final Four is set, with the Phoenix vs. the Albirex in the East final at 2:05 p.m. on Saturday. The West final features familiar foes Ryukyu and Osaka, meeting for a right to represent the conference in the title game for the third straight season, and the tipoff is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. The venue, as has been the case every postseason, is Ariake Colosseum. Sunday’s third-place game begins at 1:05 p.m., followed by the championship clash at 5:05.
What follows is a breakdown of the West and East finals
Ryukyu vs. Osaka: The Evessa were 1-3 against their archrival during the regular season, but the addition of point guard Kenny Satterfield, who began the season in a Saitama uniform, in April transformed Osaka into an even better squad.
Ryukyu forward David Palmer, who has played in three finals for the Evessa, said his team’s must apply a defense-by-committee approach against Satterfield. And it won’t be easy, he said.
It will be a “team effort, throw a lot of different guys at him — me, Carlos (Dixon), (Anthony) McHenry) and (Naoto) Kosuge,” Palmer said.
In other words, the Golden Kings want to disrupt Satterfield’s timing and not allow him to get into a comfort zone as Osaka’s facilitator on offense.
“If he gets going, he can get tough,” Palmer said of the former NBA floor general.
Palmer is confident his team has the athleticism and strength in numbers to counter Satterfield’s unique skill set.
“McHenry’s probably our go-to defender,” he said. “He can guard so many positions because of his length and athleticism.”
The Golden Kings have plenty of scoring punch in Carlos Dixon and Palmer, McHenry and Kosuge, Jeff Newton and Shigeyuki Kinjo and added strength in the frontcourt in Dillion Sneed, a126-kg hard-nosed rebounder and imposing force around the basket.
Tsubasa Yonamine, who had 233 assists and 61 turnovers before the playoffs commenced, runs the point with a quiet confidence but commands respect from his teammates.
Veterans Yasufumi Takushi and Yoshiki Yamashiro added depth to the rotation, while guard Takehiko Shimura, on loan from the 89ers, provided a boost for the season’s stretch run, including 14 points on 5-for-5 shooting in the season finale.
The well-rounded Evessa squad also features power forward Lynn Washington, the team’s perennial MVP candidate, tough center Wayne Marshall, Knight and Taiwanese newcomer Tseng Wen-ting, a shot-blocking menace, underrated passer and solid low-post scorer.
“You have to defend and rebound, but against Osaka you really have to try to limit free throws and points in the paint,” Palmer said. “With Lynn and Wayne Marshall, you really have to keep them away from the rim as best as you can to take away those easy baskets. Those things are really going to be the key.”
Palmer also mentioned that his team’s offensive options will help them compete in the high-stakes win-and-advance conference final.
“You have to score and guys have to be willing to score and take shots,” he said.
X-factor: Newton didn’t play in the Western Conference semifinals, nursing an ankle injury. If he’s mobile and active on both ends of the floor, Ryukyu’s power and speed will be better coped to slow down Satterfield and limit his forays into the lane.
With Washington in the lineup, the Evessa, who have endured a number of key personnel changes in recent years, remain a title contender every spring.
“He’s our emotional leader,” Blackwell said of Washington. “He’s been here so long and I’ve never seen a guy that wants to win more than he does. He just has that will and effort. His knee may be hurting and he gets his knee drained. It could be another problem, but he goes out and gives 110 percent and that doesn’t happen too often. He takes care of his body, he’s in the weight room, and he’s just our emotional leader on and off the court.”
For the Evessa, what will it take to triumph against Ryukyu?
“Offensively, we have enough talent, we have enough guys that can score,” Blackwell said. “They just have to have the confidence to share the ball and set screens, and defensively that’s what it’s going to take. And I said at the beginning of the year: it’s going to be on the defensive end. If we play and be active like we’ve been in these past few games — contesting shots, boxing outs, little things that — I think we’ll be fine.
He added: “We have four guys who on any given night can go off for 20 or more points, and that doesn’t happen very often, especially in this league. Okinawa’s got some guys that can score and so does Hamamatsu, but with the four guys we have with Kenny and Lynn, Billy and Wayne, they can all get big numbers, so that’s a plus for us.”
To beat Ryukyu, Blackwell also highlighted the need to slow down Dixon and Palmer and Kosuge on offense — “guys that can stoke the ball,” he said — so the zone defense will be key.
“They like to run, so it’s going to be essential for us to get back on defense,” Blackwell said. “…We’ll have to sprint back and play tough, tough defense and contest shots.”
The Evessa were No. 2 in the league in scoring defense, allowing 76 points a game. Only Niigata (74.3 ppg) allowed fewer points.
For Washington, the team’s return to the Final Four under first-year coach Blackwell was something that required great commitment from the entire organization.
“We changed our team a lot this season,” Washington said, “and for us to make it to the Final Four this season is a great accomplishment. I feel great about our team and I also feel like we’re not finished yet. Our goal isn’t to make it to the Final Four here in Osaka, our goal is to win the championship. And that’s been our goal every season we’ve had here with this franchise.”
To accomplish that goal, Washington emphasized the need for Osaka defenders to force Dixon and Palmer to become passers rather than first-option scorers and to limit Sneed’s impact in the lane. “We just have to play unbelievable team defense, which we are ready to play and we’ve been ready to play Okinawa since the last time because Kenny had just come on the team after not playing for three weeks, a three-week hiatus, so now we are a totally different team.”
In their last series, host Ryukyu topped Osaka 101-94 and 102-73 on April 2-3. Sneed had nine offensive rebounds in 34 minutes off the bench in those two games, as well as 18 points and 16 boards.
X-factor: Osaka’s Shota Konno and Hirohisa Takada can be the forgotten men on the Evessa, but leave them open, and they are capable of scoring points in bunches.
Hamamatsu vs. Niigata: The Albirex went 20-20 in the regular season, but added veteran big man George Leach for the stretch run after Saitama’s season ended. The team lost gifted scorer and lockdown defender Willie Veasley after the earthquake, though, as he opted to return home like many American players.
Naoto Takushi and Yuichi Ikeda, a pair of talented All-Stars, are experienced playoff-tested players who’ll have big roles in the team’s second straight trip to the Final Four.
Gone, though, are guards Makoto Hasegawa, 40, who played for Akita this season, and Akitomo Takeno, who rejoined the Rizing Fukuoka after two seasons in Niigata. These changes give Hirotaka Kondo, Shuhei Komatsu, Julius Ashby, Zach Andrews and others more chances to put points on the board.
X-factor: Ashby. The three-time All-Star has helped the Takamatsu Five Arrows and Tokyo Apache reach the championship game, but both teams fell short of their goal. Ashby, when he’s at the top of his game, is an explosive scorer and an intimidating defensive presence.
Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura’s club breezed through the regular season, outplaying the opposition and winning the majority of its close games as well.
In the offseason, Hamamatsu lost 2009-10 MVP Wendell White, who moved on to the Kyoto Hannaryz, and swingman Billy Knight, who had a stellar season for the Evessa. But newcomer Jeffrey Parmer (16.9 points per game) collected the league’s MVP honor and teammate Wayne Arnold (18.6 ppg), a super sixth man and 3-point shooter, joined him on the Best Five squad.
The Phoenix’s team defense, perimeter shooting prowess and offensive balance, including underrated big man Dzaflo Larkai (9.8 ppg), keep foes on their toes to match up with the defending champs. Shingo Okada (5.6 ppg), Kazutoshi Ota (6.3) and Masahiro Oguchi (6.0) give Nakamura multiple proven scoring options to run plays for.Osaka-Ryukyu battlehighlights semifinals
A few others tidbits about high-energy Hamamatsu:
* The Phoenix were 21-3 on the road in the regular season.
* Oguchi, a backup guard, drained 10 3s in the East final last May against Niigata.
*Led by Parmer’s 74, nine Phoenix players had 20 or more steals, evidence of the team’s feisty, opportunistic defense.
X-factor: Ray Nixon. The forward takes a lot of 3-point shots (274 this season) and scores in double digits (11.8 ppg; season-high 25 on Dec. 25) when he gets into a rhythm the versatile team becomes even harder to defend.
Around the league: Despite reaching the second round of the playoffs for the first time in team history, Shiga Lakestars general manager/CEO Shinsuke Sakai appears ready to undertake a major overhaul of the team, according to a league insider. Furthermore, it appears that former coach Takatoshi Ishibashi, who was fired midway through his first season at the helm, never had a proper chance to lead the team the way most coaches would be given.
“It sounds like Sakai-san made life tough in Shiga, often going into to the locker room when Big Bashi was addressing the team,” a source told The Japan Times. “He would talk to Big Bashi, and American players felt he was telling Big Bashi what to do/how to coach.
“(The Lakestars) paid Yu Okada a lot of money, so Sakai-san was upset that (Masashi) Joho was starting over him. But I hear that Joho repeatedly outplayed him in practice, so all the players knew that Joho deserved to be in the lineup over Okada.
“Upset one time after not playing much, Yu Okada got mad at Big Bashi as they talked, and threw something at him. Mikey (Marshall) was very upset that Okada would disrespect the head coach like that. This was brought to Sakai-san’s attention, but no disciplinary action taken against Okada. So gradually the American players lost respect for Big Bashi.” Now Sakai-san is clearing house,” the hoop insider continued. “(Assistant coach/veteran point guard) Haruyuki Ishibashi may go to Toyama to become the assistant coach. (Center) Hirotaka Sato may go to the expansion team in Yokohama. Joho may be let go to open up playing time for Yu Okada.”
Solid finish: Many stories about the bj-league have been written since the March 11 earthquake, and this one got lost in the shuffle. Sendai center Chris Holm finished his season by playing three games for the NBA Development League’s Dakota Wizards in early April, including a 14-point, 13-rebound effort on April 2 in 27 minutes. Ex-Oita and Ryukyu center Chris Ayer, who has began this season with the JBL’s Rera Kamuy Hokkaido, played 20 games for the Wizards, too.
Coming Saturday: The Japan Times spoke to Hamamatsu star and reigning playoff MVP Masahiro Oguchi, finding out his thoughts on the upcoming game against the Niigata Albirex BB and his role on the ultra-successful team.
Quotable: “The thing about Okinawa that stands out to me is that they have balance in all areas — big men, the forward spot and the guard spot. They have a good combination of different players. I think the first game we played them a couple weeks ago in Okinawa we could’ve won. We got killed on the offensive glass by Sneed. So boxing out and making sure we crash the boards is going to be key for us. And they play tough, they’re defensively tough,” — Blackwell, highlighting the Golden Kings’ strengths.
Quotable, part II: “When I speak for everybody in the locker room, from the head coach on down to the player who plays the least, we’re not done yet,” — Washington, summing up the team’s championship aspirations.
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