The Shimane Susanoo Magic have begun their second season in terrific fashion, winning four games on the road.
This weekend, they return home to face the perennial title-contending Osaka Evessa, one of three Western Conference teams with 3-1 records — the Shiga Lakestars and Ryukyu Golden Kings also have the same mark — before what’s expected to be a sold-out crowd.
This is as good as it gets in the bj-league in late October.
Coach Zeljko Pavlicevic has established a balanced, disciplined, athletic team in Shimane that has grown better and smarter.
Point guard Edward Yamamoto, a backup last season, has had a brilliant start to the season. Averaging 9.3 points per game, Yamamoto, a Daito Bunka University product, has 36 assists (ex-NBA point guard Kenny Satterfield of the Saitama Broncos has 27 assists) and five turnovers.
In succession, Yamamoto has had 11-, 10-, eight- and seven-assist games. The Magic offense has flourished as a result, scoring 80 or more points in three of four games, including a 101-63 decision over the Takamatsu Five Arrows on Sunday.
Newcomer Michael Parker has made a quick transition to Pavlicevic’s system, stepping in as the top scoring option (24.0 ppg) and leading rebounder (34 total boards to fellow forward Reggie Golson’s 33). Jeral Davis, the anchor in the middle, has 15 blocks and a better understanding of what it takes to thrive in the veteran mentor’s high-energy defensive sets.
Tatsuhiro Yokoo is averaging 12.3 ppg, while Davis (8.5), B.J. Puckett (7.8) and ex-Tokyo Apache guard Jumpei Nakama (5.8) are other capable scoring options.
During a Tuesday telephone conversation Pavlicevic said he’s looking forward to facing the Evessa, pointing out immediately that he respects what Osaka has accomplished in the league’s six-season history entering the 2011-12 campaign.
“They are the best club in bj-league history,” Pavlicevic said, “with all those Final Fours (six) and championships (three).”
Pavlicevic described Osaka leader Lynn Washington as a player who “does his best in key moments” in games.
The addition of five-time All-Star Cohey Aoki to the Evessa lineup — he had a key role for six seasons for the Apache — gives Osaka a player with a very competitive spirit and a very strong character, the former Japan men’s national team coach said.
Facing the Evessa for two playoff-like games in October is “a really big challenge,” Pavlicevic said. “I like these types of games. . . . We are not at the level of Osaka, but we are a good team. This (weekend) will be a good test for us.”
To be considered a team that’s at the same level as Osaka, winning big games will be the ultimate factor for Shimane, and to do so, Yamamoto’s play will be a big part of that possibility, especially with former lead guard Takumi Ishizaki playing in Germany this season.
After the 2010-11 season ended, Pavlicevic worked closely with Yamamoto in individual drills and gave him a series of demanding tasks to elevate his game and become a more complete player. “I have my style,” Pavlicevic said. “I want to tell my players how to play.”
He added: “Yamamoto’s playing very, very well. He’s very smart.”
To play intelligent basketball, Pavlicevic has reminded all of his players they need to read and react.
“I want them to use their brains,” he said, repeating a point he has made on many occasions, “and not play like robots.”
He added: “React to the game. At any moment, the defense can make a mistake, and that’s the time to punish the defense.”
Right now, Pavlicevic believes Yamamoto is the “best point guard in the league.”
“He has something,” the coach said. “(Averaging 9.0 assists) is something really spectacular. . . . This has been a strong development for Shimane.”
Creative freedom during a game is essential to Yamamoto’s maturation.
As for the addition of Parker and Nakama to the Shimane rotation, the Croatian bench boss said he couldn’t be more pleased with the former’s energy, effort and unselfish play. Pavlicevic talked about gifted scorers Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc, both of whom he coached during their prime in the Euroleague, and reminded this reporter that he’s been around a number of scoring sensations during his career.
“Scorers always wish to take shots,” he said with a chuckle, “to score more points. But Michael doesn’t need the ball always to make 30 points.”
On offense, “Michael is always in the right place, the right point on the court.”
While many scorers don’t exhaust as much energy on defense, Parker has shown the desire to go after steals (four straight bj-league steals titles in his four years here) and is an elite-level rebounder.
“I feel we chose the right person,” Pavlicevic said of the team’s main offseason acquisition, who spent the previous four seasons with the Rizing Fukuoka.
Nakama, meanwhile, is regaining his confidence and shooting touch after a long layoff following the Apache’s early departure from the league in March.
Pavlicevic said Nakama’s six months of game inactivity have taken their toll on the veteran shooting guard, whom he praised for his professionalism and serious approach to the game. During that long layoff, “Nakama lost his feeling for the game,” the coach said. But it’s coming back, and Pavlicevic expects Nakama to have his fitness level back to where it was last spring in another 20 days.
The Magic, of course, can continue to alternate Nakama and Yokoo at the off-guard position.
Key defender: Lawrence Blackledge, who played a major role for the Evessa last season as a long-limbed defender and secondary scorer, is better than ever in his second campaign in the bj-league.
The Marquette University product, averaging 11 points per game, blocked 12 shots against archrival Ryukyu last weekend, including seven in Sunday’s 74-65 OT win.
What’s more, the 25-year-old forward has buried 7 of 16 3-point attempts in four games.
“Lawrence is one of the best all-around defenders in the league,” Evessa power forward Lynn Washington told The Japan Times. “He reminds of (Los Angeles) Laker great Michael Cooper. He can nail the 3-point shot as well. He:s really a true talent.”
The Evessa defense provides Blackwell with a change to be the leader and its focal point. And that’s by design for second-year coach Ryan Blackwell.
“Our team as a whole follows what Lawrence brings to this team on defense,” Washington said. “He’s very vocal, young and springy. Ryan and I are very excited to have him as the anchor of our defense.”
Weekly accolade: Lakestars guard Shinya Ogawa had 12- and 20-point outings in his team’s weekend sweep over the HeatDevils to earn the Lawson/Ponta Player of the Week award, the league announced on Tuesday.
Ogawa added two assists in Shiga’s 90-66 Saturday win. He was 8-for-8 at the charity stripe and contributed six assists and two steals in 27
minutes in Sunday’s 96-92 triumph.
Upcoming games: Rizing Fukuoka vs. Shiga Lakestars (Friday and Saturday). This weekend’s other series, starting Saturday, are as follows: Sendai 89ers vs. Akita Northern Happinets (giving ex-Akita coach Bob Pierce his first game against the team that fired him after
its first season; both teams are 3-1 entering their first showdown of the season), Toyama Grouses vs. Shinshu Brave Warriors, Saitama Broncos vs. Iwate Big Bulls, Chiba Jets vs. Takamatsu Five Arrows, Oita HeatDevils vs. Miyazaki Shining Suns and Ryukyu Golden Kings vs.
Kyoto Hannaryz. The Yokohama B-Corsairs play host to the Niigata Albirex BB in a midweek series, starting on Nov. 2.
Lakestars on a roll: Shiga has won three straight games under first-year coach Alan Westover.
“We’re happy to get three of four, the last win could have gone either way,” Westover told The Japan Times. “Our team play has been good, the guys are sharing the ball around, and we’ve had numerous contributors on the offensive end.
“Our defense has been solid, though we couldn’t stop Oita in that last game, as they have a few very talented players. We have to focus on getting better, in particular our defensive transition, and defensive and offensive boards.
After Ogawa’s aforementioned 20-point game on Sunday, Westover summed up the Shiga guard’s play this way:
“Yes, Shinya had a great game against Oita, and has been solid in every game. He’s doing a good job of running the team, getting people involved, and taking care of the ball.”
Overall, Westover said he’s been comfortable with the team’s players and implementing his system in Shiga. And he’s gained a favorable impression of the rapidly changing bj-league.
“(The guys work hard, are team-oriented and are fun to be around,” he said. “I like the format of the league, all week to prepare, and then the back-to-back games on the weekend.”
Which opposing players have most impressed him?
“I’ve seen several good players in the first couple of weeks, both Oita and Kyoto have very good import and Japanese players,” Westover said.
“(Former MVP) Wendell White was probably the most impressive, but the bigs at Kyoto and T.J. Cummings at Oita gave us all we could handle. …
“I think that the bj-league is a very good league, and every weekend will be a tough challenge for us. It should make for a very exciting and interesting year.”
Around the league: The Rizing outscored the Shining Suns 29-3 in the second quarter on Sunday in an 88-59 victory. … Big Bulls guard Makoto Sawaguchi and forward Thomas Kennedy are the team’s co-leaders in scoring through four games (13.0 ppg). … In two starts last weekend, Hamamatsu center Atsuya Ota had 15-point, seven-rebound and 15-point, 10-rebound outings. He was 10-for-14 from the field in the games against Sendai. … Grouses guard Masashi Joho, a streaky shooter throughout his career, is 3-for-23 on 3-point shots entering this weekend. … Phoenix center Atsuya Ota had 15-point, 10-rebound and 10-point, seven-rebound outings last weekend against the 89ers. He was 10-for-14 from the field.
Did you know there’s a special basketball event at Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture on Sunday? It’s part of Japan Entertainment Group’s 2011 Celebrity Weekend and features former NBA forward Tim Thomas participating in a game that also includes former bj-league players Charles Johnson and Shawn Brown. Johnson has also coached the Saitama Broncos and Toyama Grouses. TV Kanagawa plans to broadcast the game, Brown said.
The game, set to tip off at 2 p.m., will serve as a fundraiser for Japan Red Cross and Pink Ribbon International. Yokosuka Mayor Yuto Yoshida and Thomas are scheduled to play for the White Team.
Visit www.celebweekend.com for more information. Tickets are limited, so it’s recommended to purchase them as soon as possible.
Moreover, in case you hadn’t heard, Japan Entertainment Group’s “Playin’ For Money, ” is a new movie about a Japanese basketball player from Kagoshima.
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