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Shimura steps up as Sendai stays on course for playoffs

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

It’s a bye week for the Sendai 89ers, and the perfect time to take stock of their season through 32 games.

The 89ers (16-16) are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, and if the playoffs started today, they would advance to postseason play.

Sendai is 10-8 on the road. The club is .500 or better against six East foes: Hamamatsu (1-1), Toyama (2-2), Niigata (2-0), Chiba (2-2), Shinshu (2-0) and Iwate (2-0). The 89ers have lost three of four against Akita, head coach Bob Pierce’s former club.

The Tohoku squad has shown it can play well against the Western Conference’s top squads, posting 1-1 marks against Ryukyu (the league’s best team at 25-7), Kyoto and Fukuoka to date.

Including a series split last weekend against the host Northern Happinets, the 89ers have won four of their last six games.

“We have some clear patterns of things we do well, or not so well, in our wins and losses,” Pierce told The Japan Times. “So obviously one key is to stay focused on the good patterns, which is when we play tough defense, rebound, and move the ball on offense.”

Team leaders Takehiko Shimura, Dan Fitzgerald and Johnny Dukes play a pivotal role in helping their teammates stay loose and competitive for the entire game.

“Take, Dan, and Johnny are all taking more responsibility for settling everyone down when things aren’t going well,” Pierce said. “One thing we keep talking about is focusing on one game at a time, concentrating on one play at a time, and then playing hard for 40 minutes.”

In the previous six seasons, the 89ers had one head coach, Honoo Hamaguchi, who now leads the Kyoto Hannaryz. So it’s only natural for the returning players to take some time to get adjusted to Pierce’s style of play.

The 89ers are second among East team in fewest points per game allowed (75.8, trailing only Yokohama’s 74.8). Their scoring output, however, is third from the bottom among East teams (75.5).

The addition of Croatian big man Filip Toncinic, a versatile 213-cm veteran, has helped the 89ers make adjustments and experiment with new combinations of players and sets.

“It definitely takes time on a new team,” Pierce admitted. “But Fil has been a great teammate, and is willing to do whatever is asked. He’s been at his best when he concentrates on rebounding and defense, and stays patient on offense.”

In 10 games, Toncinic is averaging 6.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 168 minutes. He’s had two 16-point games for the 89ers.

While Toncinic works to make a greater impact, Dukes, a University of San Francisco product, will keep striving to do more of the same. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer (16.0 ppg). Fitzgerald is the top point-getter (18.6 per contest).

Dukes is averaging 8.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists (tied for fifth in the league), 1.5 blocks (tied for fourth) and 0.9 dunks (tied for ninth) per game. His 1,069 minutes are sixth among all players in the 19-team circuit. Arguably he’s one of the league’s top seven all-around players.

Or as Pierce put it: “He (Dukes) just does a bit of everything for us. The key now is to get more balance and more production from other players so he can pick and choose his spots. That’s what we did in the three recent wins. I have no idea where he might rank in a league full of very talented players, but he’s indispensable for us.”

You could argue that the team captain is just as valuable to the 89ers. Now in his fourth season with the club, Shimura is second in the league in assists (5.6 per game; 180 assists, 47 turnovers) and is scoring 7.6 ppg.

In his bj-league career, the Keio University product has been one of Japan’s top decision makers at the point. Through Sunday, he has 387 assists against 93 turnovers in the regular season.

“He has always had the ability to do what he’s doing, but now I think he knows he has the responsibility as well,” Pierce said of Shimura. “He has to make lots of decisions out there on the court. Sometimes the English-Japanese barrier is a problem. But what’s been great lately is that he’s starting to assert himself more and more, as a leader, and as a scorer.”

Forward Takuya Komoda, 24, is getting a chance to raise his profile in this league under Pierce’s strong tutelage. In five of the past seven 89ers contests, Komoda has scored between eight and 13 points each time. He’s also nailed his past six free throws, though he has significant room for improvement in that department (48.9 percent on the season).

Upcoming games: The weekend machups are as follows: Niigata vs. Oita, Shinshu vs. Kyoto, Shiga vs. Toyama, Miyazaki vs. Hamamatsu, Saitama vs. Osaka, Shimane vs. Iwate, Takamatsu vs. Akita, Fukuoka vs. Chiba and Ryukyu vs. Yokohama.