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Playoffs could provide surprises in both conferences

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

And now, finally, it’s time for the real season to tip off.

Think of it this way: In a dinner-banquet sense, essentially, the past seven months was the appetizer, with seven teams failing to secure an invitation to the main feast, aka the playoffs.

The Takamatsu Five Arrows (2-50), Miyazaki Shining Suns (22-30) and Oita HeatDevils (23-29) were the bottom three in the Western Conference; the Eastern Conference’s Saitama Broncos (16-36), Chiba Jets (18-34), Shinshu Brave Warriors (18-34) and Iwate Big Bulls (19-33) also missed the cut.

Four teams grabbed coveted first-round byes: the West’s Nos. 1 and 2 — Ryukyu Golden Kings (39-13) and Osaka Evessa (35-17) — and the East’s top two — two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (37-15) and expansion Yokohama B-Corsairs (31-21), who have reminded some observers of the 2006-07 Takamatsu squad that stormed to the Final Four and fell to the Evessa in the title game.

After this weekend’s four playoffs series are contested, the conference semifinals will pit the East and West leaders against the respective lower-seeded winners, while the second-place Evessa and B-Corsairs await the higher-seeded victors.

Akita (28-24, 15-11 at home) vs. Sendai (25-27, 12-14 on road) Head-to-head results (home team in caps): Oct. 29: Akita 80, SENDAI 71; Oct. 30: Akita 93, SENDAI 88; Feb. 11: Sendai 81, AKITA 67; Feb. 12: AKITA 83, Sendai 72.
(Akita won season series 3-1)

Northern Happinets update: Coach Kazuo Nakamura’s squad has not played a game since April 22. Perhaps the break came at a good time, what with the team losing seven of its last 10 contests to close out the regular season. Injuries and a lack of roster continuity this season — key players Michael Gardener, Stanley Ocitti, Curtis Terry, among others, have left — could trigger an early playoff exit for the veteran coach’s club. Nakamura, of course, is known for taking teams to the Final Four, having done so in each of the previous three seasons with Hamamatsu. …

Top scorers: Ricky Woods (20.6 points per game), Kyle Swanston (19.2), E.J. Drayton (10.4) and Mychal Kearse (9.4). Swanston may be primed to bust loose from a shooting slump; he’s 3-for-25 on 3s in the past three games. Yuki Kikuchi is a bona-fide 3-point threat, and Ryosuke Mizumachi and Kazuhiro Shoji, seasoned veterans, give Nakamura other options. And 41-year-old playing manager Makoto Hasegawa, for years one of the best guards in Japanese hoop history, may make a surprise appearance off the bench at some point in the series.

89ers update: Coach Bob Pierce’s team stumbled to the finish line, winning only three of its last 10 games, including a four-game losing streak entering the postseason. Injuries to captain/point guard Takehiko Shimura (head) and Dan Fitzgerald (knee, head) in the past few weeks played into those struggles, too. Pierce coached Akita during its inaugural season in 2010-11, and was shown the door to make way for Nakamura, who wanted to coach his hometown club. Indeed, Pierce is familiar with many of Akita’s players’ strengths and weaknesses, and that may work in his favor in a down-to-the-wire game. …

Fitzgerald leads the team in scoring (18.9 points per game), followed by Johnny Dukes (15.8), Rashaad Singleton (7.6) and Shimura (7.3). If Kenichi Takahashi, Hikaru Kusaka, Takuya Komoda and Filip Toncinic can provide consistent scoring, Sendai’s chances of beating Akita in a run-and-gun, fast-paced contest improve dramatically.

Singleton provided the following insight about the upcoming series: “I think the keys to beating Akita is stop them in transition and put a lot of pressure on them around the perimeter. They have a lot of quickness along with experience and also a two-time champion head coach. At the same time, I have the upmost confidence in our team and I know if we are able to concentrate on the things that we do well and play solid D, we should be victorious.”

Niigata (28-24, 15-11 at home) vs. Toyama (25-27, 12-14 on road)
Head-to-head results: Oct 15: Toyama 81, NIIGATA 79: Oct. 16: NIIGATA 85, Toyama 75; Dec. 10: Niigata 85, TOYAMA 76; Dec: 11: TOYAMA 102, Niigata 76.
(Teams split season series 2-2)

Albirex update: Coach Matt Garrison’s team enters the playoffs with four wins in its last 10 games, including Sunday’s 95-54 rout of the Saitama Broncos. Sharpshooter Shuhei Komatsu canned 5 of 5 3-pointers in the second quarter on Sunday, when he scored all 17 of his points; two games prior, he drained 7 of 10 3s against the Shiga Lakestars. … The team’s top four scorers are Nile Murry (15.2 ppg), Erron Maxey (12.5) Chris Holm (11.5) and Yuichi Ikeda (10.6). …

Holm averages a rebound roughly every two minutes (746 boards in 1,549 minutes). Bennet Davis and Ryo Narumi, Kimitake Sato and Hirotaka Kondo have all had stellar outings and flourished at times this season. (See below for expanded Albirex coverage, featuring comments from Garrison and Holm.)

Grouses update: Coach Kazuaki Shimoji’s squad has struggled of late, picking up three victories in its last 10 games before the playoffs. … All-Star guard Masashi Joho is one of the league’s most experienced postseason performers, having suited up for a pair of title winners (Osaka Evessa) and two championship runnerup squads (now-defunct Tokyo Apache) before playing for the Shiga Lakestars the past two campaigns. …

Brian Harper leads the squad in scoring (16.4), followed by Joho, the league’s top scoring Japanese (15.3), Devin Searcy (13.9) and Ira Brown (12.7). Speedy guard Takeshi Mito is often overlooked in discussions about the league’s best Japanese players, but no one works harder and is an underrated scorer, passer, rebounder and defender.

Kyoto (34-18, 19-7 at home) vs. Shimane (28-24, 13-13 on road)
Head-to-head results: Nov. 26: KYOTO 90, Shimane 69; Nov. 27: KYOTO 89, Shimane 86; March 24: SHIMANE 75, Kyoto 63; March 25: SHIMANE 87, Kyoto 83.
(Teams split season series 2-2)

Hannaryz update: Coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s squad is a dangerous unit lurking in the shadows as the playoffs commence, winning eight of its last 10 contests. The Hannaryz have assembled one of the league’s most talented rosters, featuring three quality big men in Babacar Camara, Rick Rickert and ex-NBA center Lance Allred, and, as always for a Hamaguchi-coached team, an unselfish offense. Exhibit A: Five Hannaryz players have 90 or more assists. …

Jermaine Boyette leads the offense with 14.2 ppg, followed by Rickert’s 13.6, Allred’s 12.2, Lee Cummard’s 10.3, Camara’s 8.6 and Taizo Kawabe’s 7.9. If he gets hot early, veteran Naoto Nakamura remains one of the top perimeter shooters in the league.

Susanoo Magic update: Coach Zeljko Pavlicevic’s squad has seven victories in its last 10 games. …. The Magic experienced playoff disappointment as a first-year club last May, but it was a valuable experience and a building block for the team’s future. Takumi Ishizaki took his talents to Germany this season, but Pavlicevic brought in all-around star Michael Parker to lead the team, and the ever-hustling forward’s points, rebounds, steals, blocks, assists and other non-statistical intangibles provided invaluable. …

Parker is the league’s top scorer (23.1 ppg) for the fourth straight season, while Reggie Golson (13.1), B.J. Puckett (10.8) and Jeral Davis (10.7 points, 85 slam dunks) are other options. Tatsuhiro Yokoo, longtime Tokyo Apache guard Jumpei Nakama and Koki Yabuuchi have the skills to be a factor at both ends of the floor. Davis is the league’s premier shot blocker (3.8 per game) and much-improved backcourt leader Edward Yamamoto is one of the top assist men in the fledgling circuit. … Pavlicevic has won a pair of Euroleague titles and also coached the Japan national team, bringing a level of preparation and basketball smarts that few can match.

Shiga (33-19, 18-8 home) vs. Fukuoka (33-19, 17-9 road) Head-to-head results: Oct. 28: Shiga 92, FUKUOKA 81; Oct. 29: Shiga 82, FUKUOKA 79; April 7: SHIGA 87, Fukuoka 77; April 8: Shiga 103, Fukuoka 79.
(Shiga won season series 4-0)

Lakestars update: Coach Alan Westover’s club went 7-3 to close out the regular season, but dropped its final three games. The Lakestars have versatility, experience and a coach who’s a proven winner (two Australia NBL titles on his resume). Now in the playoffs for the third straight season with three different head coaches, Shiga will rely on the scoring flair of Ray Nixon (14.8 ppg), Josh Peppers (14.8), Yu Okada (12.9), Dionisio Gomez (12.4) and Julius Ashby (11.6). Shinya Ogawa, Takamichi Fujiwara, Kazuya “J.” Hatano and Bryant Markson also can be expected to make key contributions during the high-stakes series. …

Ashby has helped lead three franchises — Takamatsu, Tokyo and Niigata — to the Final Four and may be up for the task again and hungry to win his first title in Japan. Hatano, a savvy rebounder and post player, has three championship rings from his Evessa days and plenty of motivation to add to his legacy.

After a pair of defeats to the Evessa last weekend, Westover said it was a good lesson for his team.

“Osaka was too good for us. We couldn’t guard them,” Westover admitted, “and our offense sputtered at times. We were disappointed to lose the first game as we led for 90 percent of the game, but they overcame us at the end, and made plays and we didn’t. Their hot shooting by their Japanese guards, Michael Bell’s scoring and rebounding, and their ability to get 19 more foul shots was too much for us to overcome. (In the second game) … their ability to get to the line 19 more times than us resulted in them getting two more victories than us.

“We’ll have to get over it, and get ready for the weekend. It was disappointing for us, but life goes on. Hopefully, those losses will help us in preparation for the finals.”

Rizing update: Coach Atsushi Kanazawa’s club was 7-3 in its final 10 games of the season. Kanazawa replaced fired bench boss Tadaharu Ogawa, whose team was 19-11 at the time. Kevin Palmer, a Texas A&M-Corpus-Christi product, has been one of the league’s top newcomers this season. He picks up points (21.6 per game) and steals in a hurry. The Rizing have four more double-digit scorers: Carlos Dixon (17.5), Jermaine Dearman (12.1), Akitomo Takeno (11.0) and Jun Nakanishi (10.0). …

X-factor Gary Hamilton was No. 2 in the league in rebounds (11.4) and one of the rare power forwards who lead their team in assists (193 total). If the broad-shouldered Hamilton, a Miami, Florida, product, is able to control the flow of the game, it increases Fukuoka’s chances to beat anybody.

Playoff talk with … Chris Holm: Albirex center Chris Holm, a top-level rebounder in this league since first suiting up in a Sendai uniform in 2008, predicts he’ll have his hands full keeping Grouses center Devin Searcy and his teammates off the boards.

“He’s big, strong, athletic,” Holm said of Searcy, adding: “It’s definitely something that I’m going to have to focus in on over the weekend is not only him but (Larry) Turner is also a very large body that can rebound, and their guards actually rebound very well — Ira Brown and (Brian) Harper. So it’s not just those guys that we’re going to have to focus on.”

“They are long, they’re athletic and they go after it,” were the words Holm used to summarize Toyama’s physique and rebounding efforts.

Among the East’s 10 teams, only Toyama’s Shimoji, who took over as bench boss in February 2011, had his current job at this time a year ago. That leads many to believe it’s a wide-open race for the East’s two coveted Final Four spots.

“I don’t think necessarily the coaches themselves are the reason it’s going to be up in the air,” Holm said. “The league’s changing every year. It’s definitely becoming more skilled. That makes it a lot more open season for everybody.

“There’s a lot of teams that are in it that had to beat each other in different scenarios. … It’s not like a couple years before where you’ve got one team (Hamamatsu) just running through everybody.

“This year, everybody split with somebody,” he noted, without rattling off the head-to-head records of Eastern Conference foes.

Coaches’ preparation for the playoffs will be a big factor, though, Holm added.

“I think the East is a little more open (than the West) where anybody can win, whoever comes in more prepared and more hungry is going to win it,” said Holm. “I definitely don’t think there’s that favorite in the East like there is in the West…

“I think there’s going to be one surprise, if not two or three,” he predicted.

Garrison speaks out: First-year Niigata coach Matt Garrison, a former Albirex and Five Arrows player, will keep things simple as he prepares his charges for the playoffs.

“At this point, even though it’s a two-game playoff series (with a 10-minute mini-tiebreaker if necessary), it’s really important we take it one quarter at a time, one game at a time,” Garrison told The Japan Times.

In addition, Garrison has high hopes for Komatsu, named the league’s Sixth Man Award winner on Wednesday, to be a key player in the upcoming series.

“He’s a great shooter, and he’s been working on his shot, working on his game all season,” Garrison said of the 25-year-old. “He’s been a guy that’s been improving all season. From Day One, he’s made huge improvements, and with those improvements has come his confidence. It’s confidence that we have in him as a team: we want him shooting shots.

“And we have confidence that he’s going to shoot shots and be aggressive.”

To reach the Final Four, Garrison insists doing the basics well will be the biggest thing his team needs to do.

“Defense and rebounds in this league are huge, controlling the tempo and getting stops,” Garrison said in an exclusive interview. “I don’t think it’s going to be super-high scoring games … people are going to pick up their defense just like in any league in the world.

“The defensive pressure at this time of the season, the games are going to be a little more physical. … Offensively, with that in mind, we need to execute our stuff and catch the ball where we want to catch it, move the ball, make some passes, make the defenders move their feet.

“I think we have good balance. We know our strengths and weaknesses,” he added.

League accolades: Osaka power forward Mike Bell received the final Lawson/Ponta Player of the Week honor of the regular season. He had 17-point, 20-rebound and 16-point, 12-board performances last weekend against Shiga as the Evessa earned a series sweep.

In related news, Yokohama forward Justin Burrell was named the league’s April MVP, it was announced on Tuesday.

The St. John’s product guided the B-Corsairs to a perfect record to end the regular season, eight wins in as many April games. Burrell averaged 18.5 points and 10 rebounds in April.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, he spoke about the vital role his teammates play in keeping him grounded and focused.

“When I pass the ball when they want me to shoot, they get me in the huddle and borderline grab my jersey and they’ll tell me, ‘Hey, man, you need to shoot the ball,’ ” he said. “If I’m shooting too much or if I’m not making a smart play, they tell me, ‘Hey, JB, slow down. We’ve got you, don’t worry. We’re here to help.’

“And that’s really, really something great you could have that camaraderie with your teammates and it’s easy for them to talk to you and enjoy being around you.”

Burrell also offered his thoughts on the overall challenge of playing in this league.

“The thing about this league is there’s all different types of players,” Burrell said. “I ran against bulldog players, very strong … some very skilled finesse players.

“Man, I ran into some really talented 7-footers, including (Sendai’s Rashaad) Singleton and (Filip) Toncinic. I’ve ran into some very skilled Japanese players; it really surprised me how talented some of those guys were.

“I must say my ignorance in Japan basketball didn’t prepare me for what I was getting myself into. These guys over here are really talented. Kenji (Yamada) and Kaba (captain Masayuki Kabaya), my teammates, specifically those guys are very talented.

“This league is very diverse — a lot of skilled players, a lot of skilled coaches. I’ve seen different traps and zones and game schemes from so many teams, and it’s really great to see because it makes it really challenging for a player and our team each and every night. It hasn’t been a cakewalk for us.”

Closing commentary: This season’s Best Five voting — done by players, coaches and league personnel, but no media (the league’s standard policy is to give the media as few opportunities as possible to make a real impact) — gave Yokohama’s Justin Burrell, Hamamatsu’s Atsuya Ota and Fukuoka’s Kevin Palmer spots in the frontcourt and Toyama’s Masashi Joho and Hamamatsu’s Jermaine Dixon the nod in the backcourt.

As always, the votes were not released to the general public or the media. Of course, it’d be interesting to see which other players also received consideration and votes for the Best Five team, as well as MVP, Sixth Man Award, Most Improved Player, and Commissioner’s Award. And don’t forget Coach of the Year. Which other bench bosses — besides B-Corsairs coach Reggie Geary, who deserved the honor, by the way — were in the running for the award?

The process is dubious and lacks transparency and common sense. Player voting often becomes strictly a popularity contest. Media voting would add a more balanced approach to the process.

Fact is, Ota is a very good player, but not one of the league’s top 10 or 15 all-around players. If the league had a Japanese Payer of the Year category, he’d surely be one of the top picks, though.

“That Ota pick is complete BS,” said one league insider. “There is no way in hell he’s the best center in this league. … There are 19 teams and they only have a Best Five … should be a second and third team, (too), best guard, best forward, best center, Defensive Player of the Year and at least a three-game series playoff format.

“The league is pretty good but it has so many areas where it could grow if it had the right people. Obviously the guys up top don’t know what the hell they are doing.”

Said one Eastern Conference coach: “Actually I would like to see the vote count. I’m not sure there was a clear-cut favorite, and he (Ota) may have benefitted from a vote that was divided among many other players. Or the fix was in.

“But I like the other four, and so maybe the amazing thing is that they got four right. Eighty percent correct is way over the bj-league average. I’m sure others may disagree, but I thought Burrell, Dixon, Palmer, and Joho all had great seasons. Add Dwight Howard and you might have gotten it completely right.”

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp