The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix have a rookie head coach in Ryuji Kawai, but a veteran nucleus of players that captured consecutive championships in 2009-10 and 2010-11 under Kazuo Nakamura, the bj-league’s elder statesman.
The Phoenix excelled again this season, with Kawai capably guiding the club to a 37-15 record. The Eastern Conference-leading club earned a bye into the conference semifinals and will take on the visiting Niigata Albirex BB this weekend for the right to advance to the Final Four.
(The East’s other conference semifinal series — Yokohama B-Corsairs vs. Akita Northern Happinets, Nakamura’s current club — got under way on Thursday evening.)
In the Western Conference, the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Shiga Lakestars will square off in Okinawa, while the Osaka Evessa will play host to the Kyoto Hannaryz.
Either the Evessa or Golden Kings have appeared in the championship game in each of the previous six seasons. Will that trend continue on May 20?
Leading off with the West this week, here’s a rundown of the three playoff series that tip off on Saturday.
Ryukyu (39-13, 20-6 home) vs. Shiga (33-19, 15-11 road)
Head-to-head series: Nov. 19: Shiga 84, RYUKYU 79; Nov. 20: RYUKYU 82, Shiga 73; Jan. 21: RYUKYU 84, Shiga 81; Jan. 22: Shiga 84, RYUKYU 81
(Team split season series 2-2)
Golden Kings update: Coach Dai Oketani’s club has struggled in recent weeks, picking up four wins in its last 10 games. But the 2010-11 championship runnerup squad, with three straight Final Four appearances in the books, has had an extra week to rest as it gears up for another run at the title.
The Kings have assembled a roster as talented and versatile as any in the league. Ex-Evessa stars Jeff Newton (11.3 and nearly 10 rebounds per game) and David Palmer (11.9 ppg, a league-best 50-percent 3-point shooting, 79-for-158) know what it takes to win, and Anthony McHenry (11.9 ppg, 63 blocks, 45 steals) is as gifted as any athlete in the league.
In addition to Newton, one of the five greatest players in league history by all intelligent accounts, Ryukyu boosts a frontcourt that features rock-solid post players in Dillion Sneed (10.9 ppg) and Dzaflo Larkai (9.6 ppg and perhaps the league’s best repertoire of low-post moves).
All-Star guard Narito Namizato, one of the league’s most exciting young players, has been a key performer in his first season with the Kings, averaging 11.0 ppg and collecting 63 steals. The 22-year-old’s assist-to-turnover numbers (217 vs. 116) reveal a flair for the game that shines through despite his youthful swagger. And former All-Star Game MVP Naoto Kosuge, a 10.5 ppg scorer, remains one of the league’s premier perimeter shooters.
What’s more, Tsubasa Yonamine (142 assists, 35 turnovers) and Yasufumi Takushi, the team’s designated 3-point shooter (46-for-155 3s in 350 total minutes) are proven contributors in the backcourt.
Slowed down by an ailing shoulder in recent years, Newton now appears to be healthier than he’s been since the Evessa dynasty years.
In other words, the Kings are in prime position to make life difficult for the Lakestars in the high-stakes series.
“Okinawa has good team character. Okinawa has very good balance on defense and good defensive rebounding,” Shimane Susanoo Magic coach Zeljko Pavlicevic said in a Tuesday phone interview.
“I think Okinawa is the best team in the Western Conference.”
Lakestars update: Coach Alan Westover’s squad took care of business against the Rizing Fukuoka last weekend in their first-round series, winning 96-86 in Game 1 and 69-62 in Game 2.
At times, Julius Ashby is as efficient and dominant as any center in the league. His 21 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in the series clincher against the Rizing served as evidence of that. With Ashby in the lineup, the Takamatsu Five Arrows, Tokyo Apache and Niigata Albirex BB all made Final Four trips in past seasons, and his rebounding and shot-blocking skills remain game-changing elements to keep an eye on.
The Lakestars feature five players with 96 or more assists, led by Shinya Ogawa’s 141 assists (against 51 turnovers).
Shiga’s high-powered offense is led by mid-range, in-the-paint scoring maestro Josh Peppers (14.8 ppg) and long-range bombers in Ray Nixon (14.8 ppg, 120 3s) and Yu Okada (12.9 ppg, 116 3s), as well as Dionisio Gomez (12.4 ppg) and Ashby (11.6).
Advancing to play in the penultimate weekend of the season, Westover said the Lakestars are “very happy to be in the next round of the playoffs.”
Beating Fukuoka was not an easy task, he said.
“We had to lift our game to get by them,” the veteran coach told this newspaper. “It was a great effort by my guys, especially when you consider that Gomez injured his ankle and was out, and (Bryant) Markson injured his knee at practice and was out, and J. (Kazuya Hatano) missed all practices during the week due to sickness.”
Now, looking ahead to facing Ryukyu again after the teams’ four regular-season games were decided by 20 points, Westover acknowledged his team faces a daunting challenge.
“The games this week will be very difficult,” Westover said. “Okinawa has been the best team in the bj-league this season, and in particular are very good on their home floor. They are well coached, have great talent, good size, and good depth. We’ll have to play our best, plus some to defeat them. Though we did beat them twice during the season, and all four games were very close.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get everyone fit and ready to go this week. Regardless, it’s a final, and we’re playing to win.”
Pavlicevic praised Shiga for its offensive talents and said slowing down its shooters will be a primary concern for Ryukyu.
“If Shiga has a great shooting day, it can win easily,” he said.
Osaka (35-17, 15-11 at home) vs. Kyoto (34-18, 15-11 road)
Head-to-head series (home team in caps): Nov. 5: Osaka 85, KYOTO 82; Nov. 6: Osaka 78, KYOTO 62; April 21: Kyoto 63, OSAKA 61; April 22: Kyoto 79, OSAKA 64.
(Teams split season series 2-2)
Evessa update: Coach Ryan Blackwell’s team, coming off a first-round bye, won six of its last 10 regular-season games. The Evessa are 9-5 since two-time MVP Lynn Washington’s arrest on March 13; he has since left the team after being exonerated of drug charges by Osaka Prefectural Police. Washington was a perennial force for the club, leading the Evessa to six straight Final Four appearances, including three after standout center Jeff Newton joined Ryukyu. It remains to be seen if Osaka can play as effectively without Washington in the postseason.
Power forward Mike Bell is the team’s top scorer (14.5 ppg) and Cohey Aoki (11.6 ppg, 48.6 percent from 3-point range, 89.5 percent free-throw shooter), Bobby St. Preux (11.5) and big man Wayne Marshall (11.2) provide other scoring options. Satoshi Takeda (6.5 ppg) and Masashi Obuchi (6.4) have had success within the flow of the offense, and veterans Shota Konno, a capable outside shooter, and Kevin Tyner (94 assists, 34 turnovers) give Blackwell other options.
Analyzing the challenge his team faces against the Hannaryz, Blackwell dished out this insight: “We can’t let their big guys get easy position because they finish well. We have to keep them off the boards because they are a little bigger than us.”
Bell and Marshall will be challenged to match Kyoto’s physicality, and St. Preux could be the X-factor as a scorer and ball distributor. Utilizing Evessa’s Japanese players’ quickness, look for Blackwell’s charges to race to every loose ball with a sense of urgency to offset Kyoto’s height advantage.
Hannaryz update: Coach Honoo Hamaguchi, the last survivor among the league’s original six sideline supervisors in 2005, guided Kyoto to a dramatic victory over Shimane last weekend. The Hannaryz were 8-2 in the 10 games prior to the playoffs.
The Hannaryz have as much interior size as any team in the league with 211-cm veterans Rick Rickert, Lance Allred and Babacar Camara. Rickert had 28 points on 13-for-15 shooting and 18 rebounds in Game 2 against Shimane.
The trio’s ability to command attention in the post enables Weber State product Jermaine Boyette (14.2 ppg) and BYU alum Lee Cummard (10.3) to thrive in the patient, deliberate offense, while Taizo Kawabe, Naoto Nakamura and Kyosuke Setoyama play prominent roles as long-range shooters, too.
“They are the most complete team of all the league’s teams. They have almost everything,” Pavlicevic said, describing Kyoto’s roster makeup. “Nobody else has three 211-cm players.”
In different ways, two of them have experienced different paths to and from the world’s premier hoop circuit. Allred had a brief NBA stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers during LeBron James’ time with the team. After his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota, Rickert was a second-round pick in the 2003 NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. But Rickert was cut before the season began, and he’s toiled for teams spanning the globe since then.
“He’s a good fighter,” Pavlicevic said of Rickert. “He has very good left-hand and right-hand (moves), and he’s a good offensive and defensive rebounder. If he was a little better shooter, he could play in the NBA.”
Meanwhile, the Hannaryz, a third-year franchise, know they cannot deliver a lackluster effort if they hope to reach the Final Four.
“It’s very simple, we need to want it more,” Rickert said. “Bottom line is we need to lock up on defense.”
Hamamatsu (37-15, 19-7 home) vs. Niigata (28-24, 13-13 road)
Head-to-head series: Jan. 3: NIIGATA 85, Hamamatsu 80; Jan. 4: NIIGATA 86, Hamamatsu 70; Jan. 27: HAMAMATSU 90, Niigata 70; Jan. 28: HAMAMATSU 83, Niigata 77.
(Teams split season series 2-2)
Phoenix update: Floor leader Jermaine Dixon was selected to the Best Five team, well-deserved recognition for a potent scorer (17.9 ppg) who keeps the offense rolling. When Dixon is picking up steals and defensive boards, running the floor and getting his teammates involved on offense, the Phoenix are a tough-to-stop foe.
“He’s played very well against us,” Pavlicevic said of Dixon.
Hamamatsu is far from a one-man team. Wayne Arnold buried a team-high 108 3-pointers en route to 15.7 ppg, and Jeffrey Parmer, the reigning regular-season and playoff MVP, is as fundamentally sound as any player in the league, with steady numbers for a second straight season in Japan, including 12.6 ppg.
The long-limbed Lawrence Blackledge, who was let go by the Evessa in the winter, made his mark in 28 games with Hamamatsu, swatting 60 shots and scoring at a 9.1 ppg clip. Shoji Nakanishi (8.7 ppg and 78 3s) and Masahiro Oguchi, the playoff MVP in 2009-10, are not flashy but productive when called upon. Oguchi, who never stops hustling, has a knack for making his biggest shots and picking up timely steals in the closing minutes.
And then there’s 206-cm center Atsuya Ota, who has played well as an anchor in the middle. Named to the Best Five team, the national team center doesn’t put up gaudy stats but has continued to make improvements since he entered the league along with the JBL-defecting OSG Phoenix in the fall of 2008.
“I always have to put one guy against Ota,” Pavlicevic noted.
Albirex update: Coach Matt Garrison’s club took care of business against the Toyama Grouses last weekend to earn a shot at playing the two-time defending champions. Niigata topped Toyama 94-73 in Game 1 and 84-82 in the rematch. Albirex center Chris Holm’s 21-point, 14-rebound effort in the series finale served notice to Hamamatsu that the big fellow must be a major focal point in the next round. Keeping Holm out of foul trouble is always a key for Niigata.
But Garrison, a 3-point specialist in his playing days, has molded the team in his likeness, spreading shooters around the perimeter and creating space for them to shine.
Nile Murry is Niigata’s top scorer (15.2 ppg) and commands attention with the ball in his hands, driving in the lane or dishing it off to one of his teammates. In addition to solid scorers in Erron Maxey (12.5), Yuichi Ikeda (1.6) and Shuhei Komatsu, the league’s Sixth Man of the Year, Kimitake Sato has flourished in several recent games; he had 16 points on April 16, 19 (including 4-for-7 3s) on April 29 and 13- and 12-point outputs against the Grouses in the aforementioned playoff series.
Around the league: The current playoff tiebreaker format — a 10-minute mini-game in two 5-minute periods — if the teams each win one game in the first-round and conference semifinal rounds has been described “as the biggest joke in the league” by one longtime insider. (The Final Four doesn’t feature the tiebreaker; instead, the win-one-and-advance format employs overtime to determine a winner.)
Another source on Monday ripped the league’s brain trust for what is perceived as a gimmick playoff setup which essentially let’s a team give up in Game 2 of a series if it has won the opener and then focus 100 percent of its energy on winning the mini-game.
“The league needs a best-of-three format not a tiebreaker after the guys play a full 40 minutes,” the source told The Japan Times. “Maybe one day they will get people in charge who know what they are doing. Until then it’s going to be an uphill battle.” …
Despite the odd nature of the format, there are those who admit a certain level of excitement plays out in the knockout phase. Still others insist the best option the league could come up with if it opts against adding a real third game would be to tally overall points for the two games and use that to determine the winner.
Empire State press coverage: Yokohama B-Corsairs forward Justin Burrell, the 2011-12 regular-season MVP, was the subject of a Tuesday article in the Times Herald-Record, a Middletown, New York, newspaper. Burrell is a Middletown native.
In the article, Burrell noted that the NBA lockout altered his plans for this season. After a strong season at St. John’s in 2009-10, when he was named the Big East Conference Sixth Man of the Year, Burrell was hoping to join an NBA team as a non-drafted rookie. Bu the uncertainty of the lockout presented opportunities for Burrell to come to Japan for his first pro season.
Burrell has excelled here, but hasn’t stopped thinking about playing at the next level.
“The NBA is my ultimate goal,” Burrell was quoted as saying in the Times Herald-Record article. “If you play basketball, you dream of playing in the NBA. You dream of three, two, one, hitting the winning shot. That is my goal.”
Quotable: “I was disappointed after the game. We were very near to this big victory. We had a five-point lead late (in the fourth quarter). It was normal frustration after the game. …”
Then, after watching a replay of the game a few hours later, he noted, “It was a very exciting game. For the fans, it was a perfect game,” Pavlicevic said of his team’s 86-84 Sunday win over Kyoto, followed by a 24-23 mini-game defeat, which he basically described as a combined contest — overtime play, in a sense.
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