It’s a bit premature to say the Ryukyu Golden Kings need to push the panic button.
Their 24-8 win-loss record is the league’s best (based on winning percentage), the same as the Yokohama B-Corsairs’ through Sunday. But after a magical 15-0 start, the reigning champions have stumbled to five losses in their past nine games, including two over the weekend against the host Shimane Susanoo Magic, who have progressed in each of their three seasons under the capable leadership of Croatian bench boss Zeljko Pavlicevic — from 24-26 in season one to 28-24 last season to 23-11 to date.
Ryukyu fell 68-67 on Saturday and dropped a 70-54 decision a day later to the hosts, as a packed house of nearly 2,600 saw the Magic excel in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture.
Looking back on the weekend, Pavlicevic expressed nothing but satisfaction in the rise of his team, a squad that is clearly a Final Four contender now.
“I’m very proud of the results,” he said by phone from Shimane Prefecture on Tuesday. “To beat the best team, to beat the champions, I think we can be proud about it.”
“I’m very happy with the result. I really respect Okinawa . . . ”
Shimane sits in second place in the Western Conference, and has played its best basketball of the season against Ryukyu.
The Golden Kings are adjusting to a new coach (Koto Toyama, two-time title winner Dai Oketani’s replacement) and the loss of key contributors in All-Star center Dillion Sneed (now with Oketani at Iwate) and former league MVP and noted sharpshooter David Palmer (now with Kyoto) from last year’s championship squad.
That said, “I think we would all take their record,” one bj-league coach told The Japan Times earlier this week. “But as with all teams, matchups are the key, and right now their 0-4 record against Shimane means the matchups there favor the Magic.”
To put it bluntly, here’s the biggest reason Shimane dominated in the four contests against Ryukyu: Center Jeral “Stretch” Davis patrolled the paint with supreme authority and had 19 blocked shots in those games, including eight in the Dec. 15 contest in Okinawa, won 73-66 by Shimane.
Ryukyu failed to score at least 70 points in all four games against Shimane this season. In addition, the Golden Kings are averaging 63.75 points in those four defeats, which have been decided by a combined 34 points.
The teams could meet again in a scintillating rematch at the Final Four on May 18 at Ariake Colosseum.
In the meantime, Pavlicevic, recognizes his players have grown into a cohesive, much-improved unit. And it all starts with Parker.
The success of Shimane begins with Parker, Pavlicevic added, saying that the versatile two-time All-Star Game MVP has now become “a real player.”
“On defense, on one-on-one, on offense, he’s very hard-working, very serious. . . . He has all the characteristics of a leader.”
With Parker leading the way and embracing his coach’s tactics, that gives Pavlicevic extra time to focus on motivating his charges, one aspect of the job he’s spoken of on many occasions during his forays throughout Europe and past stint as Japan’s national team coach.
“My job is I need to build up the confidence of some players,” Pavlicevic said, “and so they will be better than they are.”
The four victories over the Golden Kings demonstrated that the Magic’s strategic adjustments worked.
“My job is to adjust something to help them learn,” was how Pavlicevic explained his role.
Looking back at those four games, he said, “Experience is something for everybody to have in their life. Without experience, you don’t understand what adjustments to make. . . . In this moment, the team is in a good progression. But we’ve worked very hard to reach (this position).”
Guards Edward Yamamoto, Yasuhisa Hikino, Koki Yabuuchi, Tatsuhiro Yokoo, Shohei Nakama are all in their third season playing for Pavlicevic, and have progressively grown more comfortable with his system.
To illustrate this point, Pavlicevic noted that Yabuuchi, who has had 18 points on Feb. 10 against Takamatsu and 16 on Saturday against Ryukyu, within the framework of team’s offense, where Parker (19.7 points per game), Davis (14.1), Brandon Freeman (10.1) and B.J. Puckett (9.9) are often first or second optons, has followed the coach’s orders: “Our key rule is whoever is free, taken the open shot.”
“The key rule is respect,” Pavlicevic said. “And it’s normal for Japanese guys to get open shots.”
Weekend schedule: Shimane, now 14-4 at home with seven victories inits last 10 games, now travels to Oita to face the HeatDevils this weekend. Also on the docket: Sendai vs. Saitama, which got under way on Thursday, and these Saturday-Sunday matchups: Iwate vs. Yokohama, Niigata vs. Toyama, Chiba vs. Akita, Tokyo vs. Shinshu, Hamamatsu vs. Ryukyu, Kyoto vs. Osaka, Takamatsu vs. Shiga and Fukuoka vs. Miyazaki.
The 89ers will then play a Monday-Tuesday series against visiting Gunma.
Lakestars update: Shiga coach Al Westover looked back on his team’s back-to-back victories over Kyoto last weekend by calling it “a couple of big wins.”
Noting that key contributors Wayne Arnold and Shinya Ogawa were sidelined with injuries, Westover said “(it) was a tremendous effort by the group.”
“Kyoto is a good team and we had to play well to win,” he said. “(Dionisio) Gomez was inspirational in both games. (Ray) Nixon had a big game on Sunday (33 points), and our new import, Shelton Colwell, was an impact for us. Also, Jumpei (Nakama) hit some big 3s for us in both games.
“Wara (Takamichi Fujiwara) gave us good leadership and defense, as did Tera (Daiki Terashita) and young (Yutaka) Yokoe did a great job running the point for us.”
Westover added, “Now we need to get over our injuries and to keep it going.”
Weekly accolade: Forward Wendell White of the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced on Wednesday.
The UNLV product was instrumental in leading the Phoenix to a series sweep over the Osaka Evessa last weekend.
White had 20 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and a block on Saturday, and followed that performance with 25 points, eight boards, two assists and two blocks in the series finale.
View from press row: Ryukyu forward Anthony McHenry, the playoff MVP last season, remains the catalyst for the team on offense and defense. He is the team leader in minutes (933), rebounds (274) steals (61), free-throw attempts (115) and dunks (27), and is second in scoring (15.1 ppg), and blocks (28). He’s also shooting 58.5 percent from 2-point range.
If McHenry remains healthy and productive come playoff time, the Kings will have a good chance to defend their title.
The team can also expect to get solid numbers from Dzaflo Larkai (8.8 ppg), Naoto Kosuge (9.1), Narito Namizato (12.9) and Terrance Woodbury (17.1). Backcourt playmaker Tsubasa Yonamine’s minutes are down this season, but he is an effective leader and tone-setter for the team; Jeff Newton, only five-time champ in league history, is scoring 9.4 ppg and projects quiet confidence whenever he steps onto the floor.