The reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings have been so good for so long that veteran forward/center Jeff Newton’s recent monthlong absence due to a knee injury was far from a crisis.
Newton missed eight games and underwent knee surgery to repair his left meniscus before returning to the rotation last Saturday against the host Tokyo Cinq Reves.
The Golden Kings (40-10) have won 16 of their past 20 games, so Newton’s return only strengthens the league’s best overall lineup.
The Indiana University product came off the bench on both Saturday and Sunday, playing 19 minutes in the series opener and finishing with three points, eight rebounds and one assist in a 30-point win. A day later, Newton, the only five-time champion in league history, sparked his team after a sluggish start. In the second quarter, playing all 10 minutes, he contributed two points, two rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks, and saw 13 total minutes of court time. His first block appeared to ignite the team’s game-changing run early in the second quarter of a 37-point blowout win.
How has Newton’s return raised the team’s morale for another championship run?
It’s been “a big boost,” forward Terrance Woodbury, a University of Georgia alum, said in a post-game interview with The Japan Times on Sunday at Ota City Gymnasium.
The 32-year-old Newton understands what his body can and can’t do after a decade as a pro player. And that’s a key factor as he recovers from knee surgery.
“Jeff is the only guy that I know that you can’t speed him up,” Woodbury said. “So he plays at his own pace, which is good. We were concerned about him playing a lot of minutes, but knowing Jeff and how he plays, you are not going to speed him up, he’s not going to do anything that he doesn’t want to do.
“And he’s basically come back and fit seamlessly onto the team as if he never left. So (last weekend) it was great for him to be out there, and I know it was great for him just to get his rhythm back. And I’m sure he’ll continue to get better as we progress into the playoffs.”
Woodbury was asked if relentless play is a good description of his team.
“Definitely,” he said, reflecting on Sunday’s shellacking of the Cinq Reves and the entire season. “It starts from the top. I know we were up by about 25 at one point and our coach (Koto Toyama) called a timeout because we didn’t do something right.
“Usually, if you are up by 25, a coach is kind of like, ‘All right, take your time,’ but he’s upset about it. Which is good, because that makes sure that we are on our game at all times.
“We have to stay relentless,” added Woodbury, who is averaging a team-best 18.2 points per game. “We are a small team . . . so us being relentless and aggressive is going to get us over the top 90 percent of the time.”
Center Dzaflo Larkai, who suited up for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix before moving on to the Okinawa juggernaut, said he believes Toyama benefited from his former mentor, current Akita coach Kazuo Nakamura.
Breaking down the team’s strong defensive effort over the weekend, Larkai pointed out that 30-year-old Toyama has effectively employed many of Nakamura’s defensive philosophies this season, most notably rotations.
“We can score,” Larkai stated. “And I’m very confident in the offense of the team. . . . The way we play defense lately has been very aggressive. We’ve been active and rotating lately.”
And the stronger Newton, a brilliant defender, becomes over the next few weeks, the stronger the Golden Kings defense will become.
Playoff talk: Ryukyu (40-10) has clinched the Western Conference regular-season title and earned a first-round bye. The Golden Kings will host a second-round series on May 11-12 in Ginowan.
First up: Toyama’s squad has a chance to establish a new league record for wins in the regular season. The 2008-09 Golden Kings went 41-11 and captured their first championship, and the 2009-10 Hamamatsu squad also went 41-11 in the regular season en route to a title.
The other five West playoff spots will become official when the regular season ends on Sunday.
The current second through five are Fukuoka (33-17), Shimane (32-18), Shiga (31-19), Kyoto (28-22) and Hamamatsu (27-23).
Shifting to the East, the regular-season title is still up for grabs. Niigata (34-16) has the best chance to finish ahead of the pack, while Yokohama and Iwate, a pair of second-season franchises, and Toyama are all 33-17, followed by Akita and Chiba with identical 25-25 records.
The entire first-round playoff schedule will be announced after all regular-season games are played.
Once again, teams will play playoff games on back-to-back days with a mini-tiebreaker, if necessary, on the second day to determine which team advances to the next round. The second seed will also earn a bye into the conference semifinals.
For the opening round, the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds will host playoff series in both conferences against the Nos. 6 and 5 seeds, respectively.
Around the league: It’s not a far-fetched notion to believe that at least 10 teams will have new head coaches next season. Such is the nature of the profession, and with coaches mostly working on one-year contracts, there isn’t much long-term stability in the league.
That said, Joe Bryant’s four-year stint (2005-09) with the Tokyo Apache was the longest tenure of any foreign coach with one team in league history. Zeljko Pavlicevic, the longest-tenured coach right now, is in his third season with the Shimane Susanoo Magic and Al Westover (Shiga Lakestars), Matt Garrison (Niigata Albirex BB) and Reggie Geary (Yokohama B-Corsairs) are in their second campaigns with their respective teams. . . .
A Bambitious Nara spokesman told The Japan Times on Wednesday that a timetable for the hiring of their first coach and his staff is still up in the air. The expansion club, will join the league for the 2013-14 season. Several expansion teams in years past have formally introduced their coach during Final Four weekend at Ariake Colosseum. . . . The Miyazaki Shining Suns, who finished the season with a league-worst 9-43 record, were outscored by 746 points. They went 5-21 at home and 4-22 on the road. . . . Saitama’s John “Helicopter” Humphrey, averaging 27.1 points per game, will win his third scoring title. The second-leading scorer, Sendai’s T.J. Cummings, is scoring 22.0 ppg.
Spotlight on Cohey Aoki: In the NBA, an elite few have shot 40 percent from 3-point range, 50 percent on 2-point shots and 90 percent on free throws for an entire season. For 167-cm sharpshooter Cohey Aoki of the Tokyo Cinq Reves, his season has been impressive, and although he’s always the shortest player on the court, his numbers are not adversely affected by that. In other words, he finds ways to score on a consistent basis.
Consider: Aoki is shooting 44.3 percent on 3s (No.1 in the league), 45.7 on 2s and 89.0 at the line (second overall) while averaging 14.4 ppg for an expansion team. Two weeks ago, Aoki had 21 — and 30-point outings against the Saitama Broncos, draining 7 of 13 3s in the opener and 8 of 11 in the rematch.
Aoki’s commitment to his craft is an inspiration to an entire generation of players and that’s one reason he’s been a fan favorite since Day One.
Tokyo (17-33 overall) has struggled mightily in the past several weeks, losing 11 of its last 15 games, but Aoki has been an important leader for the team as it builds its foundation for the future.
Former Tokyo Apache and NBA coach Bob Hill said in an email to The Japan Times that Aoki was a joy to coach during the 2010-11 season. (The Apache folded in 2011.)
“Cohey is a once-in-a lifetime player for me,” Hill wrote. “He was always totally professional. Each and every day he took care of his business and was an outstanding teammate. I will never forget him. Anything he earns in our game, he is more than deserving of. I am thoroughly proud of him.”
Weekend schedule: Akita vs. Tokyo, Niigata vs. Sendai, Shinshu vs. Toyama, Gunma vs. Chiba, Saitama vs. Yokohama, Hamamatsu vs. Kyoto, Shiga vs. Shimane, Osaka vs. Ryukyu and Fukuoka vs. Iwate.
Did you know?: Hamamatsu will finish with less than 30 regular-season wins for the first time since the club formerly known as OSG Phoenix defected from the JBL prior to the 2008-09 season. The team, in fact, hasn’t had fewer than 36 wins (its 2008-09 total) since joining the bj-league.
Weekly accolade: Shinshu big man Michael Fey received the Lawson/Ponta MVP award for his performance last weekend against Sendai.
The UCLA product had 13 points and 12 rebounds on Saturday and 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting and seven boards a day later.
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