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Playoff action tips off for bj-league’s eighth season

Eight teams compete in first-round showdowns

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Golden Week signals the start of the 2012-13 bj-league playoffs.

Which means eight teams will be in action over the next three days, including the Shimane Susanoo Magic and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix on Friday and Saturday. The series tips off at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, followed by Saturday’s rematch at 1 p.m.

The first- and second-round series format is as follows: Two games on back-to-back days, and if both teams win one game, a 10-minute mini-tiebreaker game will be held on the second day.

The Eastern Conference regular-season champion Niigata Albirex BB and Western Conference winner and defending league champion Ryukyu Golden Kings both have a bye into the conference semifinals — the second-round stage — next week. The same is true for the East’s runnerup, Yokohama B-Corsairs, and West No. 2, Rizing Fukuoka. All four teams earned a home series after a bye week.

The conference semifinal winners advance to the Final Four, which will be held at Ariake Colosseum on May 18-19.

For this reporter, who has covered the league since the fall of 2006, here’s an analysis of this weekend’s four playoff matchups:

WESTERN CONFERENCE 

No. 3 Shimane (33-19) vs. No. 6 Hamamatsu (28-24): The Phoenix won the season series 3-1.

Shimane update: The Susanoo Magic went 19-7 at home, the third-most home victories in the 21-team league under third-year coach Zeljko Pavlicevic, the two-time Euroleague champion coach. Center Jeral Davis led the league in blocked shots (3.5 per game) for the third straight season. Forward Michael Parker, a two-time All-Star Game MVP, is one of the league’s elite all-around players. Parker averaged 19.5 points per game and didn’t win the scoring title after four straight seasons in which he accomplished the feat. Before the season began, Parker told The Japan Times he expected to have a reduced scoring load this season, and he was right after averaging 23.1 ppg in 2011-12. But the Magic won five more games this season, the franchise’s best season to date.

The Magic were 4-6 in their past 10 games, but Pavlicevic has always been a patient coach, focusing on fundamentals and step-by-step improvement. He doesn’t rant and rave about gaudy statistics. He speaks often about the mental aspects of the game and raising the players’ confidence as keys for success. In that regard, the Magic have taken big strides this season, getting quality production from Davis (career-high 14.2 ppg), Brandon Freeman (11.1), B.J. Puckett (9.7), Tatsuhiro Yokoo (7.7), Koki Yabuuchi (7.0, team-high 191 assists)) and Edward Yamamoto (6.3 ppg, 176 assists). Guard Shuhei Nakama has steadily improved over the past two seasons to become an important contributor off the bench, too. … Shimane had winning records against all but two of its nine Western Conference foes — Hamamatsu and Shiga (2-4).

With Parker, who routinely fills the stat sheet with points, rebounds, steals and blocks and Davis, the league’s tallest player at 216 cm, the Magic can create matchup problems for opposing teams. But in a winner-take-all series, look for Pavlicevic to find ways for his supporting cast to shine. The team’s role players could very well decide this series, and determine if Shimane can reach the Final Four for the first time.

In a Thursday email to The Japan Times, Parker analyzed the keys for his team to win the series.

“The general keys to the game is to get off to a good start. We have to use our home-court advantage to the fullest, which means get the fans into the game early,” he wrote. “We have to watch out for their 3-point shooting and try to keep (Kevin) Galloway contained. We have to be careful with the ball because I expect them to pressure our guards.

“Most of all, we have to relax and play how we have been all season and things should work out.”

Hamamatsu update: The Phoenix were 13-13 in road contests during the regular season. Tomoya Higashino took over as coach after Ryuji Kawai was fired on Feb. 28. The Phoenix were 23-15 at the time; they went 5-9 under Higashino to close out the season, but without former league MVP Wendell White (foot fracture), who has been sidelined since Feb. 24. He was averaging 20.0 ppg in 20 games with Hamamatsu since joining the 2011-12 championship runnerup after his release from the cash-strapped Oita HeatDevils earlier this season. Hamamatsu went 4-6 in its past 10 games.

The Phoenix are led by Kevin Galloway (16.4 ppg, four triple-doubles), former MVP Jeffrey Parmer (13.6), Elbert Fuqua (7.9), Shoji Nakanishi (7.5, 213 3-point attempts), Japan national team center Atsuya Ota (6.9), Shinosuke Oishi (6.4) and savvy veteran Masahiro Oguchi, a key fixture for the team since its OSG Phoenix days in the JBL. Oguchi has a knack for clutch baskets and timely steals in the closing seconds of quarters and games, especially when the game is close. This is Higashino’s first playoff series at the helm, and he’s had less than half a season to familiarize himself with the bj-league. That could work in his favor — the element of surprise — or be a stumbling block for the Phoenix, who miss White’s leadership, rebounding prowess and all-around athleticism.
Hamamatsu hasn’t been as consistent since White went down with the injury, but Galloway has shown he can carry this team for long stretches, and Parmer and Co. have a former champion’s pride and the hunger to reach the top again.
The series winner will meet the Rizing Fukuoka, the West’s second-place finisher, in Kyushu next weekend.

No. 4 Shiga (32-20) vs. No. 5. Kyoto (29-23): The Lakestars won the season series 4-2.

Lakestars update: Shiga picked up six victories in the final 10 games of the regular season. Veteran big man Dionisio Gomez is a tone-setter for coach Al Westover’s squad. Averaging a team-best 15.7 ppg, Gomez is the first option in the post and far and away has the most free-throw attempts (251) on the club. He’s also the top rebounder. After being slowed down by injuries in recent weeks, sharpshooter Wayne Arnold (13.3) has settled back into the rotation and provided quality scoring, including a 36-point outburst against Miyazaki on April 13. Shelton Colwell (14.8 ppg), Takamichi Fujiwara (7.2), Yutaka Yokoe (7.0) and Jumpei Nakama (6.9) are other key scoring options, especially if Ray Nixon, who has been bothered by a foot and ankle ailments, is unable to play this weekend.

Hannaryz update: Kyoto started out the season 0-8, rattled off eight straight wins and has made steady improvement as the season progressed. Coach Honoo Hamaguchi, one of the best sideline supervisors in league history, led the squad to its first Final Four last season, and that’s been the mission once again for the Kansai-based franchise. The Hannaryz were 6-4 in their past 10 games. They went 13-13 in away contests.

Key offseason acquisitions David Palmer, who won two titles with the Osaka Evessa and one with Ryukyu last spring, and ex-NBA center Marcus Cousin have had productive seasons in a Hannaryz uniform. Palmer scored 14.0 ppg and gave the team terrific free-throw shooting (89.5) and 3-point shooting (39.5), expanding the team’s perimeter-based attack. Cousin hauled in exactly 500 rebounds to lead the club and was the top scorer (14.9 ppg).
Balanced scoring and unselfish play are trademarks of Hamaguchi’s teams over the years. This season, the Hannaryz had eight players with 50 or more assists, with newcomers Masaharu Kataoka dishing out 132 and Yu Okada 130. Another newcomer, Gyno Pomare, flourished playing alongside Cousin in the frontcourt and contributed 12.2 ppg. Okada chipped in with 11.0 and was the team leader in 3s (88). Jermaine Boyette delivered 8.8 ppg. A versatile scoring attack is a strength of this team.

The series winner will advance to face Ryukyu on May 11-12 in Okinawa.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 3 Toyama (35-17) vs. No. 6 Chiba (26-26): The Grouses won the season series 3-1.

Grouses update: First-year bench boss Bob Nash guided the club to its first winning season. No easy feat for a franchise without a winning history, though a solid foundation was put in place by Kazuaki Shimoji, the capable former coach who stepped down last spring due to health issues. After six losing seasons, Toyama prospered this season with a strong veteran nucleus and a commitment to playing the game the right way.

Perhaps more than anyone, forward Ira Brown exemplifies the way Nash wants his team to play. Whether it’s setting a pick, grabbing an offensive rebound or making the pass that leads to the assist, Brown is a catalyst. He led the team in scoring (16.5 ppg) and was also first in rebounds, steals and blocks, while finishing No.2 in assists. The Grouses feature a solid mix of scorers: Masashi Joho and Angel Garcia (13.8 and 13.6 ppg, respectively, and 68 3s apiece), Jeremy Jacob (11.3), Takeshi Mito (10.3). Tatsunori Fujie, a dependable outside shooter, and gritty forward Brandon Cole fill reserve roles with distinction.

Toyama, which went 17-9 at home, enters the playoffs with 11 victories in its past 15 games, including eight in the past 10.

Jets update: Chiba welcomed standout forward Joe Werner back into the lineup last weekend. He missed six consecutive games while nursing a groin injury. The big fellow had 22-point, 21-rebound and 19-point, 11-board efforts in the final series of the regular season. Good news for Chiba fans and head coach Shinji Tomiyama that Werner was able to excel at both ends of the floor.

The Jets were 4-6 over the past 10 games, but Werner’s injury was a major factor the team struggled to overcome. Werner was the league’s No.6 scorer (19.8 ppg) and a top-notch rebounder (11.4 per game, sixth-best average in the league). Marquin Chandler paced the team in scoring (20.4 ppg, No. 5 in the league) with an explosive presence beyond the arc and near the rim. D’Andre Bell and Marquise Gray scored 13.9 and 13.1 ppg, respectively, and Kensuke Tanaka finished fifth in the league in assists (5.8 per game), including 12 helpers in the season finale.

The series winner will face host Yokohama next Friday and Saturday.

No. 4 Iwate (34-18) vs. No. 5 Akita (26-26): The teams split the season series 2-2.

Big Bulls update: Under two-time champion coach Dai Oketani, in his first season with the Tohoku club since leaving Ryukyu, Iwate made a 15-win improvement as a second-year franchise.

The Big Bulls were 8-2 down the stretch, playing quality basketball in preparation for the postseason. Oketani has shaped the team into an aggressive, smart cast of players. Most of the team’s players are newcomers, but that hasn’t been a stumbling block to success.

Iwate, 16-10 at home, is led by a trio of high-scoring imports: Dillion Sneed (16.6 ppg), Carlos Dixon (16.2) and Reggie Okosa (16.1). Lawrence Blackledge, who missed two months’ time while recovering from a wrist injury, returned to action last weekend and had 11- and 10-point games. His presence on defense as a shot blocker is a boost for Iwate, and Blackledge’s leaping and rebounding skills also spark the team. Veteran guards Kenichi Takahashi (10.3 ppg) and Masato Tsukino (8.1) have fit in nicely in Oketani’s system, and midseason pickup Naoto Takushi, a two-time Best Five guard, played around 20 minutes per game in his 22 appearances to date. Those are all plusses; Sneed’s free-throw shooting is a big concern (35.4 percent). The All-Star center, however, led the league in field-goal shooting (60.8 percent), which included 50 dunks.

Northern Happinets update: Akita’s up-and-down season included six losses in the past 10 games. Inimitable head coach Kazuo Nakamura, as feisty as ever at age 72, employs a high-risk, high-reward offense, relying on a plethora of 3-point shots game after game. The Happinets knocked down 544 of 1,626 3s and attempted more 3s than 2s in many games.

Kazuhiro Shoji, 39-year-old perimeter marksman, canned 58 3s and swished 43.3 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Nineteen-year-old point guard Yuki Togashi, named Rookie of the Year on Wednesday, scored 14.3 ppg and backcourt mate Dion Harris provided 13.7. Shigehiro Taguchi and Mike Anderson averaged 10.3 and 9.9, respectively. Ex-Miyazaki forward Marshall Brown supplied 20.2 ppg in 28 contests. … Akita went 11-15 on the road. The team had consistency issues for big stretches of the season, though Nakamura has had success in this league, taking Hamamatsu to the Final Four three times and grabbing a pair of titles. This season’s Akita squad, though, has suffered from major rebounding woes in many games. That may be the bigest factor in this series. If the rebounding numbers are in Akita’s favor, or close to it, the team should have a much better chance of advancing.
With a pair of accomplished bench bosses in the spotlight, this series figures to be a gutsy clash of high-energy teams.

The series winner will take on host Niigata in the conference semifinals next weekend.

Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp