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Yokohama, Toyama set to battle for spot in Final Four

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Eastern Conference semifinals start on Friday night, with the Yokohama B-Corsairs aiming for a repeat trip to the Final Four.

The visiting Toyama Grouses, meanwhile, have already gone farther in the postseason than at any time in the past six seasons.

Game 1 of their series tips off at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium. Game 2 is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday.

The Niigata Albirex BB-Akita Northern Happinets series begins on Saturday night at 6 in Niigata, followed by a Saturday matinee, a rematch at 2 p.m.

The Yokohama-Toyama showdown showcases two teams that both won 35 of 52 games in the regular season, with the No. 2 seed B-Corsairs going 17-9 at home and the No. 3 Grouses finishing 18-8 on the road.

In other words, they are pretty evenly matched up.

The four encounters between Yokohama coach Reggie Geary’s team and Bob Nash’s club featured three blowouts and one six-point decision.

The Grouses and B-Corsairs split their season series, with each team winning twice. On Dec. 1, Yokohama defeated visiting Toyama 92-59; a day later, Toyama clobbered Yokohama 91-70. On April 13, the visiting B-Corsairs lost 89-83; Geary’s squad returned the favor the next afternoon, winning 91-70.

Does that mean that lopsided victories are more likely this weekend?

Not necessarily.

Playoff intensity often eradicates trends set earlier in the season.

Yokohama earned a first-round bye by finishing in the top two in the East. Toyama, meanwhile, eked out a three-point win over the Chiba Jets in the mini-tiebreaker after a 103-73 loss in Game 2 of their series last weekend in Uozu, Toyama Prefecture.

The Grouses handed Chiba a 20-point loss in the first-round playoff opener on Saturday.

Forward Ira Brown, an overlooked candidate for the all-league team, was Toyama’s leader in points, rebounds, steals and blocks in his second season with the Hokuriku-based club. The Gonzaga University product believes Toyama has the right roster balance to provide a formidable challenge for Yokohama.

“I think the key for us to become victorious is Angel Garcia and Tatsunori Fujie having an amazing two nights in a row,” Brown told The Japan Times. “When both of them are playing well, we are a very difficult team to beat. They add more scoring capabilities inside and outside, which allows me to work freely without being double-teamed.”

Looking at focal points for the Toyama defense, Brown said, “We must stop their Big Three, Burns, (Thomas) Kennedy and (Masayuki) Kabaya.”

Easier said than done. The trio averaged a combined 53.5 points per game this season, highlighting the fact Geary relies on them to be the driving force of the team’s high-powered offense (82.8 ppg).

In his second go-round as a bj-league coach — Nash guided the Saitama Broncos during their shortened 2010-11 season — Nash has positioned the Grouses for a possible first-ever trip to the Final Four. And he’s guiding a franchise that failed to finish above .500 in each of the previous six seasons.

“No words can express how well coach Nash has coached this season,” Brown said of a man associated with the University of Hawaii men’s program for more than 20 years, with stints as a star player, longtime assistant coach and head coach. “He has been great. From what I have heard around the league from players, most coaches don’t even listen to their players that much. But I am very grateful to have a coach that listens and wants his players to voice an opinion.

“But at the same time, he is our chief so we trust him and respect him. . . . Honestly, coach Nash if not the best coach I have played for, he is sure in the top two.”

Brown said, “He knows and understands how hard we must work to prepare for other teams, as well as being cautious with the body.”

Reserve forward Brandon Cole also had a lot of positive feedback when asked to discuss his experience playing for the Grouses this season.

“I feel coach Nash has done an amazing job building an unselfish, team-first atmosphere every day in practice,” Cole told The Japan Times. “That has been one of the biggest reasons for our success this season, the fact that nobody really cares who gets the minutes or the credit night in and night out. All that matters is the win, and that mindset has been driven home daily by coach and has become part of our DNA.

“A lot of guys on this team have had to make sacrifices for the betterment of our team goals, and not too many coaches would be able to garner the respect from his players to get them to buy into that mindset, but he has. He is truly a player’s coach, a highly intelligent coach, and an all-around good guy, and it makes you want to go out there and play hard for him each and every night.”

Cole expects an intense series that either team could win.

“We just have to be prepared to take the fight to them this weekend,” Cole said. “We split the season series, and it’s almost as even of a matchup that you can possibly find in our league. They have great personnel and are extremely well-coached, as are we. We have to match their intensity and exceed it, especially with them having home court advantage. A lot is at stake this weekend, and our guys are all looking forward to the challenge.”

Toyama shooting guard Masashi Joho is the most experienced bj-league playoff performer on either club. He won a pair of titles with the Osaka Evessa in 2005-06 and 2006-07 and played for the Tokyo Apache on a pair of championship runnerup squads over the next two banner seasons before experiencing playoff duties with the Shiga Lakestars and Grouses.

To call Joho, a 13.8 ppg scorer, fearless on offense would be accurate. He’s never been reluctant to take tough shots and that attitude has carried over to his teammates.

In a phone interview with The Japan Times, Nash predicted in October that a key for his team this season was starting Joho and Takeshi Mito together in the backcourt. And they have worked well together as the team has molded into a cohesive unit with five players averaging double-digit scoring totals.

If Joho is the Toyama energizer, Draelon Burns could be labeled the catalyst for Yokohama. Burns, a DePaul University product, finished in the top five in scoring, assists and steals. On most teams, Burns, who was named to the league’s Best Five team last week, would be a starter.

But he thrives in a reserve role for Yokohama.

As Geary has stated on more than occasion, “It doesn’t matter who starts, but Draelon knows he’ll be out there at the end of games.”

Geary and Nash both played in the NBA and share the same competitive drive, which has trickled down to their teams and created this classic matchup.

Yokohama tasted the excitement of the Final Four last May and stayed in the hunt once again, while Toyama is playing its best ball of the season with an 11-4 record in the final 15 regular-season games.

Asked to cite a few keys to victory in the series, Geary rattled off these answers on Thursday night: “Defensive transition; making Brown, Joho, and Garcia work at both ends of the floor; play our game.”

Albirex-Northern Happinets outlook: Niigata captured the top seed in the East, winning the regular-season conference title with a 36-16 record. Which is 10 more victories than Akita.

The Albirex have a deep, versatile team that features a number of veterans who have been in the league for the majority of its eight seasons, including guards Shuhei Komatsu, Nile Murry and Kimitake Sato, forward Yuichi Ikeda and big men Rodney Webb and Chris Holm.

Second-year bench boss Matt Garrison is the 2012-13 bj-league Coach of the Year, and center Chris Holm was named to the Best Five team and led all players in rebounds (14.5 per game).

When Niigata controls the boards, Holm and Murry, an astute floor leader, pave the way for second-chance scoring opportunities, with backup big man Taj Finger adding another big body under the basket to corral boards. Akita’s weakness is rebounding, so that could be a primary factor in the series outcome.

On the other hand, feisty Akita coach Kazuo Nakamura’s rapid-fire perimeter attack often resembles a video game in the speed that long-range shots leave the hands of guards Shigehiro Taguchi, Yuki Togashi, Dion Harris and other Happinets.

Harris, a former Michigan Wolverine, sank 126 3s this season, Taguchi had 121. Togashi scored in double digits in 22 of 28 games in his abbreviated rookie season and played well in the first-round series against the Iwate Big Bulls with 18 points, nine assists and three steals in Game 1 and 17 points, six assists and two steals in Game 2.

Forward Marshall Brown was the primary task master against the Big Bulls with a triple-double (15 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in the series opener); he had 25, 12 and five in Game 2, a must-win game for the Happinets. In the mini-game, he carried the team on his muscular shoulders with 13 of Akita’s 25 points.

The Albirex haven’t appeared in a championship game since the first one in 2006, but the team has always been competitive, around .500 or better. This may be the best overall Niigata team since Garrison and ex-big man Nick Davis sported Albirex jersey back in 2005-06.

To book a trip to Ariake Colosseum for the Final Four, Garrison summed up the task at hand this weekend by saying the key is, “Defense, defense, defense.”

“We’re excited to be at home for the playoffs. It should be a fun series,” he added.

By the numbers: Niigata was the league’s most accurate 3-point shooting team (38.6 percent) and was No. 2 in overall scoring (83.15 ppg). Yokohama had the second-fewest turnovers per game (10.9 and Akita had the fewest (10.2). Yokohama was tied with Shiga for the No. 2 scoring defense, holding foes to 74.5 ppg (Ryukyu topped the chart at 69.4) and Niigata was No.3 at 74.6. …

From 3-point range, Yokohama and Niigata both held foes to 30.5 percent shooting, second only to Ryukyu’s 29.7.

Nakase update: In a recent interview with Mochi magazine, Los Angeles Clippers video coordinator Natalie Nakase, the former Saitama Broncos head coach who was honored at the White House on Monday as part of a celebration of women role models, had this to say about her ambition to be the NBA’s first female head coach: “Anything that is different, I feel like people are going to judge quickly (against) what is the norm. And I understand that.

“People are going to have their opinions, sometimes negative ones, and I am OK with it. It just adds fuel to my fire.

“The NBA has the most talented basketball players in the world. I want to coach at the highest professional level possible.”

Nakase completed her first season with the Clippers last week, when the team was eliminated from the playoffs. It was a challenging first campaign in the world’s top league for her.

“I’ve realized that basketball in the NBA is 24/7,” Nakase, a former UCLA point guard who worked under ex-NBA mentor Bob Hill when he coached the now-defunct Apache, said in the magazine article. “The higher the goal you want to reach, the more you have to put into your work.”

“These coaches work extremely hard, to the point where they don’t sleep much. There are no off days. To be able to be around them so often, and to understand their working habits, I know I want to be there just as much, because that’s eventually my goal. It’s an amazing experience.”

Miscellany: Look for a Western Conference second-round playoff preview in Saturday’s Japan Times print and online editions. … Wednesday’s web exclusive column featured an interview with Osaka Evessa head coach Bill Cartwright before he returned to the United States for the offseason.

Here’s the link: www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2013/05/08/basketball/cartwright-gives-parting-thoughts-on-experience-in-japan/

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