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Ryukyu not missing a beat with Okinawan Isa at helm

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Ryukyu Golden Kings’ sustained excellence is the gift that keeps on giving for the team’s rabid fans.

A 12-game winning streak ended on Saturday — a two-point loss to the host Aomori Wat’s — but the Kings returned to their winning ways a day later.

And now they have a well-earned break until the calendar flips to 2014.

With a league-best .850 winning percentage (17-3 record), Ryukyu is once again in a familiar place: atop the Western Conference standings. This time, though, first-year bench boss Tsutomu Isa is the man in charge.

As a well-regarded assistant coach since the team’s inception in 2007, Isa, a native of Okinawa, worked under Hernando Planells, Dai Oketani and Koto Toyama. And the two-time champions are well on their way to a sixth consecutive winning season.

Following Sunday’s 61-57 win in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, Isa said, “It was good to win the last game of the year.”

And the Golden Kings will next face the visiting Saitama Broncos (2-20), who are losers of 17 straight games through Sunday, on Jan. 2 and 3.

Then the team is off again until Jan. 13. Chalk up an assist for the schedule maker, with a light workload for several weeks providing a respite for Isa’s club for the second half of the season.

“Next year, the aim is to win,” Isa declared.

Don’t expect the team to suddenly stumble in epic fashion. History tells us the Golden Kings are built to be an elite team, with five straight playoff appearances, four Final Four trips and an overall regular-season record of 216-106.

The 2013-14 Golden Kings have gone 9-1 at home and 8-2 on the road. Forward Anthony McHenry is the catalyst at both ends of the floor. Basketball’s version of a five-tool player, as old-time scouts liked to call the do-it-all baseball superstar, McHenry is averaging 12.8 points per game (second-highest total on the club), is also No. 2 in rebounds (8.4 per game) and first in assists, steals and blocks.

For someone who’s speed, athleticism and aggressiveness are key components of his on-court persona, The Georgia Tech alum doesn’t hurt his team with a plethora of mistakes. One example: He’s been whistled for just 40 fouls in 612 minutes.

On offense, the retooled Golden Kings are led by sixth man Draelon Burns, who’s scoring 17.3 ppg in the 10 games since he joined the club, and have received a strong effort by big man Kibwe Trim, who’s shooting 60.4 percent from the field and contributing 12.2 points and a team-best 10.0 rebounds.

Second-year pro Ryuichi Kishimoto, 23, is a rising star. He’s started all 20 games in the backcourt, averaging 9.6 ppg and is second on the squad in 3-pointers (33) and assists (54). Veterans Naoto Kosuge (7.6 ppg) and Shigeyuki Kinjo (6.7 ppg) and Morihisa Yamauchi (4.1 ppg in limited minutes) fit in well in Ryukyu’s high-powered offense.

Meanwhile, league legend Jeff Newton’s playing time has been reduced this season, his minutes closely monitored. This has enabled him to further strengthen his left knee after undergoing surgery last spring.

The Indiana University product has appeared in all 20 games (356 minutes).

Statistics have not been the most important contributions that Newton, a league star since the Osaka Evessa dynasty days (2005-08), provided over the first 20 games. Instead, his basketball IQ, winning experience and cerebral defensive instincts have stood out, as they always have, as his biggest assets.

Upcoming schedule: The post-Christmas docket has 12 teams slated to play on Saturday and Sunday. The weekend series: Akita vs. Oita, Toyama vs. Nara, Shinshu vs. Kyoto, Gunma vs. Shiga, Osaka vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa and Fukuoka vs. Yokohama.

League accolade: As a memorable gift, every player would be interested in receiving the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP award at Christmas time. That honor this year goes to Yokohama’s Marquise Gray, who had two double-doubles (21 points and 12 boards and 23 and 15) last weekend.

In the paint: Osaka’s Zach Andrews has a league-high 37 dunks. . . . Tokyo (6-16) is 2-10 in its last 12 games, and the club has dropped its past three games by a combined 106 points. . . .

Five Niigata players have drained 16 or more 3-pointers. Nile Murry is No. 1 with 40.