The Shiga Lakestars are one of five Western Conference teams with a win total ranging between 15 and 17 through Sunday. And that means half of the West’s teams are in that position. Parity it is, but also a dogfight for a ticket to the playoffs.
The Lakestars (17-17) sit in fourth place. They are 10-6 in home games and 7-11 on the road. Their longest losing streak of the season was four games (Nov. 9-17 against Oita and Niigata), and their longest winning streak was five straight.
That streak ended on Sunday, a 92-67 defeat to Osaka.
Through the team’s ups and downs under first-year American bench boss Chris Boettcher, a former college basketball assistant coach in the U.S., big man Dionisio Gomez has been a pillar of strength.
The 203-cm veteran leads Shiga in scoring (15.6 points per game) and rebounding (9.4). He’s second on the Lakestars in steals (39, two less than All-Star teammate Marshall Brown) and second in blocks (25, two fewer than Shelton Colwell).
Gomez, a native of Panama, is a relentless rebounder. In that sense, he plays the game like Dennis Rodman.
What’s more, the University of Arkansas product brings Shiga experience, aka the best teacher, to the gym every day. The 33-year-old is in his third season with the Lakestars, so he’s familiar with how Japanese mainstays Shinya Ogawa, Daiki Terashita, Yutaka Yokoe and Jumpei Nakama play the game.
In a January 2013 interview with The Japan Times, former Shiga coach Al Westover stated that Gomez is a big contributor for the team.
“Gomez has been terrific for us, and is a very versatile player who contributes well in the 4 (power forward) or 5 (center) position,” Westover said.
Gomez helps set the tone for the Lakestars with a fierce competitive spirit, which rubs off on teammates.
The Lakestars probably need to sign or develop a breakthrough Japanese star to reach the Final Four, but Yokoe (7.9 ppg, team-high 111 assists), Nakama (5.2), Terashita (4.7) and Ogawa (3.7) have all experienced the pressure of the bj-league playoffs in past season. Shuto Mizoguchi, meanwhile, is emerging as a capable outside threat (29 3-pointers to date).
Boettcher has received steady production from his import players. Brown is averaging 15.4 ppg, and guard Brandon Fields, a University of Nevada alum, is a 14.4 ppg scorer, while Colwell is contributing 11.8 and is seventh in the league in field-goal shooting percentage (56.3).
In the final analysis, Gomez could be a big difference maker in the final 18 games of the season, helping Shiga improve its playoff position.
Gomez summarized his thoughts on the team’s strengths and weaknesses in an interview this week.
“Our strength as a team is our versatility. We have players that can be rotated in several positions throughout the game,” Gomez told The Japan Times. “(Our weakness is) we have been plagued by injuries throughout the season. Losing our starting point guard and captain (Ogawa) two years in row hurt us.”
The veteran pro believes Boettcher has been a good fit for the Lakestars.
“Coach Boettcher is a student of the game,” said Gomez. “He is constantly studying and analyzing the game. He is a great teacher. He loves working with players individually. He enjoys developing players, helping them get better everyday. He is very laid back. He is a player’s coach. Being capable of speaking fluent Japanese makes it a lot easier for him to coach both Japanese and foreign players. His focal point for the team is that.”
Boettcher has preached a single message since taking over as coach: “being a TEAM,” Gomez revealed, “playing together as a unit.”
“His motion system allows for everyone to get a chance to be successful offensively,” he added.
So how have players adjusted to Boettcher’s coaching? And is he much different as a leader than ex-coach Westover?
Responding to those questions, Gomez said, “Players have adapted very well. I think it was somehow an easy transition specially for the Japanese players. I think they can communicate in more of a direct way to the coach instead of having to go through an interpreter if they have to.
“Both coaches are great leaders. Both emphasize team play. No big difference there. They are both winners.”
While Ogawa has been sidelined by injuries, it has given Yokoe a chance to have more playing time, which has helped his development.
“Yokoe keeps getting better and better,” Gomez said. “He is starting to really grasp the mental part of the game. He is playing a lot smarter, and becoming more vocal on the court. He has a chance to become one of the elite players in this league, if he continues to grow at the pace he is growing now.
“He works hard. He has been carrying us the whole year. With Ogawa’s injury (in November), Yokoe had to step up quickly, and he is doing a heck of a job.”
Finally, Gomez was asked this: How hungry are you to lead Shiga to its first Final Four?
He said, “I am very hungry.”
“This is one of the greatest organizations in this league, and what better gift than to give them a Final Fourth berth and a chance at the championship.”
League accolade: Toyama forward Tatsunori Fujie, who played an instrumental role in his team’s two-game sweep over East-leading Akita last weekend, is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced on Tuesday.
Fujie scored 18 points, knocking down 4 of 6 3-pointers, in a 101-88 triumph on Saturday. He drained 4 of 8 3s on Sunday in another 18-point effort as the Grouses defeated the Happinets 90-85.
Fujie, a Fukuoka native is averaging 9.5 ppg. In his first season with the Grouses in 2012-13, he scored 6.7 ppg.
He is No.2 on the team in 3-pointers made (57), five fewer than Masashi Joho.
Upcoming games: Here’s the weekend schedule: Iwate vs. Aomori, Sendai vs. Niigata, Toyama vs. Shinshu, Yokohama vs. Tokyo, Hamamatsu vs. Shimane, Shiga vs. Oita, Nara vs. Kyoto, Fukuoka vs. Osaka and Ryukyu vs. Takamatsu.
New challenge: Ryan Blackwell, former Osaka and Gunma head coach, has landed a job as a coach for IMG Academy, near Bradenton, Florida. He began working there last week.
The Syracuse University alum will primarily work with high school and post-graduate players during the season. In the summer, his focus will be helping train NBA and overseas pro players, he told The Japan Times. (And there’s always work guys can do to fine tune their game in the offseason.)
In addition, after the college season ends, Blackwell will help prepare players for the NBA draft.
Making progress: Oft-injured Osaka guard Takanori Goya, the league’s No.1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, has played 10 straight games for the Evessa.
Recovering from knee surgery, Goya didn’t play a minute until Nov. 30 (seven minutes) for coach Shunsuke Todo’s team. He then sat out the next seven games before beginning his current streak.
Over the past four games (all starts), Goya’s minutes have increased from 11 to 13 to 22 to 31.
In the current 10-game stretch, he’s averaged 17.3 minutes a game, and in the past weekend scored 12 and 11 points, both season-high totals, on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to: email@example.com