With seven victories in their past 10 games, the rejuvenated Sendai 89ers have bolstered their playoff chances.
First-year coach Shuto Kawachi’s team and the expansion Aomori Wat’s both have identical 21-21 records, but only one of those teams will likely lock up the Eastern Conference’s sixth and final playoff spot. The Niigata Albirex BB (26-18) have built a five-game cushion over the 89ers and Wat’s, while the defending champion and eighth-place Yokohama B-Corsairs (18-24) face a daunting task to climb above both Sendai and Aomori.
By signing well-traveled forward Wendell White, who was the bj-league’s MVP in the 2009-10 season when the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix won their first of consecutive titles, Sendai added an experienced leader with championship credentials in this league. Similarly, the addition of big man Dzaflo Larkai, who won titles with Hamamatsu and the Ryukyu Golden Kings, raised expectations for the Tohoku team.
But it’s been an up-and-down season for Sendai. The 89ers lost their seventh straight game on Dec. 14 to fall to 9-10. Prior to that long slide, they had won seven of eight games.
They ended last weekend with a 97-80 victory over the visiting Takamatsu Five Arrows to earn a series split and improve to 14-6 at home.
Looking back on Sunday’s game, Larkai summed up Sendai’s play this way: “(We) showed a lot of heart, commitment to our game plan, poise and teamwork. Everybody just came out with a more aggressive mind-set, and it paid off.”
By winning on Sunday, Sendai kept pace with Aomori in the wins column as both teams vie for that coveted final playoff spot. The 89ers missed the postseason in 2012-13, going 20-32.
Wat’s coach Koju Munakata’s team, meanwhile, has been a tough-as-nails opponent since the season’s opening tipoff, defying the odds for a first-year franchise.
So what’s the focus for Sendai during the regular season’s stretch run?
“The key for us to solidify a playoff spot is to show greater consistency,” Larkai told The Japan Times. “Our performances throughout the year have fluctuated a little too much.
“We went on a seven-game losing streak when I was sidelined with an (knee) injury that really hurt us. But as of late I feel we’re doing a lot better as far as our intensity goes. If we can increase our intensity and battling mentality we’ll set ourselves up nicely to make a run in the playoffs.”
Gunma Crane Thunders forward Carlos Dixon, whose team is 1-3 against the 89ers, recognizes that Sendai’s dynamic frontcourt creates difficult matchups.
“Wendell is a handful to deal with on the court, defensively and offensively” Dixon told The Japan Times. “Their team defense is great, the way they pressure the ball and shrink the floor.”
What’s more, Sendai’s strength shows when the alternating quarter import quota rule allows three foreigners on the court in the second and fourth quarters, an increase of one player from the first and third quarters.
“In the second and fourth quarters, they are tough to keep off the offensive boards with Wendell, Flo (Larkai), and T.J. (Travel Jones) crashing hard,” Dixon observed.
White, a UNLV alum, leads Sendai with 20.6 points (second in the league) and 9.6 rebounds per game. Jones is averaging 15.4 points and nearly 9.1 rebounds a game. Larkai has contributed 10.7 points and 7.4 boards in 34 games. Newcomer DeAngelo Hamilton has provided a spark in 12 games, scoring 13.8 points and grabbing 7.4 rebounds. Veteran point guard Takehiko Shimura, who led the league in assists last season (6.2 per game), is the ninth-year circuit’s No. 4 passer (5.1 average, with 216 assists against 53 turnovers). Fumiya Sato and Yasuhiko Wada are scoring 8.3 and 7.1 ppg, respectively.
League accolade: Osaka Evessa guard Naoto Nakamura, a vital link to the team’s championship dynasty under ex-coach Kensaku Tennichi, had back-to-back 14-point games last weekend and was named the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, it was announced on Tuesday.
The league recognized a veteran who’s playing one of his best long stretches of basketball this season. The 37-year-old guard has averaged 15 points over the past five games (four Evessa victories) and made 14 of 22 3-point shots in that span.
Upcoming games: Ten weekend series are on the docket: Aomori vs. Shinshu, Sendai vs. Akita, Toyama vs. Gunma, Saitama vs. Tokyo, Yokohama vs. Niigata, Hamamatsu vs. Iwate, Shiga vs. Shimane, Nara vs. Osaka, Fukuoka vs. Takamatsu and Ryukyu vs. Oita.
The last word: “If he stays aggressive, I think he can be one of the best guards in the league.” — Dixon on Gunma teammate Kenya Tomori, who had a 17-point performance on Sunday against Aomori.