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Akita-Aomori, Shinshu-Niigata playoff matchups should produce lively drama

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The defending champion Yokohama B-Corsairs failed to qualify for the bj-league playoffs, ensuring that a new finalist from the Eastern Conference will step onto the court on May 25 at Ariake Colosseum with a shot at winning the league’s ninth title.

But first things first.

Six East teams qualified for the postseason, including the regular-season champion and top-seeded Toyama Grouses (42-10, triumphant in 11 straight games to end the regular season) and the second-seeded Iwate Big Bulls (40-12, winner of 12 straight games). Both squads earn a bye week and a home series next weekend in the playoff semifinals.

Toyama will face the winner of the Shinshu Brave Warriors-Niigata Albirex BB series, while Iwate awaits the triumphant team in the Akita Northern Happinets-Aomori Wat’s showdown. Those first-round series are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. If necessary, a 10-minute tiebreaker mini-game will be held after Game 2 to determine the winner.

Here’s a breakdown of the East’s two first-round series:

No. 3 Akita (42-10 overall, 21-5 home) vs. No. 6 Aomori (27-15 overall, 8-18 away): The Northern Happinets won the season series 3-1.

Akita update: Led by 73-year-old bench boss Kazuo Nakamura, who has announced he plans to retire after the season, the Happinets have plenty of motivation to end the longtime mentor’s career in style. Before joining Akita in 2011, he became the second coach in league history to lead his team to back-to-back championships, guiding Hamamatsu to titles in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Akita takes a four-game winning streak into the postseason and is 7-3 in its last 10 contests.

The Happinets chalked up an eye-popping 1,011 assists against 624 turnovers this season as their high-powered offense scored a league-high 4,692 points. Rising star Yuki Togashi dished out 409 assists and was No. 1 in the league with 7.9 helpers a game. The 20-year-old scored 15.6 points per game, and teammate Richard Roby was tied for fourth in the league in that department (20.1).

Rock-solid macho forward Ruben Boykin contributed 13.9 points and a league-best 13.5 rebounds a game. In the final 17 games of the regular season, he notched 14 double-doubles. The Northern Arizona product also had outings with seven, eight, nine and 10 assists. In short, he gets the job done anywhere on the court.

With Nakamura signaling for his players to fire away from 3-point range early and often — they drained 491 3s, with Yuto Otsuka canning 99, Togashi burying 110 and Shigehiro Taguchi flushing 125 — the inside opened up for 216-cm big man Chas McFarland (11.9 ppg) and super athletic Roby (brother of longtime NBA big man Kenyon Martin), among others.

Taguchi, still just 24, led the league in 3-point shooting accuracy (44.5 percent) and pumped in 11.7 ppg.

The expansion Wat’s became the second first-year franchise in the past three seasons to finish above. 500, joining Yokohama (31-21 in 2011-12). Koju Munakata, a former Toyota Motors Alvark coach, shaped a disciplined, versatile veteran team that never used its newness as an excuse. That much was evident by observing the team’s performances all season.

Aomori update: Aomori enters the playoffs with victories in three of its past four games and six of 10 overall. Team leader Gordon Klaiber topped the scoring charts (17.2 ppg) and drained 128 3-pointers. His 1.7 steals put him among the league’s top 10 in that category. He is a tone-setting force, but muscular post player Abdullahi Kuso delivers productive minutes and important statistics (10.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg), too. Anthony Kent chipped in with 7.5 ppg and 6.9 rpg.

The squad’s inside-outside attack also relies on the potent perimeter contributions of guard Yuki Kitamuki, whose 10.9 ppg, 93 3s and 144 assists were significant. Makoto Sawaguchi, an exciting blend of youth and athleticism, supplied 7.6 ppg and 123 assists.

Stanley Ocitti, a savvy veteran, found his niche as a dependable scorer (9.5 ppg), defender and locker room leader.

Kent, Sawaguchi and Ocitti all played under Nakamura in past seasons. Will that provide additional motivation or a tactical advantage for Aomori?

No. 4 Shinshu (33-19 overall, 20-6 home) vs. No. 5 Niigata (31-21 overall, 12-14 away): The teams split their season series 2-2, but were forced to play a doubleheader on Feb. 16 due to a postponed game the day before in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture; the Albirex swept the final two games. All four games were decided by 10 or fewer points.

Shinshu update: Under first-year coach Ryuji Kawai, a Nakamura disciple and his assistant on the aforementioned title teams who then guided the Phoenix to a championship runnerup spot in the 2011-12 season, the Brave Warriors booked a ticket to the playoffs for the first time.

The Nagano-based team, in its third season, also made a 16-win improvement this campaign under Kawai’s direction. That includes a 6-4 record and three straight victories to wrap up the regular season.

Shinshu has smartly crafted its plays around the dynamic talents of 210-cm frontcourt star Xavier Gibson, who’s among the league’s top 10 in scoring (17.2, ninth-best average), rebounds (10.2, tied for ninth) and blocks (2.1, third), and Patrick Sanders (18.6 ppg and 136 3-pointers. Sanders has been on a torrid shooting streak of late, hitting five 3-pointers in three games and canning seven apiece in two others in the past nine games.

Veteran pickups Shoji Nakanishi and Jeff Parmer, former Hamamatsu guys under Kawai, add familiarity to the system, the latter also brought championship pedigree to the team with a 2010-11 title and MVP on his resume. Parmer averaged 11.8 ppg and collected a team-best 82 steals, and Nakanishi scored 6.1. Ex-Osaka guard Shota Konno, a seventh-year pro, had his finest overall offensive season, putting 11.5 ppg on the board. Yosuke Saito, an original Warrior, had a solid season, contributing 7.3 ppg with a team-high 162 assists against 74 turnovers.

What also stands out about Shinshu is this: dependable 75.2 percent free-throw shooting and respectable assist-to-turnover numbers (918 and 711).

Niigata update: First-year sideline supervisor Fujitaka Hiraoka, who worked under 2012-13 Coach of the Year Matt Garrison before stepping into the spotlight and taking over the team, and the Albirex are vying for a second straight trip to the Final Four.

Veterans dominate their roster, including several with an abundance of bj-league playoff experience. High-flying forward Thomas Kennedy (18.0 ppg in 22 games since joining Niigata), a tremendous finisher, helped Yokohama capture its championship. Guard Nile Murry has played for Osaka, Fukuoka and Niigata in the postseason. Murry’s 17.1 ppg and 4.8 rpg, plus team-high totals in assists (182), steals (96), 3-pointers (83) and free-throws attempts (299, 142 more than the team’s No. 2 man in foul shots taken, Patrick Sullivan) provide ample evidence of his vital value to the team’s in-game performance. Big man Sullivan scored 12.6 ppg in his first season in Japan.

When Murry has a statistically dominant game, the rest of the team seems to click on all cylinders. He’s the team’s catalyst, and one of the best all-around performers in the 21-team circuit.

But longtime Albirex players Yuichi Ikeda (8.6 ppg, 74 3s), Kimitake Sato (8.1, 63 3s) and Shuhei Komatsu (5.4, 72 3s) recognize what’s expected of them in a short series against a first-time playoff challenger. Popular veteran guard Takamichi Fujiwara, in his second tour of duty with Niigata after five seasons with Shiga, plays about 20 minutes a game and makes an impact in spurts.

Niigata’s interior depth and overall versatility was reduced when the league suspended forward Rodney Webb for the rest of the season after he kicked Akita’s Chas McFarland in the head in retaliation for being aggressively elbowed more than once during a March 8 game. Webb’s scoring (10.7) and 6-plus rebounds a game were key contributions along with other intangibles.

So what’ll determine the outcome of this series?

For Shinshu, Parmer believes two factors will be critical elements of the series.

“The first key will be how well we can defend them when they play small ball with Kennedy and Murry on the court together in the first and third quarters,” Parmer told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “The second key will be us trying to take advantage of them inside the paint when they go with the small lineup with Kennedy and Murry. I think those two keys will be the most important this weekend.”

Editor’s note: Look for an in-depth preview of the Western Conference playoff first-round series later this week.

Feedback: send email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp