The Ryukyu Golden Kings ruled the Western Conference, setting a league record with a 43-win season as new bench boss Tsutomu Isa put his stamp on the team after six seasons as a well-respected assistant.
The Kyoto Hannaryz, meanwhile, locked up the No.2 spot, a bye week and a home series in the second week of the playoffs on May 10-11.
The Golden Kings await the winner of the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix-Rizing Fukuoka, while the Hannaryz, vying for a third straight trip to the Final Four in the third and final year of coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s contract, will play the team the victorious squad from the Shiga Lakestars-Osaka Evessa two-game clash.
The league’s ninth championship weekend is slated for May 24-25 at Ariake Colosseum.
Here’s a rundown of the West’s two first-round matchups this weekend:
No. 3 Shiga Lakestars (27-25 overall, 18-8 home) vs. No. 6 Osaka Evessa (24-28 overall, 11-15 away): The Lakestars won the season series 3-1. (Shiga’s three wins were all decided by eight points or less — 94-91, 81-73 and 101-100).
Shiga update: Under first-year coach Chris Boettcher, the Lakestars went 5-5 to close out the regular season, including back-to-back wins last weekend over the Rizing. Guard Yutaka Yokoe earned league recognition as the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP winner for his effort against Fukuoka: a 10-point, six-assist game in the series opener and 15 points on 5-for-5 shooting on Sunday.
University of Missouri alum Marshall Brown was the team’s leading scorer (16.1 points per game), followed by Brandon Fields (15.3) and Dionisio Gomez (14.3 ppg).
Gomez, a third-year Lakestar, is also the team’s top rebounder (8.8 per game, with 150 offensive boards). Big man and Missouri State product Shelton Colwell provided 11.7 ppg and scoring efficiency, converting 58.1 percent of his shots from the field (No. 3 in the league in that category).
Fields’ 187 assists led the team, but Yokoe (174 helpers, just 64 turnovers) and Brown (159) also served as key ball distributors during key stretches.
As a team, Shiga had 862 assists with 711 turnovers.
Brown knocked down a team-best 117 3s.
Gomez, Brown and Yokoe collected 66, 63 and 58 steals, respectively.
Popular guard Jumpei Nakama (5.4 ppg) is retiring after the season. Nakama, who has played in the league since its inception in 2005, is vying for his first career title, having come up short on the now-defunct Tokyo Apache’s consecutive championship runnerup squads in 2007-08 and 2008-09.
The Lakestars gave up 89 more points than they scored. They allowed 4,218 points, the most in the 10-team West.
Boettcher identified a few keys for the weekend series.
“We have to just focus on playing good team defense,” Boettcher told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “When we do (that), we are a very good team. We were lucky to beat them three times, and need to play mistake-free basketball in order to beat them again.”
Fields provided a different perspective on keys to beating the Evessa.
“Slow down their transition game and limit our turnovers and their offensive rebounds to a minimum,” the University of Nevada alum told this newspaper.
Osaka update: First-year coach Shunsuke Todo’s club rang up three consecutive wins to wrap up the regular season and went 6-4 in its final 10 games.
A wholesale gutting of the roster took place last offseason, and the midseason arrivals of D’Andre Bell and Darko Cohadarevic added other wrinkles (and an infusion of talent) to the team’s growth curve.
The 12 current members of the team’s roster didn’t play for the Evessa during the 2012-13 campaign, but 40-year-old guard Haruyuki Ishibashi, the league’s oldest player, and backcourt mate Naoto Nakamura, who is 37, are links to the team’s championship three-peat under then-coach Kensaku Tennichi (2005-08), as is backup post player Hirotaka Sato.
Bell averaged 15.1 points in 24 games, bringing added athleticism, leadership and veteran poise to the roster. Cohadarevic has an 11.2 ppg average in 23 games.
Kevin Galloway, who has triple-double potential every game, scored 13.0 ppg and was No. 2 in the league in both assists (6.4) and steals (2.0). Nakamura, a classic jump shooter, drained 99 3s en route to 10.4 ppg.
All-Star Slam Dunk Contest winner Zach Andrews (9.8 ppg) is a liability at the free-throw line (79-for-180), but an imposing presence around the basket. Yosuke Sugawara, on the other hand, was the league’s top free-throw shooter (89.6 percent),a nd quietly produced 8.5 ppg.
Well-traveled guards Takanori Goya (6.3 ppg, 27 contests) and Naoto Takushi (4.7 in 42) have also had some shining moments this season.
No. 4. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (27-25 overall, 15-11 home) vs. No. 5 Rizing Fukuoka (26-26 overall, 10-16 away): The teams split their season series 2-2.
Hamamatsu update: In their first full season under Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino, the Phoenix have had their share of ups and downs: a nine-game winning streak earlier this season (late December until early February) and defeats in eight of nine later on.
They’ve lost three straight and five of their last six, going 2-8 in their past 10.
But the athletic, veteran-dominated team has championship experience in Jermaine Dixon, Ray Nixon, Masahiro Oguchi and Atsuya Ota from the storied 2010-11 Hamamatsu team.
Dixon emerged as the team’s most prolific scorer (16.4 ppg), while Cyrus Tate supplied 12.3 ppg and 56 percent shooting from the field. Nixon, who played for Shiga last season, averaged 10.1 ppg in the regular season and pulled down a team-best 6.2 rpg.
As a rookie, newcomer Aki Chambers shined at times, scoring 9.0 ppg, but was less efficient at times, too. Forward Dior Lowhorn added another scoring option over the final two-plus months of the season (7.2 ppg).
Oguchi and Ota both suited up in 52 games and had the same scoring output (6.5 ppg), with the former draining 67 3s and maintaining the uncanny ability to pick up a steal (71 in total) at the most opportune time.
For the Phoenix to prolong their season past Golden Week, what must they focus on doing well?
“Well, against Fukuoka the two most important things we have to do is take care of the ball and don’t give up too many offensive rebounds,” said one Phoenix player who requested anonymity on Wednesday. “If we can control those parts of the game, it puts us in a strong position to advance.”
Fukuoka update: Reminiscent of Billl Cartwright’s impressive second-half turnaround job with the Evessa a season ago, James Duncan took over as Rizing coach for the final 24 games and guided the Kyushu club to a 15-9 record. Good enough to qualify for the playoffs.
Fukuoka was 11-17 when Duncan was hired just after the All-Star break. The Rizing have dropped three straight games and gone 5-5 in their last 10, but they have clearly regained the hunger and competitive drive that inspired them under ex-coach Atsushi Kanazawa last May as they earned a title runnerup finish.
Power forward Reggie Warren, a true emotional leader of the squad, finished first in scoring (16.5 ppg), rebounds (11.5, No. 4 in the league) and assists (153), and eight-time All-Star guard Cohey Aoki remains a terrific shooter (85.6 percent at the charity stripe, 43.6 percent from beyond the arc) and the team’s No. 2 scorer (9.6 ppg). They form a potent one-two punch.
Seth Tarver averaged 9.1 ppg and Julius Ashby 8.4, followed by newcomer David Palmer’s 8.0 (in 18 games) and Akitomo Takeno’s 7.6. Jun Nakanishi, like Aoki a player in the league since 2005, posted a 5.8 ppg average.
Duncan’s team has ample scoring options and plays tight defense (its 3,839 points allowed were third-fewest among West teams). For a deep run in the playoffs, it needs to make the big plays at critical moments, which was often a stumbling block this season, as evidenced by 15 losses by 10 or fewer points.
That said, Fukuoka’s veteran nucleus also carries the memory of last season’s disappointing defeat to the Yokohama B-Corsairs in the title game.
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