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West powers Ryukyu, Kyoto favored in second round

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Since rising to elite status and winning a championship in the 2008-09 campaign in their second season of existence, the Ryukyu Golden Kings have been a perennial threat to win it all.

They went 43-9 during the regular season, including 24-2 at home, setting two league records in the process. They allowed a league-low 3,561 points. They snatched the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs. They earned a bye into the conference semifinals and now play host to a team they’ve had nothing but success against this season.

Ryukyu went 6-0 against the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, winning those games by a combined 62 points. That includes four triumphs in April, with the teams closing out the regular season against each other.

Led by first-year sideline supervisor Tsutomu Isa, the 2013-14 Coach of the Year, the Golden Kings would certainly welcome the opportunity to avenge last season’s conference semifinal ouster against the Kyoto Hannaryz at Ariake Colosseum on May 24 in the Western Conference final.

But first things first. The Golden Kings are focused on taking care of business against the fourth-seeded Phoenix, who outlasted the fifth-seeded Rizing Fukuoka last weekend.

The second-seeded Kyoto Hannaryz, meanwhile, are ready to square off against the visiting and No. 3 Shiga Lakestars, who ended the sixth-seeded Osaka Evessa’s season on Sunday.

Here’s a rundown of the weekend matchups:

Ryukyu vs. Hamamatsu: The Kings won each of the first four games by 16, 13, 10 and 12 points. Two weeks ago, those games were decided this way: 72-67 and 78-72.

Five things to know about Ryukyu:

• Playmaker dynamo Draelon Burns has excelled against the Phoenix. On Nov. 24, he had a 26-point (11-for-11 at the free-throw line), six-assist performances; on April 12, he put 30 points on the board.

• Nine Kings collected 27 or more steals; in other words, everyone created havoc for the opposition en route to 472 steals.

• Best Five Team selection Anthony McHenry sets the tone for the Kings, who always play aggressive but control their emotions (they had four technical fouls in 52 games).

• Center Kibwe Trim converted 58 percent of his shots from the field.

• Dual threats Ryuichi Kishimoto and Burns sank 102 and 101 3-pointers, respectively.

The Ryukyu X-factor: Championship experience. Eight Golden Kings players have won one or more titles, including Jeff Newton’s league-record five.

The bottom line: Ryukyu had one losing streak all season — two games (March 30 and April 5) — so Isa’s team will be the overwhelming favorite.

Five things to know about Hamamatsu:

• The Phoenix were 2-8 in their final 10 games before the playoffs, but rebounded against the Rizing Fukuka with their season on the line, winning Game 3 (tiebreaker mini-game) to advance.

• Jermaine Dixon has had mixed success against the Kings, but is resilient. Case in point: He was 2-for-14 on 3s and 2-for-23 overall from the field on April 26. A day later, he put 25 points on the board.

• Veteran guard Masahiro Oguchi, the 2009-10 playoffs MVP, is always a threat to make a pivotal 3-pointer, steal or assist.

• Forward Ray Nixon had double-doubles in two of the past three 40-minute games.

• The Phoenix failed to score 80 or more points in each of their six losses to the Kings.

Kyoto (34-18 in the regular season, 19-7 at home) vs. Shiga (27-25, 9-17 away): The Hannaryz won the season series 3-1.

Five things to know about Kyoto:

• The Hannaryz advanced to the Final Four in each of the last two seasons under Honoo Hamaguchi, who’s in the last year of his three-year contract. Hamaguchi’s future with the team or elsewhere could be a strong motivational narrative in this series.

• The Hannaryz won 10 of 12 games to close out the regular season.

• Former Washington Wizards guard Edwin Ubiles (15.8 ppg), David Palmer (14.1, 93 3-pointers, 42.9 percent on 3s, third-best accuracy in the league) and Yu Okada (10.3, 100 3s) form a potent scoring attack from the backcourt and perimeter.

• Steady forward Joe Werner and center Chris Holm (11.8 rebounds per game, No. 2 in the league), one of the best rebounders in league history, complement each other in the frontcourt, with both relying on fundamentals and a commitment to team play.

• In the backcourt and on the wings, roster depth is a strength, with Kyosuke Setoyama, Takuya Komoda, Sunao Murakami and Hikaru Kusaka, among others, filling in without playing major minutes every game.

Five things to know about Shiga:

• Chris Boettcher is in his first season as a bj-league head coach; his counterpart is the only bench boss to start all nine seasons in charge of a team.

• Forward Dionisio Gomez, a feisty, quick-instincts veteran, led the team with 66 steals prior to the playoffs.

• Marshall Brown sank a team-best 117 3s in the regular season, and picked up a team-high 13 technicals.

• With their season on the line after a one-point Game 2 loss to the Evessa, the Lakestars exhibited poise in the mini-game, going 12-for-12 at the charity stripe, with Brown and Yutaka Yokoe both making 4 of 4 attempts.

• Two seasons into his bj-league career, Yokoe is a solid playmaker with enough flash to keep the opponent guessing.

The Shiga X-factor: Guard Jumpei Nakama, who announced he’ll retire after the season, is still vying for his first title after a pair of championship runnerup finishes with the now-defunct Tokyo Apache. The Hiroshima native helped prolong the Shiga season with three assists in the Game 3 tiebreaker.