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Teamwork, defense keyed Ryukyu title

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

What made the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ remarkable championship season even more startling was the team’s cohesiveness and singular focus. It started in training camp and lasted until the final second ticked off the clock at Ariake Colosseum on Sunday.

The Golden Kings’ strictly business mentality set the tone for their lockdown defense, which yielded a league-low 68.5 points per game in the regular season). They held the Kyoto Hannaryz to 56 points in the Western Conference final on Saturday before clamping down on the high-powered Akita Northern Happinets, who averaged a league-best 90.2 points a game before the playoffs.

Though the Happinets had 89 points, they were shut down during the third quarter when Ryukyu seized control of the game with a 20-4 run.

First-year sideline supervisor Tsutomu Isa, who had been an assistant coach since the team’s inception in 2007, guided Ryukyu to a 43-9 record, including 24-2 at home, and the No. 1 seed for the Western Conference playoffs.

There was never a doubt the Kings were primed for a run at the title a year after a 42-10 record under Koto Toyama minus a Final Four appearance. Ryukyu steamrolled through the season and only got better with the addition of guards Draelon Burns and Narito Namizato, who made their season debuts in November and March, respectively.

There was no need for Isa to cite dozens of statistics or point out numerous sequences to illustrate why his team dominated from October to May. It was quite simple, really.

“Our motto this season was ‘the power of unity, ‘ ” Isa was quoted as saying by Japan Update, an Okinawa-based publication, on Monday. “With this in mind, we played every game with the same support and full involvement of all our fans.”

Ryukyu’s dynasty now includes six straight playoff appearances, five Final Four trips and a 3-1 record in the championship game. Its sustained excellence makes it the most successful current pro sports franchise in Japan.

On-air analysis: Rizing Fukuoka guards Jun Nakanishi and Cohey Aoki served as guest commentators during Sunday’s BS Fuji telecast of the championship game.

Both veterans have played in the bj-league since the beginning in 2005, so their overall knowledge of the league’s players and teams is strong. Smart decision by BS Fuji to give them both this opportunity.

New leader: The Saitama Broncos named Kazuaki Shimoji the team’s head coach for the 2014-15 season. The hire was announced on Wednesday, a day after bench boss Takatoshi Ishibashi’s departure became official.

Saitama had a league-worst 5-47 record under Ishibashi, and never won back-to-back games.

Shimoji, 37, becomes Saitama’s 10th bench boss since bj-league play began in 2005. (Before Ishibashi, the previous eight were Charles Johnson, Kenji Yamane, David Benoit, Masato Fukushima, Bob Nash, Dean Murray, Natalie Nakase and Tracy Williams.)

The Okinawa native was a longtime Niigata Albirex BB assistant coach before joining the Toyama Grouses for the 2010-11 season. Shimoji replaced Kohei Eto in February 2011 after the team’s 8-18 start, and led Toyama to five wins in 18 games to close out the season.

Before Shimoji’s first and only full season in charge, the Grouses had gone 61-171 in their first five campaigns.

For their sixth season, guard Masashi Joho was a key offseason acquisition. (He was the regular-season MVP this season.)

Shimoji guided Toyama to a 25-27 record and planted the seeds for success that followed in the next two seasons under current coach Bob Nash, who took the Grouses to their first Final Four last weekend.

Shimoji was expected to have his contract renewed for the 2012-13 season, but he stepped down due to health issues.

As reported in The Japan Times in June 2012, “Mr. Shimoji has had a major heart problem, and he had big surgery on his heart three times in the past,” a league insider said.

The source said Shimoji had coped with Marfan Syndrome, which is described by Webster’s New World College Dictionary as “a hereditary disorder characterized by abnormalities of the blood circulation and the eyes, abnormally long bones in the limbs and very mobile joints.”

Has Shimoji’s health improved enough to withstand the rigors of the 52-game regular season and the work-related stress of trying to turn around the losingest team in bj-league history?

Prestigious honor: Akita guard Yuki Togashi was selected for the Tokyo Sportswriters Club’s 2013-14 Best Five Team, it was announced on Monday. Four NBL players — guard Naoto Tsuji of the Toshiba Brave Thunders, Toshiba center Nick Fazekas, Wakayama Trians swingman Takuya Kawamura and Link Tochigi Brex guard Yuta Tabuse — were also named to the squad.

The 20-year-old Togashi was named the All-Star Game MVP in January, led the bj-league in assists (7.9 per game) and had a 30-point outing against Ryukyu in the final. He was named to the Japan national team for the first time earlier this month, too.

Togashi has told reporters he wants to challenge for a spot in the NBA in the future. This summer, he plans to travel to the United States. According to a source close to the situation, Togashi will likely seek out playing opportunities in New York at an NBA Development League showcase and also in Phoenix

Flawed approach: By virtue of its definition, the bj-league’s playoff MVP award is supposed to factor in all playoff games to determine which players should receive the prestigious honor.

But that’s not really what happened this postseason. The award actually went to a player who excelled in the final, and not in several — facets of the game during the entire playoff run.

But yes, Ryuichi Kishimoto had a terrific game in the final. His award is not called the final MVP, though.

Take at look at the statistics:

* Draelon Burns averaged 22.5 points and 2.0 steals a game in the playoffs for the Golden Kings. In the West semifinals against the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, the DePaul University product had 15-point, six-rebound, two-assist game and a 27-point, five-rebound, three-assist, four-steal effort. Against Kyoto in the West final, he scored 27 points, buried 5 of 10 3-pointers, with two rebounds, two assists and two steals. And then in championship game, he had 21 points, knocked down 4 of 9 3s, with five boards, two assists and two steals.

* Anthony McHenry’s numbers proved again that he impacts the Kings in all phases of the game. In the second round, he had 16 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and a steal in the first game against the Phoenix, and then had seven points, nine boards, two assists, one steal and two blocks in the clincher. While helping to hold ex-NBA swingman Edwin Ubiles to zero points on Saturday, he had 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks. In the final, the Georgia Tech alum closed out his season with 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, one steal and three blocks.

* Playoff MVP Kishimoto, a rising standout at age 23, specializes in long-range shooting. He sank 15 of 30 3s in the four playoff contests. He had 12 points, one rebound and one assists in Game 1 against Hamamatsu and 17 points, one rebound, three assists and two steals in the rematch. Against Kyoto he was mostly a non-factor, finishing with zero points on 0-for-4 shooting with one assist and one steal. But in the final, Kishimoto displayed impressive NBA range 3-point-shooting skills with a career-high 34-point outburst, making 7 of 12 3s with five rebounds, one assist and one steal.

One more year: Coach Yukinori Suzuki will return for a fourth season at the helm next fall, the Oita HeatDevils announced on Wednesday.

The HeatDevils placed eighth in the 10-team West this season with a 20-32 record. They have missed the playoffs in each of Suzuki’s three seasons in charge.

Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp