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Improved defense fuels Apache turnaround


The Tokyo Apache are not one of the taller teams in the bj-league. But they are one the league’s quicker teams.

These realities played out in the Apache’s weekend sweep over the Niigata Albirex BB last weekend as Joe Bryant’s club moved within two games of .500 (9-11).

Tokyo had little time to savor those victories, though.

The team spent all week preparing for the first-place Osaka Evessa (14-6), who swept the Sendai 89ers last weekend and moved past Niigata (13-7) into first place the standings.

By winning three of their last four games, the Apache reached the season’s midway point on a high note.

Yet there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

“We want the second 20 games to be better than the first 20 games,” Coach Bryant said with a chuckle.

“I know it’s impossible to win every game from here on (out), but we are really going to approach it one at a time.”

His pregame pep talks include this go-for-broke mentality:

“This one game is the last game of your life.”

If one game can sketch a microcosm of a team’s top traits on the hardwood canvas, Sunday’s Tokyo triumph would have done that.

In the win, Tokyo lost the battle on the boards (outrebounded 40-28), but shot the ball well (33-for-57 from the field and 30-for-35 from the free-throw line) and played the kind of opportunistic defense that would have made any coach pleased.

Tokyo’s 13 steals propelled the fast break and gave the team’s speedy athletes a chance to make things happen.

Jumpei Nakama and Jun Nakanishi led the defensive charge with three steals apiece. Tony “Get It” Jones, Michael Jackson and John “Helicopter” Humphrey each made two takeaways and Kohei Aoki had one.

For a team like Tokyo, what’s the key to defense?

“What I try to tell the players is defensively keep your man in front of you,” Bryant said in Sunday’s postgame interview. “When other teams shoot, if you have a shot blocker, they can block the ball from up top. But (since we are) a short team, it makes sense to catch the ball before it gets up.

“In the games past, we’ll have our players trying to block somebody’s shot who is 7 feet (213 cm), which is virtually impossible. So we try to tell the players that anytime a guy goes to shoot there’s always an area, a box where he’s going to bring the ball. . . . We did a very good job with that today and yesterday, getting the ball before it gets up to the basket.”

Jackson and Humphrey are among the league’s top practitioners of theft. Jackson is No. 2 (2.1 steals per game) while Humphrey, whose 26.2 points per game is tops in the league, is third (2.0).

STELLAR PREPARATION: Bryant’s years of experience in the game, evaluating film and making adjustments have helped the team as well.

Exhibit A: The Apache players were well aware of Niigata’s tendencies before they stepped onto the court last weekend.

“We knew what their weaknesses were,” said Jones, “and we attacked that. We attacked their guards. Certain plays they called, we knew what they were going to do.

“So knowing what they were going to do, it helps us more in the game to find out what their weaknesses were on the offensive and the defensive ends. . . . That’s, I think, what played out in both wins today and yesterday.”

FLASHBACK: Toyama and Takamatsu split their games last Saturday and Sunday. The host Grouses won the first meeting 78-69 as Nile Murry (24 points) and Jerod Ward (23) led the way.

Yu Okada, who took a whopping 15 3-pointers, had a team-high 19 for the Five Arrows.

A day later, Reggie Warren put 22 points on the board and four teammates scored in double figures as Takamatsu won 81-64. Ward finished with 24 points.

The host Oita HeatDevils recorded a Friday-Saturday sweep over the Saitama Broncos, posting a 94-81 victory in the opener.

Chris Ayer (23 points), Andy Ellis (21) and Hiroki Sato (17) keyed the offensive, while Saitama’s Marcus Toney-El scored 26.

Ellis poured in 27 points and Ayer added 22 in Oita’s 80-73 triumph Saturday.

Osaka topped Sendai 81-75 on Saturday, moving into a tie for first.

Jeff Newton (25 points, 16 rebounds) and 2005-06 bj-league MVP Lynn Washington (20 points, nine rebounds, five assists) paced the Evessa, who had four players reach double figures in scoring.

Ryan Blackwell led the 89ers with 25.

The same formula worked for Osaka the next day. David Palmer scored 27, Newton finished with 22 and two teammates reached double digits in the Evessa’s 100-85 win. Tairo Yoshida produced a season-best 25-point effort for Sendai in the loss.

UP NEXT: In other Saturday-Sunday series this weekend, Niigata plays host to the Sendai 89ers (10-10), the Toyama Grouses (6-14) visit the Saitama Broncos (6-14) and the host Oita Heat Devils (10-10) take on the Takamatsu Five Arrows (12-8).

THE LAST WORD: Bryant offered this assessment of the way the 167-cm Aoki, the bj-league’s version of Earl Boykins, approaches life in the fast lane — slicing his way into the paint: “He’s not afraid to go in there with the big guys.”