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Playoff push starts this weekend


OSAKA — It’s no secret that the Osaka Evessa are one of the hardest working teams in the bj-league. Or maybe they are No. 1 on that list.

News photoLynn Washington

Lynn Washington, the team’s tone-setter and most complete player, said it best just moments after his team completed a two-game sweep of the Niigata Albirex BB last Sunday.

“I just try to come out here and play hard every time,” Washington said after his 20-point, 12-rebound performance.

“My teammates find me and get me the ball. . . . It’s real simple.

In reality, it’s not that simple.

(If it was, someone would have found a way to deny Michael Jordan from winning one of his six NBA championships rings. But they couldn’t. He simply played the game at a slightly higher level than anyone else in the NBA in the 1990s.)

But to their credit the Evessa don’t try to make the game more complicated than it is. And that is their trademark; they stick to the basics: solid ball movement, attacking the basket and a never-wavering commitment to rebounding.

It’s a formula that’s working. The Evessa’s 21-9 record puts them in first place in the bj-league standings with 10 regular-season games remaining.

They are 12-2 at home and lead the lead in road wins, too, with a 9-7 mark.

Osaka is the league’s top scoring team (85.2 points per game) and a respectable fourth in scoring defense (81.3 ppg).

The second-place Takamatsu Five Arrows (18-12), meanwhile, have struggled against the Oita HeatDevils, going 1-5 against Mikey Marshall, Yukinori Suzuki and Co.

With 17-13 records to date, third-place clubs Niigata and Oita remain in the hunt for the top playoff seed.

In the opinion of Albirex guard Takamichi Fujiwara, who hails from Fukuoka, the Albirex are right where they need to be right now.

In a postgame interview with The Japan Times last Sunday, Fujiwara gave this assessment of his team: “We are improving every game, getting closer to our goal. There’s 10 games left in the season . . . and we’ve just got to play our basketball.”

Niigata-style ball relies heavily on fast breaks, and the league’s best defense (opposing teams are scoring a league-low 75.1 ppg). An 8-8 road record is a solid sign, too.

On the other hand, the 15-15 Sendai 89ers are having a season that defies logic.

Honoo Hamaguchi’s team is 5-9 at home but 10-6 on the road.

The Toyama Grouses’ 11-19 mark includes a woeful 3-11 road record, but the team has given the fans a good show at home, going 8-8 there as an expansion team.

The Tokyo Apache, who are also 11-19, like to play an up-tempo game, but the team has been hampered by its rebounding deficiencies and mediocre defense (teams are scoring a league-high 90.8 ppg against Joe Bryant’s club).

What’s made the Saitama Broncos (10-20) the league’s worst team to date?

Perhaps this statistic best explains it: The Broncos are 62.6 percent from the free-throw line this season, missing 222 of 626 attempts. A few more clanked shots and they are moving into Shaquille O’Neal territory.

As a result, they have struggled mightily in close contests. The Broncos have played 15 games this season decided by 10 points or less and they are 4-11 in those games.

Broncos coach Kenji Yamane deserves a short vacation from work-related stress, wouldn’t you say?

Or better yet he should hire Rick Barry, the underhanded free-throw wizard, to help Saitama cure its charity-stripe woes.

FLASHBACK: Osaka topped Niigata 85-84 in double overtime last Saturday, rallying from a 51-39 deficit after three quarters to force OT.

Washington had 22 points and David Palmer had 21, including 9-for-10 from the line, for Osaka.

Niigata’s Matt Garrison had a game-high 24 points.

After 50 minutes of intense basketball, the teams combined for 167 shots from the field and 132 rebounds, 76 of which were credited to Osaka. (Here’s a thought: The Evessa’s stat crew deserves a mini-vacation now, too.)

In their Sunday rematch, 5,192 fans showed up to see a well-played clash.

Led by Palmer’s game-high 27-point effort, the Evessa defeated the Albirex 97-92.

Backcourt mates Makoto Hasegawa and Daiki Terashita (18 points apiece) led the Niigata offense.

Host Sendai topped Oita 94-88 on Saturday, using a 9-for-17 output from 3-point range to offset its 13-rebound deficit. Michael Chappell (29 points) and Mamadou Diouf (25) paced the 89ers, while Andy Ellis’ 34 points led the HeatDevils.

A day later, Ellis erupted for 40 in Oita’s 92-89 triumph. Ellis’ productivity was aided by Marshall’s season-high nine-assist game.

Diouf had a monster double-double (33 points, 24 boards) in defeat.

Forward Nate James had his season-best game in Toyama’s 105-102 OT victory over visiting Tokyo on Saturday, scoring 29 and pulling down 19 boards.

The Apache’s John Humphrey scored 40 in defeat and teammate Kohei Aoki had 24, his top output of 2006-07.

The Grouses trounced Tokyo 92-67 in the series finale as Nile Murry and Han Dae Kyun both scored 21 points.

Dameion Baker had 19 points for the Apache, a game in which Humphrey missed due to a left wrist injury. He’s not expected to play for another two weeks.

Host Takamatsu routed Saitama 97-84 on Saturday. Yu Okada and Isaac Sojourner scored 19 points apiece for the winners, the latter matching his third-best scoring outing of the season.

The Broncos’ Kosuke Shimizu, an Osaka product, had a season-high 22-point effort.

In a season of disappointment, the weekend ended on a positive note for Saitama, which eked out a 79-74 win over the Five Arrows.

Led by David Benoit’s 16 points, five Broncos scored in double figures.

Reggie Warren scored 22 for Takamatsu, which outworked Saitama on the offensive glass all afternoon (25-10), but went 10-for-23 from the line.

UPCOMING GAMES: On Saturday and Sunday, Sendai plays host to Takamatsu at 3 p.m. both days. In other matchups, it is Toyama vs. Osaka (6:30 and 1:30), Tokyo vs. Saitama (6 and 2) and Oita vs. Niigata (5 and 1).