The Rizing Fukuoka have quietly put together a solid stretch of games and now find themselves in the thick of things in the bj-league’s Western Conference.

Since starting the season with three straight losses, the Rizing have won four of their last five games.

Fukuoka (4-4) faces a big test this weekend, taking on the Western Conference’s first-place team, the Takamatsu Five Arrows (8-2), on Friday and Saturday at home.

Like a collection of winning essays by different authors, each of the Rizing’s victories has had distinct characteristics.

They earned victory No. 1 on Nov. 11 against the Oita HeatDevils, a 104-91 overtime decision. In that game, Jun Nakanishi (26 points), Michael Gardener (23), Jeffrey Price and Ndongo N’diaye (20 apiece) pushed the first-year expansion team to its historic victory.

Ten days later, John Neumann’s team recorded a 97-89 win over the Ryukyu Golden Kings. The Rizing started off with an overpowering first period, outscoring Ryukyu 34-19, and held on at the end.

In the Nov. 22 rematch, they topped the Golden Kings 100-90. This time, however, it dominated the fourth quarter, putting 35 points on the board and holding Hernando Planells’ team to 20.

After dropping the weekend opener against the Saitama Broncos last Saturday, the Rizing returned the favor on Sunday, eking out a 75-74 win. It was a game in which Fukuoka led by four points or less after each quarter.

So here Fukuoka sits, earning respect with a .500 club, with a solid foundation already in place.

Gardener leads the team in scoring, averaging 21.0 points per game. He’s third in the bj-league in that category. He’s also been a capable defender with a knack for steals. Case in point: He grabbed five takeaways in the Nov. 21 win and followed that up with four more in the next game.

Under Neumann’s guidance the Rizing have developed as a team that’s focused on playing as a team.

Already, the signs are encouraging.

Three players, Gardner (31 assists), Tsuyoshi Kawazura (26) and Nakanishi (25) are the primary ball-distributors. Which means the offense doesn’t run through one player only, and, of course, that creates more difficulties for opposing defenses to stick to one plan for an entire game.

Kawazura, the team’s oldest player at 32, has provided steady leadership in the backcourt.

He scored a season-high 16 points in the one-point win over the Broncos and has a 9.6 ppg output on his resume. What’s more, the Fukuoka native earns his share of high-fives due to the way he’s scoring (read: quality points) making the long shot with regularity like in a game of H-O-R-S-E (13-for-24 to be precise) and dropping free throws through the net with superb success (16-for-19).

N’diaye, a 214-cm center from Senegal, occupies a lot of real estate in the middle. His 18 blocked shots and 69 rebounds have been important, as has the attention he commands around the basket, setting picks and creating decoys for his team’s perimeter shooters.

All of the above has created a team built from scratch that is right where it wants to be: It has as many wins and losses. For any expansion team, that is the true measuring stick of success.

The Rizing Fukuoka are playing with confidence right now and have a chance to force themselves into the upper echelon of the Western Conference by winning twice against the Five Arrows.

In other matchups this weekend, the Toyama Grouses (0-10) take on the visiting Tokyo Apache (7-3) on Friday and Saturday, the Niigata Albirex BB (6-4) travel to face the Sendai 89ers (6-2) and the Osaka Evessa (7-3) play host to the Ryukyu Golden Kings (2-8).

The Oita Heat Devils (5-5) and the Saitama Broncos (3-7) have the weekend off.

MISCELLANY: HeatDevils big man Andy Ellis leads the league in scoring (25.7 ppg). Oita guard Jason Braxton is tops in field-goal percentage, converting 61.6 percent of his shots. Interestingly enough, Braxton has only attempted five 3-pointers. HeatDevils guard Yukinori Suzuki is the top 3-pointer shooter, making 56.5 percent of them (26-for-46). Five Arrows veteran forward Isaac Sojourner is No. 1 in free-throw shooting accuracy at 92.9 percent. Ellis is also No. 1 in minutes played (397), 30 more than Takamatsu power forward Reggie Warren.

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