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Erratic HeatDevils struggling to find formula for return to playoffs


The Oita HeatDevils have played 16 basketball games this season. In that time, they’ve proven one thing: They are as unpredictable as the presidential election polls in the United States.

Oita has won eight games, lost eight games and struggled to maintain a rhythm from one game to the next.

The HeatDevils have already played nine games combined against two Western Conference foes: the Takamatsu Five Arrows (losing three of four) and the Ryukyu Golden Kings (winning four of six). And now they’ll face their first test of the season against the league’s standard-bearers of excellence, the Osaka Evessa (13-3).

Oita coach Dai Oketani, who celebrated his 30th birthday two days before Christmas, now prepares his team to play host to the Western Conference’s first-place team on Saturday and Sunday.

The HeatDevils are coming off an 85-81 home loss to the Rizing Fukuoka (8-8) last Sunday. Oita won its first game of 2008 by eight points on Jan. 4.

Last spring, the HeatDevils secured the fourth and final playoff spot with a 22-18 regular-season record.

This spring, a similar record appears likely. Oita is 4-4 at home and 4-4 on the road. The team’s longest losing streak is three games; its longest winning streak is three. It has also put together a win-loss-win-loss stretch on two occasions.

The HeatDevils are one of the league’s top offensive clubs, scoring 89.3 points per game. But they are giving up 88.1. That plus-1.2 scoring margin is a number Oketani and Co. want to widen. (Interestingly enough, the Niigata Albirex BB, who are 10-8, are producing and yielding 83.3 ppg.)

Point guard Tsubasa Yonamine has emerged as one of the league’s top playmakers and averages 5.9 assists per game (No. 2 in the league behind Ryukyu Golden Kings floor leader Naoto Takushi’s 6.4). Playing smart, steady ball this season, he has dished out 95 assists while turning the ball over just 24 times. He had similar output in 2006-07 (80 assists, 22 turnovers).

Oita also remains one of the league’s top rebounding clubs.

Four players — guard Jason Braxton and forwards Justin Allen, Chris Ayer and Andy Ellis — have 100 or more rebounds. And shooting guard Yukinori Suzuki gives the team a proven commodity game after game, knocking down 3-pointers with regularity (34 of 59) and scoring 12.1 ppg.

Ellis, a power forward, leads the league with 25.2 ppg. A second-year HeatDevil, he’s established himself as a scoring presence inside and from the outside, where he’s attempted 95 of Oita’s 295 3-point attempts.

A closer look at the numbers also reveals the HeatDevils could be a more aggressive team at both ends of the floor.

Consider: Oita has 19 dunks in 16 games.

It’s the notion here that a more concerted effort to attack the rack would force defenders to adjust their strategy when playing the HeatDevils.

Defensively, risk-taking can create more opportunities on the break. For instance, Oita’s 86 steals are much less than the bj-league’s winningest clubs, the Eastern Conference-leading Sendai 89ers (133 takeaways) and the Evessa (121).

In the final outcome of games, Oita has suffered due to its poor free-throw shooting. It has made 229 of 370 free throws and lost five games by single digits.

Ellis remains a liability at the charity stripe, where he’s 59-for-102 (61.9 percent).

Allen (30-for-62) and Ayer (21-for-39) have also struggled to convert foul shots at a respectable ratio.

THIS WEEK: Sendai (12-4) faces Fukuoka in a two-game set in Tohoku, starting with a Friday night contest. This week’s two other series begin on Saturday.

The Saitama Broncos (7-9) take on visiting Niigata, while the 9-7 Tokyo Apache, with four straight losses on their ledger, look to rebound against the Toyama Grouses (2-16) at Ariake Colosseum.

The Ryukyu Golden Kings (4-14) and Five Arrows have the weekend off.

TV TIME: Apache coach Joe Bryant will appear in a taped segment on NHK 3’s “Eigo de Shaberanaito” (Can You Speak English?) program on Friday morning from 10:45 a.m. to 11 a.m. The show will also air on Jan. 17 (10 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.) and Jan. 18 (10:45 a.m. to 11 a.m.).

On Friday evening at 6:25, Tokyo MX News will televise a short segment on the Apache, including highlights of recent games against the Evessa and 89ers and an interview with All-Star guard Cohey Aoki.