Coaches and players have stated on many occasions this season that the bj-league is an ultra-competitive league and that there are no guaranteed victories, especially in the second game of a two-game series.
The fourth-year league is in the early stages of a drag-it-out, 15-round boxing match, so to speak, that reminds one of the mid-1970s epic heavyweight bouts featuring Muhammad Ali against fistic rivals George Foreman, Ken Norton and Joe Frazier. And you don’t need to be a boxing fan to appreciate this fact.
In other words, as the season moves closer to the midway point, the league’s parity is a good thing.
Nine of the 12 teams have eight or more victories, including the Western Conference-leading Ryukyu Golden Kings (14-4) and the Eastern Conference’s top team, the Tokyo Apache (11-5). In fact, only three teams are four or more games under .500: the Oita HeatDevils (4-14), the Toyama Grouses (4-12) and the Niigata Albirex BB (6-10).
The Golden Kings seem to have a different player each game whose statistics jump out at you when you glance at the box score. For instance, on Nov. 22, Jeff Newton’s 40 points and 30 rebounds were the attention-getting numbers. On Nov. 8, Naoto Takushi’s eight points, eight rebounds, nine assists and 10 steals produced a similar effect.
Last weekend’s statistical giants included Anthony McHenry, who had 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a six-point victory on Saturday over the Osaka Evessa, and Shigeyuki Kinjo, who had 20 points and attempted a season-high 11 free throws (nine makes).
Kinjo was 5-for-5 from 3-point range in a 21-point effort on Sunday as Ryukyu improved to 11-1 at home. Takushi led the Golden Kings with 10 assists in the series finale, and in the opener Yosuke Sugawara earned his first start of the season and took advantage of the opportunity, finishing with a team-best and personal-best seven assists (he had a season total of 10 entering the game).
In addition, you can’t overlook the energy and productivity Bryan Simpson gives Ryukyu off the bench. His 25 dunks and 96 rebounds in 383 minutes provide ample evidence that he maximizes his time on the court.
Now the Golden Kings shift their focus to this weekend’s series against the Rizing, who have won three of their last four games to position themselves one game behind the fourth-place Shiga Lakestars in the Western Conference standings. That’s an impressive achievement when you consider that John Neumann’s club began the season with six losses in their first seven games.
Fukuoka is 5-5 on the road, but only 3-5 at home. Veteran point guard Tsuyoshi Kawazura, who scored a season-best 19 points on Sunday against the HeatDevils, might be the X-factor for the Rizing. When Kawazura is playing at his best, Fukuoka’s offense flourishes, as evidenced by the team’s 4-2 record when he has six or more assists.
Stepping up: Apache forward Tizzo Johnson, a 27-year-old product of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, rose to the challenge on Sunday. Just hours after the Tokyo Apache’s embarrassing 118-78 loss to the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix at Ariake Colosseum on Saturday, Johnson played his best game of the season.
Johnson put 20 points on the board, pulled down 11 rebounds and handed out four assists. He set a season-high output for points, grabbed the most rebounds since he had 13 in Tokyo’s season opener and matched his top assist output. What’s more, the only athlete in Japan called Tizzo shot 10 free throws, knocking down eight of them. And so there was a satisfied coach in the postgame news conference.
“The person I was really happy for is Tizzo Johnson,” Apache coach Joe Bryant said after Sunday’s game. “He’s a wonderful kid, a nice kid, no problems . . . and he played very, very well for us today.”
Around the league: Five Arrows power forward Gordon James is the lone player averaging more than two slam dunks per game. He has jammed the ball through the hoop 34 times in 16 games (2.1 average). . . . After four- and three-point outings on Nov. 8-9, Lakestars center Ray Schafer has rattled off double-digit efforts in the past 10 games, including a season-high 29 in a win over the Five Arrows last Saturday. . . . Sendai 89ers point guard Takehiko Shimura has a knack for making smart decisions with the basketball, with 71 assists and 21 turnovers to prove this point.
Looking ahead: The Sendai 89ers (9-9), play host to the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (8-10) this weekend. Also scheduled: Niigata vs. Tokyo, Saitama Broncos (10-8) vs. Toyama, Osaka Evessa (10-8) vs. Shiga Lakestars (9-9), Takamatsu Five Arrows (11-5) vs. Oita HeatDevils and Fukuoka vs. Ryukyu.
The last word: “When John (Humphrey) has the choice where we don’t have to depend on John to score 20 or 30 points, that makes us much more dangerous,” Bryant said, reflecting on the two-time scoring champion’s six-assist game on Sunday, a day in which Masashi Joho was the top Tokyo scorer with 24 points. Humphrey finished with 12.