Now that the bj-league’s Western Conference finalists are set with the Osaka Evessa and the Ryukyu Golden Kings, the spotlight falls on a quartet of Eastern Conference squads this weekend.
The top-seeded Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (36-16) and No. 4 Niigata Albirex BB (24-28) will meet on Saturday and Sunday in a conference semifinal series. The winner of that series will face the Tokyo Apache-Sendai 89ers victor in the Eastern Conference final on May 16 at Ariake Colosseum.
The second-seeded Apache (33-19) defeated the third-seeded 89ers (31-21) in six of eight regular-season contests, but that fact won’t play a prominent role in this weekend’s series at Ariake, according to Tokyo coach Joe Bryant.
“Sendai’s a good team,” Bryant said in a recent interview. “We’ve played them over the past four years and they’re always the same. They always give 100 percent, they are always well coached and they are always well prepared, so it should be a fun series.”
Bryant considers 200-cm forward Josh Peppers, an explosive scorer, a difficult defensive assignment for his club. Peppers was the league’s second-leading scorer (22.2 points per game) in 2007-08 while playing for the Rizing Fukuoka.
This season, Peppers averaged 15.5 ppg in 25 games. He was released by the Phoenix in November, but made an immediate impact in his 89ers debut, hitting the game-winning shot and scoring nine points in a three-point win over the Evessa on March 14.
Peppers played in Sendai’s final 14 games, and coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s club went 10-4 in that span. When the regular season concluded, the 89ers had six players finish with 100 or more assists, including Kenichi Takahashi’s team-high 197.
The squad also had four double-digit scorers: Bobby St. Preux (21.6 ppg), Rodney Webb (19.2), Peppers and Chris Holm (15.0; he also led the league in rebounds with 15.6 per game).
Bryant said when Sendai puts Peppers, Webb and St. Preux on the floor at the same time he’ll need to make an important decision.
“(With those) three players, they are very quick, and my decision, our decision, will have to be: Do we stay big or do we go small?” Bryant said, citing a factor that could be critical in this series.
With forwards Nick Davis, Julius Ashby and Tizzo Johnson, whom Bryant refers to as his big lineup, the Apache can match up with Sendai’s tall forwards. Veteran frontcourt players Dameion Baker and Jumpei Nakama give the Apache more speed when they step onto the court.
This will be the Apache’s third playoff appearance in four seasons. They qualified for the postseason in the bj-league’s first season and lost to Osaka in the title game last spring.
“I’m excited about going to the playoffs again, and this is what basketball is really about — these moments. This is what you play for during the regular season to get a chance to have home-court advantage and be able to be in the playoffs and compete for a championship,” Bryant said.
“And over the four years we’ve built a team that can compete for a championship each year, and I think that’s an important thing. And it really starts with the Japanese players, and I think we have a good foundation with them.”
In the final regular-season series between the Apache and 89ers, the teams split the two games. Tokyo collected a 103-83 road victory on April 19 and Sendai answered with an 82-71 win the next day. The Apache had 15 turnovers in that game, and Sendai turned those miscues into 26 points, according to Bryant.
Analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, Bryant said he believes his team’s deep bench will be the deciding factor in this series.
Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura’s team, which made the jump from the JBL to the bj-league after last season, has gone 6-2 against Niigata this season.
Speedy guard Michael Gardener (25.5 ppg) and swingman Marcus Morrison (17.8 ppg) are Hamamatsu’s primary scorers. The team, which led the league with 90.7 points per game, becomes more dangerous when post players Stanley Ocitti (9.6 ppg) and 236-cm behemoth Sun Ming Ming (7.7) command double teams in the paint, which frees up space on the perimeter for the team’s other players.
The Albirex, who went 6-4 in the regular season’s final 10 games, rely on a more balanced approach on offense.
Forward Antonio Burks, who made his season debut on Jan. 5 after recovering from a broken foot, and Akitomo Takeno are the team’s top scorers with 13.0 ppg apiece. Burks played his best offensive stretch at the season’s end, scoring 10 or more points in five of the final six games.
Yuichi Ikeda and Emmanuel Little (12.8 ppg apiece) and Paul Butorac (10.1) are the team’s other double-digit scorers. Makoto Hasegawa, the league’s oldest player at age 38, adds veteran stability at the point.
If the Albirex need a basket, they often turn to budding star Takeno, who shot 41.3 percent from 3-point range this season.
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