Despite a 36-win regular season, the best record in the Eastern Conference, and a trip to the Final Four, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura didn’t describe his team’s first season in the bj-league as a resounding success.

It’s a reminder that the veteran coach has high standards and a fierce desire to win.

“We ended up landing not where we wanted to,” Nakamura said after his team’s 91-85 victory over the Osaka Evessa in Sunday’s third-place game at Ariake Colosseum.

The Phoenix made the difficult transition from the JBL to the bj-league this season. Nakamura’s club acquired a 236-center/project Sun Ming Ming, one of the world’s tallest people and a man bigger than any player in NBA history, and point guard Michael Gardener, who finished as the league’s third-leading scorer and top assist maker.

For the team’s returning Japanese players, it was a season of adjustment.

“We had never played basketball until April and May, because in the JBL you wrap up your season in March,” Nakamura said, reminding reporters of the 35-game JBL season. “It was so hard on us, it really was.”

The team learned a valuable lesson, though.

“We went through fifty-something games thinking of so many things,” the coach said. “The bottom line is, maybe you better play taking some rest (before entering playoffs). But this experience will pay off.”

Hamamatsu will begin the 2009-10 season as the East’s defending regular-season champion. That fact, however, won’t mean much to Nakamura.

“I personally say finishing second is the same as finishing last,” he said, a simple reminder that he’s not a big fan of winning a consolation final.

In other words, the Phoenix’s championship aspirations were not achieved.

Nevertheless, it was a successful season for the club in its first season in the bj-league. Reaching the Final Four is never an easy task.

A high-scoring, high-energy team, Hamamatsu forced the Tokyo Apache to employ a triangle-and-two defense to contain Gardener and Marcus Morrison in the Eastern Conference final on Saturday.

Apache coach Joe Bryant’s strategy paid off, as Gardener was held to 14 points (more than 11 points below his season average) and turned the ball over 11 times in an 89-84 loss to Tokyo.

After that game, Nakamura spoke to his players in the locker room and answered questions from reporters. And then he was off to an all-night meeting.

“After we went back (to the hotel) last night, I talked with our coaches about our plans for next season until about 5 o’clock in the morning,” Nakamura said Sunday afternoon. “So for today’s third-place game, I kept sitting on the chair so I wouldn’t fall down, because I didn’t have any sleep.”

He’ll have time to rest in the offseason, but his team’s up-and-down play over the weekend may give him insomnia.

“Ming Ming’s offense was better than yesterday,” the coach said, referring to a six-point, nine-rebound game against Tokyo and a 13-point, three-block effort against Osaka.

Analyzing the way Gardener played over the weekend — 14 points on 4-for-13 shooting against Tokyo; 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting against Osaka — the coach dished out these remarks:

“As for Michael, I was expecting that he would show his game in these two days (of the Final Four), but he didn’t.”

By the way, it would be wise if Nakamura chose to limit Gardener to less than 10 3-point attempts a game. By doing so, he’ll make the team’s offense a more dangerous, balanced attack.

You can’t blame Nakamura for expressing disappointment about his team’s play in the Final Four, especially when a title was within its reach, but there were other positive signs that should be pointed out.

Forward Stanley Ocitti demonstrated his ability to be a featured part of the offense. On Saturday, he made 6 of 10 3-point shots and scored a team-high 22 points. On Sunday, he was 4-for-9 from 3-point range and scored 18 points, while finishing with 15 rebounds and six assists, one steal and one blocked shot in 29 minutes.

The team should consider re-signing Ocitti. And even if his statistics don’t remind anyone of Wilt Chamberlain’s, Sun attracts attention for the team and the league and helps, as plenty of marketing-savvy types would say, put fans in the seats.

Gardener ought to be a welcome sight for a second year with the team, too.

But it’s safe to suggest that the Phoenix wouldn’t complain if the league agreed to reimburse them for the 160-kg Sun’s food and transportation bills this season.

“He is so expensive due to his size,” Nakamura said. “He eats double, he takes up twice as much space in a bus, etc.

“The commissioner’s office tells us to sign him, but they don’t pay him but we do. So if they want him back, they should pay some money,” he added with a laugh.

Will Sun return to the team next season?

“I don’t know,” the coach said. “The odds that he stays with the team are 50-50, I’d say. It was 30-70 before today’s game but he showed some good plays today.”

This included two slam dunks, three blocks and a gigantic presence in the paint to alter the movement of Osaka players (around him) and their general approach to taking shots (as far away from his massive wing span as possible).

Two-time league MVP Lynn Washington used the words “massive” and “surreal” to describe Sun’s sheer size, echoing the comments made by his Evessa teammate Ryan Blackwell, who said the basketball looks like a tennis ball in Sun’s extra-large hands.

Looking to the future, Nakamura wants to turn 206-cm center Atsuya Ota, the tallest Japanese player in the bj-league, and guard/forward Shingo Okada into dependable contributors. Their production in the playoffs was less than satisfactory, according to the coach, and Nakamura believes the 24-year-old Ota and the 25-year-old Okada have room for growth but haven’t fulfilled their potential yet.

“We wanted to grow them up by any means,” Nakamura said. “Okada showed some development, but we must do something with this Ota kid. I mean, I can’t forgive him because he’s got so much talent. He just lacks mental strength. His father and mother were here for the playoffs, but they were holding their heads low because of their son. I want to show a better Ota to them.”

Yes, Nakamura is a demanding coach. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have fun coaching his team during the just-concluded bj-league season.

“There was a joy that you don’t feel in the JBL,” Nakamura said. “The fans are always enthusiastic. Basketball should be (fun). I’ve seen games in Europe, and they should be played in an atmosphere like this.

“The JBL is a company-oriented league, and there is a limit on corporate sports, I believe. There is no such enthusiasm like this over there. I mean, you saw more than 10,000 people (actually nearly 15,000) combined in the two days. You can’t think about it (in the JBL). Overall, we enjoyed the whole season.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this column.


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