Three teams are in the hunt for the Eastern Conference’s fourth and final playoff berth. But in a month a clearer picture should emerge as to which team will be the favorite.
Right now, though, the Toyama Grouses (14-22), Saitama Broncos (13-24) and Tokyo Apache (13-24) all have a legitimate shot at earning a playoff spot.
The Tokyo-Saitama series began on Wednesday and wrapped up on Thursday at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2. The Broncos, coming short on a spirited fourth-quarter comeback, dropped the opener 88-82.
It was their 12th single-digit loss of the season, and their fourth loss in five games against Tokyo. Call it a microcosm of the Broncos’ entire season.
“All we can do right now is keep our heads up and keep battling,” said Saitama center Terrence Roberts, speaking after his team’s home loss to the Oita HeatDevils on Sunday. Oita swept Saitama last weekend.
Roberts believes Saitama’s troubles boil down to a simple fact: The team has under-achieved. He said first-year coach Masato Fukushima has done the best job he can.
“I really felt like the coach has the utmost confidence in his players, and really at the same time we haven’t really been getting it done as a unit this year,” said Roberts, who played college ball at Syracuse University in New York. “I felt like he did the best of his ability to keep us together and keep us working hard to try to get to the playoffs.
“His ultimate goal for us was he wanted to pretty much keep the same team he started with. He felt we had the talent early and things just really haven’t gone our way.
“He wants us to be able to fight through it to the best of our abilities and make it happen.”
Roberts isn’t interested in making excuses for the Broncos’ two-point loss on Saturday and their seven-point defeat on Sunday.
“It was tough,” he said. “We can sit around and we can try to blame the refs, we can try to blame coaching, we can try to blame this or we can try to blame that, but in the end, we just didn’t get it done.
“Yesterday (Saturday) we had ample opportunities and we had a bunch of times where we had fast-break layups we could have had and we ended up turning the ball over.
“We just have to be better as a unit. We have a lot of times in a lot of our games where we have two or three people on the same page, and the other two or three people (aren’t). And a lot of the teams out here are good because they are better as a unit.”
The rebuilding Broncos, without a core group of returning players, haven’t found the proper mix of power and finesse to consistently beat other clubs.
“To me, the best teams in the league are the teams that have played together for maybe a year or two, so maybe they know each other a lot better,” said Roberts, who’s averaging 11.3 points per game.
“We first have to get that chemistry.”
So what are the keys for Saitama to turn things around in the final weeks of the regular season?
“The keys for us are going to not just be for our Americans to stay consistent, but we are going to need two or maybe three Japanese players to really come up and be able to get in double figures in scoring,” Roberts said.
“If you look at it, a lot of these other teams have that consistency from the natives, the Japanese players. They have a guy that comes in averaging over 10 points a game. I think our highest Japanese scorer right now is Taishiro (Shimizu) and he’s at seven points per game.
“But we have to be more consistent and get it night in and night out. I really feel if we get that consistency from them it helps us, it opens the floor for us and that’ll help us be more consistent . . . .
“If you look at the games we’ve won, it’s where Yuki (Kitamuki) has hit three or four 3-pointers, (Daiki) Terashita has had 16 or Jay (Kazuya Hatano) has come in and if he starts he gives us great minutes or if he comes off the bench he’s giving us great minutes. . . . Those are the games we need more of.”
Upcoming schedule: The Shiga Lakestars (21-19) play host to the Rizing Fukuoka (23-15) on Saturday and Sunday. Shiga is 1-3 against Fukuoka this season. The Sendai 89ers (24-12), meanwhile, will look to extend their winning streak to eight games in their opener against visiting Toyama.
Elsewhere, it’s Oita (18-22) vs. the Takamatsu Five Arrows (11-27) and the Osaka Evessa (20-16) vs. the Kyoto Hannaryz (14-22).
The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (30-8), the Niigata Albirex BB (18-20) and the Ryukyu Golden Kings (26-14) have the weekend off.
The Phoenix have officially clinched a playoff spot, and the league recognized the accomplishment by crafting a blog entry about it earlier this week.
League accolade: Sendai forward Josh Peppers is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week, the league announced on Tuesday.
Peppers, who’s averaging a team-high 17.1 points ppg, has helped the 89ers cement their place as the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference. Last weekend, he had 17- and 19-point performances as Sendai earned a road sweep against Niigata.
In the series opener, the former University of Central Florida standout also blocked three shots in Sendai’s 68-57 win.
Peppers has scored in double digits in 13 of 14 games since making his season debut in January. In eight of those contests, he’s attempted five or more free throws, a reminder of his ability to create headaches for opposing defenses.
The Marshall Plan: By adding veteran leader Mikey Marshall to the mix, the Lakestars have picked up a versatile standout, a guy who helped Osaka win its third title in 2007-08.
“He’s a solid player offensively and defensively,” Shiga center Ray Schaefer said at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium, when the Lakestars faced the Apache in their series opener on March 6. “And on top of that, he’s a veteran who knows how to win. . . . He knows a lot of the Japanese guys as well.”
Teammates and foes have spoken highly of Marshall in the past, and that has continued since his March return to Japan.
“I vouch for that already,” Schaefer said. “He respects himself, he respects others. He’s the kind of person that attracts respect.
“He’s a smart defender, a good shooter and a clever passer.”
Marshall has played in the Middle East over the past season and a half and was working out in Texas when Shiga offered him a contract for the remainder of the season.
In Marshall’s first four games, he’s scored 12, 16, 17 and 24 points, helping Shiga post a 3-1 record in that span. He’s averaging just over 6.0 rebounds per game and swatted three shots in the Lakestars’ win last Sunday over the Grouses.
Impressive condition: Hannaryz guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s 41st birthday on March 9 didn’t go without notice.
Oita coach Brian Rowsom, for one, considers the veteran guard’s performance this season to be something special.
After all, players a dozen years younger than Abdul-Rauf, who is scoring 16.7 ppg this season, struggle to put up equally solid numbers. He’s had four 20-point outings in the past five games.
“He’s 41 years old and he’s playing pretty good,” Rowsom said on Sunday in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, before his team boarded a bus and returned to Kyushu. “I’m 44 and I can’t run one time (down the court), so he’s doing very good to play this long.
“He took care of his body, though, so that’s very important.”
Difficult choice: Broncos coach Fukushima isn’t ready to decide which player is Saitama’s MVP this season. He’ll wait until the season’s over to finalize his choice.
For now, though, he says Mario Jointer and Roberts have been the team’s most consistent players.
Steady defender: Masahiro Kano, whose role with the Rizing Fukuoka doesn’t include a lot of high-scoring games, has quietly made his mark as a defensive standout.
Kano is averaging 1.8 steals per game. That’s good enough for the eighth-best total in the league. He has three five-steal games this season and a seven-steal game as well.
Playoff-bound teams always have role players, and Kano is filling his role consistently.
Special TV program: GAORA has produced a TV program that highlights the humble beginnings of the Ryukyu Golden Kings as an expansion team two seasons ago to the league’s championship team under Dai Oketani in his first season as coach in 2008-09.
“The Miracle of the Golden Kings” will debut on March 29 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Repeat broadcasts, also in Japanese, are scheduled for March 31 (7 a.m. to 8 a.m.), April 3 (12:45 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.), April 7 (11 a.m. to noon) and April 18 (4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.).
The last word: “We’re really going to fight for that final playoff spot. It starts in practice. In games, we realize that we have no margin for error.” — Matt Lottich, Oita guard on the team’s uphill battle to secure a playoff spot.