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Albirex look to solidify third seed for playoffs


Think of a 52-game basketball season as a series of 40-minute examinations.

It’s quite difficult for anyone to ace all of their exams, and it’s just as daunting a task for a basketball team to rack up superb scores — and wins — in each of its games. That’s why every team has a series of highlights and low lights every season.

Take the Niigata Albirex BB, for instance.

They started the season with a 2-8 record, looking nothing like a playoff contender in the process. Then they rattled off six straight wins, including a victory the day after Christmas to return to respectability.

Since the All-Star break, the Albirex have won six of 14 games and enter the weekend with a 20-20 record (9-9 at home, 11-11 on the road).

Coach Masaya Hirose’s club endured a recent 10-game stretch without its starting center, Paul Butorac, who had a hand injury. During his absence, the team was 4-6.

In three consecutive weekends without Butorac (16.6 points and a whisker below 10 rebounds per contest), the Albirex played three of the league’s top four teams. They went 1-1 against the Rizing Fukuoka on Feb. 13-14 at home, and then split a road series against the Western Conference-leading Ryukyu Golden Kings the next weekend before being swept by the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 team, the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, on Feb. 27-28.

Niigata suffered a 37-point defeat to Hamamatsu in the series finale, the type of loss that players and coaches can use as a learning tool, numerous reminders about what not to do in the playoffs.

Butorac is back in the lineup for Niigata. He’s scored 10, 14, 18 and nine points in those games and the Albirex are 2-2 since his return, including a sweep over the Saitama Broncos last weekend.

A team’s character is tested during difficult stretches of the season, and individual players react differently to the highs and lows of any season.

It will be interesting to see how the Albirex, who are in position to be the East’s third seed in the playoffs, manage their final 12 games of the season.

One thing is certain: The team would like bigger production from starting small forward Yuichi Ikeda, who has had a rough stretch as a shooter as of late.

After scoring nine or more points in 12 of 13 games between Jan. 16 and March 6, Ikeda, an All-Star, has a combined 14 points over the last five games. He’s 4-for-23 from the field in that time, including 2-for-12 on 3-point shots.

Niigata plays host to the Toyama Grouses (14-26) this weekend. Also scheduled for the weekend are the following series: Hamamatsu (32-8) vs. Tokyo Apache (15-25), teams that could meet in the first round of the playoffs; Shiga Lakestars (22-20), coming off a bye, vs. Ryukyu (27-15); Sendai 89ers (27-13), whose 10-game winning streak was snapped last week by Tokyo, vs. Saitama Broncos (13-27), who have lost six straight; Kyoto Hannaryz (14-26) vs. Takamatsu Five Arrows (11-31) and Osaka Evessa (24-16), winners of six straight, vs. Fukuoka (26-16).

League accolades: Phoenix guard Wayne Arnold, who scored 21 points in both games against Toyama last weekend, is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week, it was announced.

Rizing star Michael Parker was selected as the league’s MVP for March.

Parker averaged 28.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.5 steals during the month.

Arnold, a Tennessee State product, was 6-for-9 on 3-point shots on Saturday and drained 3 of 8 shots from long range in the series finale. He leads the league in 3-point shooting (42.9 percent).

Arnold joined Hamamatsu in February and made an instant impact. He’s averaging 16.3 ppg.

Commitment to defense: Sendai forward Josh Peppers believes his team has made a concerted effort to be a top-notch defensive team this season.

“Basically, it’s the same philosophy (as last year), but more focus now,” Peppers said in a recent interview.

He said the team’s spread-the-wealth offense is another key to success.

The 89ers’ recent winning streak and the team’s league-low 71.9 points allowed serve as reminders that coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s club is focusing on the big picture.

“He truly believes we have a championship-caliber team,” Peppers said of his coach.

Peppers has played parts of two seasons with Sendai. He started the 2008-09 season with Hamamatsu, and didn’t play his first bj-league game this season until after the calendar flipped to 2010.

As Hamaguchi has matured as a coach, Peppers observed, his focus on defense has increased.

“He takes pride in that,” said Peppers, a former University of Central Florida standout. “We are definitely making people take notice of the way we play defense. We are doing the right things. . . . And I really feel we are going to keep getting better.”

It starts in practice.

According to Peppers’ the 89ers’ intensity level in practice is noticeably harder this season, too. That effort has carried over to games.

In practice, he said, “intrasquad scrimmages are like games; we go all-out against each other.”

No surprise: Tokyo guard Rasheed Sparks, who played the previous three seasons for Takamatsu, isn’t shocked that ex-teammate Yu Okada has emerged as one of the league’s top scorers and a much-improved defender.

“He’s playing like I always knew he could play,” were the words Sparks used to summarize Okada’s fourth season in the league.

Sparks said Okada sees the floor better now, picking up on opponent’s tendencies while playing defense and making quicker adjustments while on offense. He said Okada has been able to “find that rhythm” at both ends of the floor to have greater success this season.

In short, Sparks said the talented Japanese guard is developing into a complete player.

Okada, a noted 3-point shooter, is currently No. 10 in the league in scoring (18.8 ppg) and second in steals (2.4).

Did you know?: The Miyazaki Shining Suns, who joined the league as an expansion team for the 2010-11 season, have unveiled the team’s logo in its various sizes and shapes.

Check it out on Web: www.plus-blog.sportsnavi.com/miyazaki-basketball

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send ideas to staff writer Ed Odeven.

Contact Ed Odeven at: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp