Parker driving Fukuoka into prime playoff position


Rizing Fukuoka coach Tadaharu Ogawa likes to keep things simple. Sure, he reminds his players about basic strategies before, during and after games, but he understands the value of simplicity.

Or as guard Kohei Mitomo put it: “As coach Ogawa always says, ‘Focus on the game for 40 minutes.’ “

The Rizing have been one of the bj-league’s most dangerous teams this season. Entering this weekend’s two-game road trip to Okinawa to face the reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings, Fukuoka (26-18) is involved in a riveting three-way battle for the Western Conference regular-season title.

The Golden Kings (27-17) and the red-hot Osaka Evessa (26-16), winners of eight straight games, are ahead of the Kyushu-based club in the standings, but Ogawa’s team has positioned itself as a legitimate title contender, thanks to tenacious defense (a league-high 476 steals for starters) and a balanced offensive attack (82.9 points per game, No. 2 in the league).

All-Star forward Michael Parker is the club’s tone-setter at both ends of the floor. He leads the league in scoring (26.7 ppg), steals (2.8) and minutes (1,768), is fourth in both dunks (1.4) and blocked shots (1.7) and eighth in rebounds (11.2).

In addition, Parker embraces his role as a leader.

“I’m happy to be a leader,” said Parker in a recent phone interview. “Well, I mean, I am definitely looked to as one of the leaders. I’ve been here for three years.

“For me, Tsuyoshi (Kawazura) and Mitomo, we just take the roles that coach Ogawa and the assistant coaches gave us, and between us three we get it done.”

Ogawa recognizes the impact Parker has made, but stresses a team-first attitude instead of giving credit to a single player.

“Parker is not the only player, but he is one of the players who supports the team mentally with captain Kawazura,” Ogawa said. “But he always plays all-around basketball.”

Like the rest of the league, the Rizing have made roster changes this season in an effort to find ways to improve. They’ve added a pair of big men in Thiago Cordeiro and Sylvester Morgan to complement a solid nucleus, including Marlyn Bryant (15.9 ppg), Mitomo (9.9), Richard Ford Jr. (9.4) and Kawazura, the steady point guard (172 assists, 38 turnovers).

“In the Western Conference this season, there is pretty much the same potential on each team,” said Ogawa, the ex-Oita HeatDevils coach who stressed communication as a priority when he took over as coach after former bench boss John Neumann’s two-year stint with Fukuoka.

The Rizing have won seven of eight games against Ogawa’s ex-club, which is currently in fifth place, but have gone 0-4 against the Evessa. They are 2-2 against the Golden Kings and 4-2 against the fourth-place Shiga Lakestars.

“One of the reasons why each team is at the same level is each team did get good players,” Ogawa noted.

He added: “Our goal is (to reach) the top of the mountain, to win a championship, of course. But what we have to do right now is win each game that is in front of us. . .”

Despite having a new coach in place, Parker remains the top scoring option, and he’s comfortable with that challenge.

“Since I’ve been playing with these guys they know how I play,” said Parker, who starred at Evergreen (Wash.) State, a school with an enrollment of 4,400 for the 2009-10 academic year. “They pretty much want me to have the ball and it’s pretty much understood what my role is with this team.

“It worked out that this is the role that I could take.”

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One of the oldest sayings in team sports — “Defense wins championships” — remains a staple of the Rizing’s identity, specifically in how the team goes about disrupting the offensive game plans of their opponents.

Parker and Mitomo both said Ogawa doesn’t yell and scream about the need to collect a certain number of steals per game. Instead, he takes a more subtle approach.

“He basically puts us in positions to make the steals,” Parker said.

Neumann laid the foundation for Fukuoka’s sustained success on defense, according to Parker.

“We’ve been playing super pressure team defense for two years before Ogawa got here, so it’s ingrained in us. Now it’s just natural for us,” Parker said.

Individual skills and collective anticipation unite Parker and his teammates in their quest to frustrate foes.

“We all have that focus when we know that we are going to try to get a steal,” Parker said.

Reacting to a defender and tipping passes are all a part of the equation, helping Parker collect 124 steals, with 74 more for Masahiro Kano, 60 for Kawazura and 53 for Mitomo.

“It’s not just one person stripping the ball to get a steal,” said Parker, who likened the endeavor as similar to a hockey player being credited with a second assist on a goal.