A gripping drama is about to commence in March and April as the bj-league’s top seven Western Conference teams vie for six playoff spots. What’s more, the seven teams are within seven games of each other in the standings.

Entering this weekend, here’s the rundown of the conference that can aptly be dubbed the Wild, Wild West:

• Osaka and Ryukyu (22-14)

• Fukuoka (21-15)

• Shiga (20-16)

• Kyoto (18-18)

• Shimane (17-19 as an expansion team)

• Oita (15-21)

Only two of these seven teams had the same coach last season: Ryukyu’s Dai Oketani and Fukuoka’s Tadaharu Ogawa. But all feature a player capable of carrying their team to the Final Four, including Lynn Washington and Billy Knight (Osaka); Jeff Newton and David Palmer (Ryukyu); Michael Parker, Nile Murry and Akitomo Takeno (Fukuoka); Mikey Marshall, Masashi Joho, Yu Okada and Gary Hamilton (Shiga); Wendell White and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Kyoto); Reggie Golson and Takumi Ishizaki (Shimane); and Matt Lottich (Oita).

(Miyazaki, another expansion club is 12-24, while cash-strapped Takamatsu, which lacks depth, remains the league’s worst club at 8-28.)

Susanoo Magic bench boss Zeljko Pavlicevic, meanwhile, is certainly part of the conversation for Coach of the Year accolades.

The Lakestars ended their six-game losing streak last weekend, gaining a split against Toyama under Hirokazu Nema, who replaced Takatoshi Ishibashi as coach only days before.

The West’s top seven clubs all have .500 or better records at home despite the challenge of never truly having home-court advantage. Case in point: The West’s nine teams are using 47 home venues this season.

The seven-team Eastern Conference, on the other hand, can be summed up this way: defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa (32-4) and everybody else. One look at the standings explains why; the Phoenix are nine games ahead of second-place Sendai (22-12).

HeatDevils coach L.J. Hepp said consistent play has been the chief trait of Hamamatsu court tactician Kazuo Nakamura’s squad.

“The gap Hamamatsu has created between themselves and the rest of the league, in my opinion, simply comes down to consistency,” Hepp told The Japan Times. “Consistency is something we all strive for and Hamamatsu has put themselves on another level because of it. Certainly we are all motivated by their regular-season consistency.

“Many teams in our league are capable of beating them on any given night, but it rarely happens and Hamamatsu should be respected because of their ability to consistently perform at a high level. I personally feel that regular-season success has more value and should carry more weight than a tournament championship because of the consistency needed to win over a 52-game schedule.”

“Hamamatsu is not going to out-talent you — and that is not meant to be disrespectful to their players by any means — but is a compliment to how well they work together and the selflessness that comes with having a balanced team that plays with 10 players averaging roughly 20 minutes per game. . . . The fact that they have a physical Japanese post player (Atsuya Ota) certainly helps in differentiating themselves from the rest of the league.”

Pavlicevic likes his team’s chances of making steady improvement in the final two months of the season and securing a playoff spot as a first-year squad.

He pointed to a pair of recent games against the Phoenix as being indicative of his team’s scrappy, spirited play and a short chat he had with Nakamura proved that point.

“He said he wishes to play more games against us,” Pavlicevic recalled the Hamamatsu mentor saying, referring to the quality offense and defense from both sides.

In recent weeks, Shimane has taken important steps toward respectability, winning six of its last 10 games. This includes a confidence-boosting 104-77 defeat of Shiga on Feb. 6 and a 92-82 overtime loss to Hamamatsu on Jan. 29. The Magic swept the HeatDevils last weekend on the road — 71-66 and 62-54 — further evidence of improved all-around play.

“Sometimes, it’s impossible to stop everybody, but many games we did a good job (on defense), especially against Oita,” Pavlicevic said by phone on Monday.

“Against Oita, we had very, very nice defense. I’m very happy with the defense. I was on the bench like a fan. I’m a longtime coach, but I had this feeling that my team was doing very well on the court.”

Big man Jeral Davis had a profound impact on last weekend’s games with his dominating play on defense, including 12 blocked shots. He leads the league with 3.1 blocks per game.

“During the week, he is getting better and better,” Pavlicevic said of Davis. “He is a guy who likes to learn. He’s very serious, not lazy, likes to jump, run and block. Normally, when you have a guy like this, you have to use him (as a shot-blocker).

“He has a very good feeling, good anticipation, for blocking shots.”

Forward Reggie Golson is the Magic’s leading scorer (16.8 points per game) followed by All-Star guard Takumi Ishizaki (11.7).

Pavlicevic is challenging Golson to be a go-to player.

“He has some really spectacular statistics some games,” the coach said, “and if he is in good shape, he can win the game. One-on-one, he is one of the best players in the league driving left or right and a strong rebounder.”

Like all expansion clubs, Shimane is a work in progress. Pavlicevic preaches patience but isn’t afraid to push his players.

“We need time,” he said. “We lost some games (mental mistakes), like in Sendai in the last minutes, and against Fukuoka, but this is normal. Osaka lost an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to Tokyo (on Feb. 22); it’s crazy, but normal. Sometimes you can’t explain what’s happening.”

As far as building a team from scratch, Pavlicevic acknowledged it’s no easy task.

“We started from zero in September, with four Japanese guys and then the American guys came. Then we started to build the psychology and the mentality of the team,” he said.

“In practice every day, I wish they are 100 percent in practice, not 50 percent, but 100 percent. I am angry if they don’t do everything that I wish at 100 percent. It’s not easy for them, not easy for me, but it is better for everybody this way.”

Pavlicevic knows his team does have its limits, though.

“My intensity of practice is about 60 percent here compared to those in Europe or on the (Japan) national team. . . . Next season, we will have stronger practices step by step,” said the two-time Euroleague champion coach who guided Japan at the 2006 FIBA World Championship.

The Susanoo Magic play host to the Evessa this weekend, giving Pavlicevic an ideal measuring stick for the youthful squad.

In three of Shimane’s four defeats to Osaka this season, they lost by 11 points or less. The other game was a 19-point setback. The teams haven’t squared off since Christmas and Boxing Day, and a lot has changed since then for both squads.

“We played very well in those games,” Pavlicevic said, reflecting on the Dec. 25-26 series, “and we will now see what happens. But our team believes we can win against Osaka.”

Other weekend matchups include Shiga vs. Tokyo, Akita vs. Hamamatsu, Toyama vs. Niigata, Saitama vs. Sendai, Miyazaki vs. Kyoto, Takamatsu vs. Oita and Ryukyu vs. Fukuoka.

The Apache will then take on the Northern Happinets next Wednesday and Thursday at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.

By the numbers: Bad shooting frustrated both coaches on Sunday in Amagasaki, Osaka Prefecture. In essence, the Evessa lost the game at the foul line (11-for-24), though Akita was equally inept (7-for-17).

On Sunday, Saitama’s Kenny Satterfield was 11-for-12 at the free-throw line and collected 13 rebounds, but had seven turnovers a day after eight giveaways. . . . The Broncos are 4-14 on the road, worst among the East’s seven clubs.

Hot shooting: Tokyo guard Kensuke Tanaka, one of the league’s rising stars, buried 11 of 15 3s against the Golden Kings last weekend in Okinawa. . . . Seven of the league’s top 10 3-point shooters percentage-wise are Japanese players, including No. 1 Akitomo Takeno (46. percent), No. 2 Jun Nakanishi of Fukuoka (40.4) and No. 4 Masahiro Oguchi of Hamamatsu (39.5).

Still going strong: Kyoto’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who celebrates his 42nd birthday on Friday, is quietly having a productive season, averaging 15.4 points, making 51.7 percent of his 2-point attempts and a league-best 89.3 percent (50-for-56) of his free throws.

Abdul-Rauf has scored at least 10 points in 16 of his past 17 games, including 13 straight double-digit scoring outings. Several major media outlets this season have published or are planning reports on the one-time All-American scoring sensation from Louisiana State, including SLAM Magazine, HoopsHype.com, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution and ESPN.com. It just goes to show that the former NBA standout still remains an intriguing figure for basketball fans halfway around the world.

Injury report: Apache guard Byron Eaton, a dynamic presence off the bench in recent weeks, sustained a Grade 2 medial collateral ligament (MCL) injury to his left knee on Feb. 26 against the host Golden Kings. Eaton will be sidelined for two to three weeks, the team stated in a news release.

Also, Tokyo guard Takanori Goya will undergo surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. A timetable for his return is unknown at this time.

Goya is in his second season with the Apache. The former No. 1 overall draft pick has also played for Toyama (his original team), Osaka and Fukuoka.

League accolades: Eaton was named the league’s February MVP, it was announced on Tuesday.

The former Oklahoma State guard averaged 22.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.6 steals in February, helping the Apache win six of eight games and improve to 19-11 by month’s end.

Hamamatsu guard/forward Kazutoshi Ota is the Lawson/Ponta Player of the Week after helping his team rout Miyazaki.

Ota had 16 points in a 110-83 triumph on Saturday, followed by an 18-point, 10-assist effort on Sunday, a 104-64 Phoenix victory. In the two games, he was 4-for-7 from beyond the 3-point arc.

Insight from Hepp: The HeatDevils’ first-year coach, gave his thoughts on a range of topics. Here are those questions and his answers:

What is your message to your players after a weekend in which the team really struggled to score points? Do you mix things up a bit in terms of drills or practice routine?

“Struggling to score is not a new problem for our team; it has been our issue all year,” Hepp said. “We can’t seem to get easy baskets, we don’t get to the foul line, and we don’t shoot it particularly well from 3-(point range). The message after this weekend wasn’t really about us not scoring the ball but more a message of us having two weeks to prepare for the important Shimane series, flat-out not getting the job done, and that now we have an uphill battle to make the playoffs with 10 of our final 16 games on the road.

“With that said, we are going to attack this challenge that lies ahead and I like our chances. That was the message.”

The battle for the playoff spots is far from finished in the West. So what do you think will be the key(s) for Oita to earn one of those spots?

“The key for us to get a playoff spot is to prepare defensively to guard with unbelievable energy and intelligence,” he said. “It is not a secret that we struggle to score. . . . We have been about defense from Sept. 1 and that needs to be what will carry us.”

In your assessment, what are Shimane coach Pavlicevic’s strengths as a mentor based on your observations of how his team has played against your club and other clubs you’ve seen his team compete against — in person or on film?

“The two things we felt they did exceptionally well this weekend were taking care of the ball and managing fourth-quarter leads,” Hepp said candidly. “They don’t beat themselves. . . . Late game they seem to manage the clock well and always had the ball in the right hands.

“Generally speaking, Shimane is a patient team offensively and they work to take high-percentage shots.”

Is Shimane’s Davis the best interior defender in the bj-league? Was his timing (to block shots) — completely — on-target in Sunday’s game? And is he one of the best five defensive forwards and centers in the league?

“Shimane’s Davis has to be in the conversation as one of the best interior defenders in the league,” Hepp said. “He blocked 12 of our shots this weekend. The most shots a player blocked against us in any other weekend this season was Ryukyu’s Newton with seven.

“It might not have as much to do with timing as it does with his physical gifts: his great height, length, vertical jump, and that he can get off the floor quickly.”

How much of a difference-maker has forward Cyrus Tate been since he joined the club (nine games, four starts; three double-doubles in the last four games, all starts)? Can you offer a few examples?

“Cyrus is a difference-maker for us in that he can score the ball in the post and he gets to the line for us,” Hepp said of the 203-cm forward, who’s averaging 12.6 points and nearly eight rebounds per game. “We have struggled as a team to get to the line all year and it has been a major problem. Not only does he get there, but he makes them. In the last four games he is 29-for-35 (83 percent) from the line.”

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