After all of the unexpected changes this season over the past few weeks, this is no surprise: The Osaka Evessa and Ryukyu Golden Kings will play a meaningful series in April, one that could have a significant impact on the playoff picture.

The teams with four of the league’s five championship banners — three of which belong to the Evessa — renew their heated rivalry this weekend in Okinawa.

The Western Conference teams are tied for first place with identical 27-15 records. They are 1-1 against each other, having squared off on Nov. 20-21 in Kansai. Ryukyu won the opener 77-65; Osaka took the series finale by an 84-53 decision.

This weekend will mark the Evessa debut of point guard Kenny Satterfield, the league’s top passer who played for the Saitama Broncos but was made available to other clubs under a temporary relief contract after his team suspended operations for the remainder of the season following the March 11 natural disasters. The Tokyo Apache and Sendai 89ers have also played their final games of 2010-11.

Pairing Satterfield, a former NBA floor leader (he was the No. 53 draft pick in 2001 by the Dallas Mavericks; he played for the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers from 2001-03) with the high-scoring tandem of Lynn Washington (20.2 points per game) and Billy Knight (17.0) diversifies the Osaka attack at a time when the team has a void to fill in the backcourt.

Newcomer Kevin Tyner, who played in 10 games, sustained an Achilles tendon injury last week in practice and is out for the rest of the season.

Satterfield, a New York City native, is averaging 19.9 points and 6.7 assists in 37 games. He also gets to the free-throw line with regularity (278 shots). What’s more, he’s arguably the league’s best rebounding guard (7.2 boards per game).

“We were lucky to get Kenny,” Evessa coach Ryan Blackwell told The Japan Times. “Kevin Tyner went down with another freak injury for us.

“He brings experience and is somebody who can break defenses down, make plays and create easy shots for other guys. Teams won’t be able to focus on just Lynn and Billy as much because he’s very dangerous with the ball.”

Satterfield, who turns 30 on April 10, has had more success driving to the basket or knocking down mid-range jumpers. He’s a 47.3 percent shooter from 2-point range, but that success rate drops to 27 percent (58-for-215) from beyond the 3-point arc. Those numbers, though, came while he played for the Broncos, where he was the focal point of the offense. Osaka features more balanced scoring.

Last week, Satterfield said in a telephone interview he was headed back to the United States. His plans quickly changed, though.

When Tyner got injured, the Evessa made a swift, smart decision, offering a contract to Satterfield. And now he’s added more intrigue and excitement to the West’s playoff race.

There’s already a ton of interest for any Evessa-Golden Kings game, which features several of the league’s more recognizable players: Osaka’s Washington and Knight; Ryukyu’s Jeff Newton and David Palmer, Shigeyuki Kinjo, Anthony McHenry, Tsubasa Yonamine and Naoto Kosuge.

A number of factors could determine which team finishes the regular season as the West’s top team.

“For us, and probably the rest of the West teams, (the key) will be about staying healthy,” Blackwell said. “I’m not sure any team has had more injuries to their team this year, especially to their main contributors. Another key is motivation. How motivated are the players on each team. This season has continued but the playoff picture still seems uncertain to many and a lot of the players feel the league isn’t the same with all the changes.

“Also, some teams like Fukuoka have a much tougher schedule in April than some other teams. That will make it harder for them to get that No. 1 spot.

Around the league: Several Saitama and Sendai players, who joined new clubs last weekend, are expected to make their debuts with their new teams this week, including guard Takehiko Shimura, whose No. 89 with Ryukyu replaces his familiar No. 4 Sendai jersey.

In addition, veteran big man George Leach, an Indiana University product, is the Niigata Albirex BB’s latest newcomer. The league announced the signing on Thursday. He traveled from Saitama Prefecture to Niigata in recent days.

Broncos forward Kazuya Hatano, a gusty defender and rebounder, meanwhile, could be moving on to the JBL’s Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins, according to a league source. Saitama guard Yuki Kitamuki, a solid 3-point shooter, is poised to join the Akita Northern Happinets. . . .

Rookie guard Sek Henry has retuned from a family visit to the United States and will play this weekend for Akita.

In the last four games Shimane center Jeral Davis has 23 blocks, helping the expansion club go 3-1. Davis is hardly a secret weapon these days; he’s become a defensive stopper. . .

The Albirex will play their first regular-season game since March 6 on Saturday.

Apache update: Tokyo coach Bob Hill said All-Star guard Jumpei Nakama has been working out in Los Angeles, keeping his family far from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis.

Through various online postings, guard Cohey Aoki has stated that he’s not interested in playing for another bj-league club this season.

Rising star Kensuke Tanaka hasn’t been mentioned as a candidate to lend his talents to another team for the last few weeks of the season and, possibly, the playoffs. And the team’s imports are not around, either.

So, for better or for worse, Tokyo remains an outsider as the season resumed, with none of its current players (as of press time) transferring to another club for the season’s stretch run. To a man, the spirit of unity among league teams — players being made available to help other clubs — seems to not concern, or apply to, the Apache. Which begs the following questions:

Why hasn’t commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi ordered some or all of the Tokyo players to continue playing with other teams?

And if they don’t, shouldn’t the Apache be handed a hefty fine?

Again: Other teams are focusing on relief efforts, too, but pro athletes’ first priority is to compete, something that isn’t part of the Apache’s current plans.

Meanwhile, a well-connected source with close ties to Asian basketball and the NBA provide some insight via e-mail this week, offering the viewpoint that Tokyo coach Bob Hill and Saitama coach Bob Nash will likely return to their respect teams next season. Hill has returned to Texas and Nash went home to Hawaii.

“I believe both coaches want to come back next season . . .,” the source said.

In the meantime, Hill has his hands full preparing teenage power forward Jeremy Tyler, who added excitement to the Apache’s shortened season, for the 2011 NBA Draft in June.

“Tyler will be drafted,” the source said. “Four teams are currently very interested. Bob Hill will be working him out beginning next week to get ready for NBA workouts.”

Back in action: After a two-week layoff, the Happinets returned to competition last weekend and a picked up a one-point upset win over the defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix on Saturday, followed by an 18-point loss in the series finale in Fujieda, Shizuoka Prefecture.

“I think we came out with a lot of energy and focus and we wanted to win the game,” Akita swingman Will Graves said Sunday, “but I just feel that after the loss they came out a little more focused than us, and a little more passion, and we made them miss more shots yesterday that they really made today.”

He was, of course, specifically referring to the Phoenix’s 3-point numbers; they were 10-for-37 from long range on Saturday, followed by a 20-for-38 effort a day later.

Based on the league’s ongoing discussions this week, the Happinets players and other teams didn’t know what the league’s official plans are for the postseason. So has that altered the players’ mind-set or focus, especially for players from the seven-team Eastern Conference, which now only has four teams competing?

“I think our main focus is just winning and playing hard,” Graves said. “So whether we are in (the playoffs) or out, our focus every night is the same.”

Was the long layoff a negative factor against the defending champs?

“Not really, actually, it was great for me to play. I was so hyped yesterday and I think we all were really hyped to get back on the court. That’s probably what gave us more of an edge yesterday, and we played with a lot of heart to get that win. Just sitting in the house for two weeks and being without power for three days straight and no bottled water in the grocery stores, it’s kind of tough to live through but it makes you tougher as an individual.”

As a pro athlete, Graves embraces the chance to lift people’s spirits when he steps onto the court.

He agreed with the notion that games can help serve as a vital part of Japan’s healing process after the Tohoku earthquake.

“Definitely,” he said. “I can see that walking around in Akita, just for the fans to be excited and still have life and still have drive to support, and especially with us also doing community service, that’s also big for the people.”

Graves, a former North Carolina Tar Heel who is draft eligible for the NBA this season, has his sights set on attaining lofty goals.

He said, “I’m always trying to get to the highest level. That’s always a personal goal, night in and night out. No disrespect to anyone, no disrespect to any league, but as an individual, you should always want to reach the highest goal because you’ll settle for anything if you don’t.

“And I just take it as, first off I want to win for Akita and I want to win for my team, and then I know if I play good for Akita and I play good for my team, then I know that will also help me with my process.”

Message of unity: Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura supported the decision of Wayne Arnold and Jermaine Dixon to take some time off and visit their families in the U.S., letting his players know that they’d be welcomed back with open arms when they return.

Hamamatsu standout Jeffrey Parmer felt his coach did the right thing instead of rushing out to find replacement players.

“That lets us know that he’s really in it to win the championship, and that’s the main goal,” Parmer said in a post-game interview on Sunday. “We are in a great situation here.”

“I’m all for it. I have problems with it, so no complaining on my end. I’m here to do a job, so I understand that.”

Parmer considers the team’s chemistry its biggest strength. “From the start of the season, we had this chemistry together,” he noted, adding that the addition of former Pittsburgh guard Dixon, whom he described as a “flying dart up the court,” in late October bolstered the team’s deep rotation earlier this season.

“It’s kind of hard to break that chemistry — that bond — that we have. It’s like a family-oriented team. That’s the great thing about it.”

Is there a weakness on this 35-5 club?

“I will say sometimes we turn the ball over too much,” Parmer admitted, “and we will get a little lackadaisical (on defense) because a lot of the times we’ll have big leads and we’ll kind of play complacent, like, ‘Aw, OK, we already won the game.’ We just do things that are not in our character.”

Making an impact: In his second year in the league, Osaka guard Hirohisa Takada is growing more comfortable with the ebb and flow of a 52-game season.

He averaged 4.8 points per game last season. He’s increased his scoring to 6.3 ppg through Sunday (42 games, 31 starts). He’s scored 13, 15 and nine points in the last three games. He had a season-high 16 points against Kyoto on Nov. 6.

“Hiro has gotten better and better for us,” Blackwell said. “He’s become a more consistent scorer and shooter. He continues to be more aggressive on a daily basis. Last year, coach (Kensaku) Tennichi asked him to do many different things for us, whether it was playing point guard or giving us more energy and hustle. He didn’t always score as much last year, but he did the little things.

“He always listens and wants to get better. His confidence was a little shaky at the beginning of this season, but I reassured him that I believed in his abilities. Mentally, he’s getting tougher.

Due to a season-ending injury to point guard Masashi Obuchi in December, Takada’s responsibilities have increased, and he’s handle them well, the coach said.

“He seems to always make big shots when we need (them) and has cut down on turnovers and mental mistakes,” Blackwell said of Takada.

The 24-year-old Takada has 109 assists and 71 turnovers.

Upcoming games: This weekend features six series, but none in Kanto or Kansai. The matchups are as follows: Akita vs. Niigata, Toyama vs. Hamamatsu, Miyazaki vs. Takamatsu, Shimane vs. Fukuoka, Oita vs. Shiga and the aforementioned showdown between the best of the West.

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