The Niigata Albirex BB will enter the postseason after a remarkably light schedule in recent weeks. So light in fact that it’s easy to forget when the team actually played games in back-to-back weeks.
That occurred the final weekend of February and first weekend of March.
The Albirex (19-19), making preparations for this weekend’s final regular-season series against the brilliant Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (39-5), had 12 of their final 16 games canceled due to the aftermath of March 11 earthquake, which caused three Eastern Conference foes – the Sendai 89ers, Saitama Broncos and Tokyo Apache – to end their seasons early.
It remains to be seen if Niigata coach Masaya Hirose’s club will struggle to elevate its game due to an unnatural amount of free time and lack of competition in the latter stages of the season. But Hirose has had ample time to conduct practices and individual workouts to prepare his charges for the postseason, as well as make veteran post player George Leach, who joined the team after Saitama pulled the plug on its season, familiar with the team’s playbook.
Leading scorer Julius Ashby (16.6 points per game), Yuichi Ikeda, among others, will need to play consistent, aggressive basketball to carry the team to the Final Four on May 21-22 at Ariake Colosseum.
The Albirex, idle since April 3, are 1-3 against the Phoenix in 2010-11.
The Eastern Conference’s playoff picture is as follows: Hamamatsu is the top seed, while Niigata is No. 2. The No. 3 seed Akita Northern Happinets (17-31) will face the Albirex in the opening round, while the fourth spot belongs to the Toyama Grouses (12-30), who have the daunting task of facing the defending champion Phoenix in the playoffs. Both series are set for May 7-8.
In the Western Conference, the playoff picture won’t be finalized until after the completion of Sunday’s games. Here’s a rundown on the top six Western teams before the weekend series begin:
* Ryukyu Golden Kings (32-16)
* Osaka Evessa (31-17)
* Rizing Fukuoka (29-19)
* Shiga Lakestars (28-20)
* Kyoto Hannaryz (26-20)
* Shimane Susanoo Magic (24-24)
The top two West seeds will earn a bye until the Western Conference semifinals, while Nos. 3 and 4 will play host to the fifth- and sixth-place teams in series scheduled for either April 27-28, 29-30 or April 30-May 1, depending on which teams wind up as the third and fourth seeds.
If two teams finish with identical records, the league uses a cumulative point differential as the tiebreaker, meaning the difference in average points scored vs. points allowed weighs more heavily than a team’s head-to-head record against a foe.
One thing is certain: The Evessa, the league’s only team with multiple titles (three), wants to avoid having to play on the road in the opening round. So Osaka, two games ahead of Fukuoka in the standings, must avoid getting swept by the Rizing this weekend and face the possibility of statistics determining which team is the No. 2 seed. This season, the Evessa and Rizing are 2-2 against each other.
“Considering the injuries and the roster changes we’ve made this season, entering the postseason as a possible No. 1 or 2 seed is quite an accomplishment,” Osaka forward Lynn Washington said. “(Coach) Ryan (Blackwell) has done a good job with trying to keep everyone focused during these trying times. Out of these next two games we have to win at least one to lock up the 2 seed. We want to play at home in the playoffs.”
Asked to assess the team’s current status a week before the playoffs start, Washington said: “The improvements we are making are for the sake of team chemistry. We are again dealing with a ‘meshing process’ with our team now. However, things are going smooth.”
If the Evessa secure a top-two spot, they’ll be off until May 7-8, when the West’s playoff semifinals will be held.
Upcoming games: The rest of the final week of the regular season features the following matchup: Toyama vs. Akita, Kyoto vs. Shimane,
Miyazaki vs. Ryukyu and Takamatsu vs. Shiga.
Impressive play: Nobody believes Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is the same explosive scorer he was during his All-American days at Louisiana State, when, then still known as Chris Jackson, he garnered nationwide attention for scoring 30-plus points game after game with ease. But he still remains a steady offensive force for the Kyoto Hannaryz.
Now 42, Abdul-Rauf is scoring 15.1 ppg and still has near-automatic success at the free-throw line (80-for-90). In the Hannaryz’s series-finale win over the Golden Kings last Sunday, the veteran guard had 17 points, five assists and four steals.
The former NBA standout has 12 20-point games this season, his second in Japan. He has 108 assists and 55 turnovers. Blessed with terrific shooting mechanics and a never-ending commitment to fitness, Abdul-Rauf defies the notion that a 40-something guard can’t succeed at the pro level anymore.
Exhibit A: He is 212-for-421 on 2-point shots. What’s more, he has knocked down 37 3-pointers to keep defenders honest.
This week, New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey highlighted Abdul-Rauf’s solid play this season in his comprehensive column, featuring many tidbits that don’t get published in print or online, that circulates among league insiders and subscribers.
Tough finish: The Oita HeatDevils lost their 11th straight game last Sunday, a two-point setback to Shimane, to close out the season. The HeatDevils went 16-32 under L.J. Hepp and his replacement, Tony Hanson, who began the season as the assistant coach. Matt Lottich scored a team-best 16.0 ppg. Damian Johnson averaged 15.9 and Kimitake Sato scored 11.1.
Around the league: The Japan Basketball Association’s 42-man provisional roster for this summer’s East Asian and Asian Championship tournaments was announced recently, and it didn’t surprise most observers that only two bj-league players, Shimane guard Takumi Ishizaki and Hamamatsu center Atsuya Ota, were named to the roster.
Said one league insider, “They expand to 42 and still can’t give (Shiga guard Masashi) Joho, (Tokyo guard) Cohey (Aoki) or J. (Saitama forward Kazuya Hatano) a chance?” …
The Tokyo Apache are hosting a fundraising event on Sunday afternoon from 1 to 4 at Okubo Park in Shinjuku ward. All-Star guard Cohey Aoki, known for his sharpshooting skills, will lead the Apache Shooting Challenge, a 90-second drill in which participants take shots from various locations on the court. The drill helps individuals measure their shooting range and accuracy.
To participate in the event, individuals are asked to make a donation to help the team’s disaster relief efforts, which will aid victims of the March 11 earthquake.
Apache players Darin Satoshi Maki, Takanori Goya, Reina Itakura, Tomoya “Chomo” Nakamura, Kensuke Tanaka and Minoru Kimura will also be on hand for the festivities. …
Expansion talk: A league source passed along the following details via e-mail: “On April 19 the Kagoshima Pro-Basketball organization will officially become Kagoshima Pro-Basketball Inc. They almost joined the bj-league for 2011-12, but now looks like they are seriously trying for the next round of expansion.” Stay tuned.
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