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Jockeying for playoff positions gets serious


Staff Writer

Like high tide or low tide, as the season enters its stretch run, teams will rise and fall, and playoff aspirations will be realized or go unfulfilled.

Take the Yokohama B-Corsairs, for instance. The first-year club, led by coach Reggie Geary, is in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a 20-20 record entering this weekend’s competition.

The B-Corsairs currently sit just three wins behind the second-place Akita Northern Happinets (23-17), and below the third-place Toyama Grouses (21-17), Niigata Albirex BB (22-18) and Sendai 89ers (19-19). The Hamamatsu Higashikawa Phoenix, guided by first-year coach Ryuji Kawai, who’s in the running for the best coach award, are atop the standings at 27-13.

Now’s the perfect time to kick off a long winning streak, each of the East’s playoff contenders’ coaches can shout to their charges this week, and the Shinshu Brave Warriors (15-23) and Chiba Jets (14-24) are far behind, but not mathematically eliminated from postseason competition.

In the Western Conference, six teams appear playoff-bound, but the seventh-place Miyazaki Shining Suns (18-22) and idle Oita HeatDevils (16-24) are both much-improved clubs in recent weeks and could apply strong pressure on the sixth-place Shimane Susanoo Magic (21-19) and fifth-place Shiga Lakestars (23-15) in the coming weeks before the dust settles. Meanwhile, the top four are, with a brief analysis:

*Ryukyu Golden Kings (32-8) — the class of the league, with supreme depth, balance and specialists in all phases of the game.

*Osaka Evessa (26-12) — shell-shocked by the Tuesday arrest of franchise cornerstone and two-time league MVP Lynn Washington for his alleged involvement in importation of marijuana into Japan, and it’s anyone’s guess how they team will react to this huge loss.

*Kyoto Hannaryz (25-13) — coming off a blowout loss last Saturday in the series finale against Yokohama, the team could be poised to drop the gauntlet this weekend in an attempt to climb into second place ahead of the Evessa.

*Rizing Fukuoka (24-14) — Gary Hamilton, Kevin Palmer and Akitomo Takeno are an underrated “Big Three,” and all play vital roles in the team’s success to date.

Up next: This weekend, nine series are on the docket: Akita vs. Shinshu, Sendai vs. Shiga, Niigata vs. Saitama, Toyama vs. Yokohama, Chiba vs. Hamamatsu, Kyoto vs. Iwate, Osaka vs. Shimane, Takamatsu vs. Fukuoka and Ryukyu vs. Miyazaki

Injury report: Rizing guard Jun Nakanishi will be sidelined for an estimated three weeks due to a back injury, the team has announced. … Grouses star Masashi Joho is out with an unspecified pulled muscle.

Support for six-foul limit: Geary publicly supports this reporter’s belief the league would have a better product if, like the NBA’s policy, it increases to six personal fouls for a player disqualification.

Said Geary: “I couldn’t agree with you more about the need for the league to go to six personal fouls to counter refereeing in this league.”

Catching up with … Ryukyu coach Dai Oketani: Now in his fourth season in Okinawa, Oketani is a recognizable figure throughout the league.

In a recent interview, he provided some insight about his coaching career.

Which coach(es) were most influential to him as he trained to become a pro coach? And which ones are still key role models for him today — pro, college, etc.?

Oketani: (Former Arizona State) coach Rob Evans when I was a student (assistant). … He influenced me how to behave as a coach; and my father, he used to coach at a high school in Kyoto. (Note: Evans is currently a TCU assistant.)

In your own words, coach, how would you describe your personality as a head coach? Do you think you are “fiery,” “demanding,” “patient?” What are the words you think you think explain how you approach the game?

Oketani: The coach is the leader and aims for one goal — (winning).

The Kings have had tremendous success since 2008. How much of that do you think is because of stability in the team’s front office and the roster, and also from the fans’ support?

Oketani: Exactly. To be successful, fans, players and people who are related to the team are all facing in the same direction. That is the Kings, what the team has.

Each year, new Japanese have joined the team and made key impacts — Tsubasa Yonamine, (ex-King) Masashi Obuchi, Naoto Kosuge, Shigeyuki Kinjo and Narito Namizato, for example — and have you had a strong voice in making suggestions to GM/president Tatsuro Kimura and the front office about Japanese guys to sign?

Oketani: (For player moves), we’ve discussed about it, but the final decision is made by the GM.

Your career has been very interesting for sportswriters to follow: after a short time as ex-NBA big man Jawann Oldham’s assistant on the Oita HeatDevils staff, to becoming young HeatDevils bench boss, followed by taking over as Ryukyu’s coach in 2008. Did you think you would have had a chance for this type of success with the HeatDevils?

Oketani: I think there are key to success wherever you are. Whether you can have success or not, is just what I do.

Around the league: A few days before being arrested, Washington gave his opinion on who are the league’s top three coaches. Here’s what he said:

“First, (Akita coach Kazuo) Nakamura. He knows how to get Japanese players to respond. They fear him. However it is a reverential fear. As you know, respect is the ultimate motivational tool for sports in Japan.

“Second, Reggie Geary. Young, intense, hip, and knowledgeable on both ends of the court. Former NBA player who knows what it takes to win.

“Third, (Kyoto) coach Honoo (Hamaguchi). He is the ultimate micro-manager. Japanese players need detailed coaching to understand how to play this game. Honoo brings that to a team.”

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