The Saitama Broncos find themselves in a familiar place as the season heads into its stretch run — near the bottom of the pack. And they will miss the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season.
But since All-Star John “Helicopter” Humphrey’s return after missing 11 off 12 games due to a back injury (he had a one-game return on Dec. 1, scored 24 points, and was sidelined the next seven games), Saitama is playing its best stretch of basketball since the bj-league’s inception in the fall of 2005.
Saitama has won eight of its past 11 games. Before this positive development, first-year coach Tracy Williams’ club had dropped seven straight games, including the first five with Humphrey back in action.
Humphrey has been the driving force behind the team’s recent success. Last weekend against the visiting Miyazaki Shining Suns, Humphrey had 30- and 35-point efforts as the Broncos earned a split. He also amassed these combined numbers: eight rebounds, seven assists and a whopping 13 steals in the two games.
“John is very important to our team as well as the success of the team,” Broncos coach Tracy Williams told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “He has always in the past been one of the greatest scorers in bj-league history. But this year we have asked him to do even more.”
With its strong play in recent weeks, Saitama has improved to 11-29, still the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference. The expansion Gunma Crane Thunders, an East squad, are 10-32, and Miyazaki (8-34) has the league’s worst record.
Humphrey led the league in scoring in each of its first two season while playing for the Tokyo Apache, 23.2 points in 2005-06 and 25.9 the next season. He’s on track to win his third scoring title, averaging a league-high 25.9 points in 23 games. He’s scoring at a 26.4 ppg clip in 16 games since his return on Jan. 26.
The 32-year-old Humphrey has scored 26 or more points nine times since his return, and seven games with 30 or more points in that span. Though he’s a quintessential gunner, he has 69 assists, nearly 4.4 per game in the 16 games since his return.
Coming off the back injury, Humphrey may be “only 70 percent right now,” Williams estimated, calling it “a back injury that would have ended most players’ seasons.”
Still, Humphrey, who helped lead the now-defunct Tokyo Apache to back-to-back championship runnerup finishes in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, has played a hard-charging style of ball and forced opponents into making mistakes.
“We have asked him to be a leader on defense,” said Williams, “and he has responded well, as 13 steals this past weekend proves.”
The Broncos’ next test?
A two-game road trip to face the league-best Ryukyu Golden Kings (31-9) in Ishigaki, Okinawa, located on the remote Yaeyama Islands, this weekend.
Saitama is 4-16 on the road. The Broncos will play six of their final 12 games on the road to close out the season. Their remaining home series are March 30-31 (Oita HeatDevils), April 13-14 (Tokyo Cinq Reves) and April 27-28 (Yokohama B-Corsairs).
While Saitama has had an ever-changing cast of players and coaches (Charles Johnson, Kenji Yamane, David Benoit, Masato Fukushima, Bob Nash, Dean Murray and Natalie Nakase) since 2005, Williams, who hails from North Carolina, said the Broncos are a work in progress.
“I knew from the beginning of the season that we were going to have to be a scrappy, hustling basketball team to be able to accomplish our goals,” he said. “I believe over the course of the (season) those players, all of ours, have started to realize that.
“I knew when I started that I had the toughest job in the bj-league as a coach. I knew I had to get my players to believe that we could change our history. To change your history, you first have to change the culture from hoping you can win to believing and expecting you will win, and that is why I thank the Broncos management and fans for their patience and support during the tough times.
“We are still not where I want us to be, but we are definitely not like we used to be, we will keep working every day, every practice and every game and it will show. Our goal for the next 12 games is to win them all, and I mean it.
“In addition to John’s great play, our whole team has gotten better and we all as a team are excited about the future.”
Among the Broncos’ notable performances to date, guard Yuki Kitamuki, averaging 15.5 ppg, is having his best season since entering the league in 2007. He was a career 5.3 ppg scorer before this season. He has a pair of 30-point games and a 36-point outburst this season.
In addition, post player Nyika Williams has averaged 13.9 points and 11.9 rebounds in 28 games since joining the team. He was with Gunma to start the season.
Williams knows the history of the Broncos — seven straight losing seasons entering this one — but he’s not ready to begin discussing next season.
“As far as next season goes, I would rather stay focused on this season,” he said. “I still think we have a lot of great things that we can accomplish this year. I, as well as my team, would like to just stay focused on the task at hand. We are not done yet.”
Upcoming schedule: After getting swept by the Yokohama B-Corsairs in a Tuesday-Wednesday series, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix meet the host Tokyo Cinq Reves in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, on Friday and Saturday.
The rest of the weekend’s action commences on Saturday, with the following matchups on tap: Iwate Big Bulls vs. Oita HeatDevils, Akita Northern Happinets vs. Miyazaki Shining Suns, Niigata Albirex BB vs. Takamatsu Five Arrows, Shinshu Brave Warriors vs. Kyoto Hannaryz, Shiga Lakestars vs. Yokohama B-Corsairs, Shimane Susanoo Magic vs. Toyama Grouses, Rizing Fukuoka vs. Chiba Jets and the aforementioned Ryukyu-Saitama series.
League’s best: In last week’s notebook, we took a look at the league leaders in steals. This week, we highlight the top rebounders and passers as they compete for the top individual honors before the season’s end.
The top six rebounders are: Niigata’s Chris Holm (14.3 per game), Sendai’s Sam Willard (13.3), Fukuoka’s Reggie Warren (12.6), Miyazaki’s Abdullahi Kuso (12.4) and Osaka’s Mike Bell and Rick Rickert (11.6 and 11.2, respectively).
Holm has been one of the league’s elite rebounders since he came to Japan in 2008. He led the league in rebounds last season (14.3), was No. 2 in 2010-11 (13.4) when he played for Sendai, also No. 2 in 2009-10 (13.8) and first overall in 2008-09 with a league-record 15.6, topping the 15.5 mark set by Niigata’s Nick Davis in the inaugural 2005-06 season.
In assists, Ryukyu’s Narito Namizato, Sendai’s Takehiko Shimura and Hamamatsu’s Kevin Galloway share the top spot at 5.9 per game. Chiba’s Kensuke Tanaka is next at 5.7 and Yokohama’s Draelon Burns (5.1) rounds out the top five.
Weekly accolade: Big man Abdullahi Kuso of the Miyazaki Shining Suns earned the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP award, it was announced on Thursday.
The 29-year-old Nigerian center had 26 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a loss to Saitama in the series opener, followed by 32 points, 21 rebounds and four blocks in the rematch, which Miyazaki won in overtime.
Kuso also had 18 turnovers, including 11 in the series finale, over the weekend.
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