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Defending champion Ryukyu big favorite against Kyoto


Staff Writer

The Ryukyu Golden Kings are one of three bj-league franchises with two or more championships. But the other two — the Osaka Evessa (three titles) and Hamamatsu Hiagshimikawa Phoenix (two) — are not playing in the conference semifinal round of the playoffs.

Osaka didn’t qualify for the postseason, and the Shimane Susanoo Magic eliminated the Phoenix last weekend in the first round.

The defending champion and top-seeded Golden Kings, meanwhile, are rested and ready to go after a bye last weekend.

The West Nos. 1 and 5 seeds will lock horns with a trip to the Final Four on the line. With the Kyoto Hannaryz traveling south, the Saturday-Sunday series will feature two games, tipping off at 1 p.m. both days in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. If necessary, a mini-tiebreaker game will held on Sunday after Game 2 to determine which team advances to Ariake Colosseum for the May 18-19 extravaganza.

In the other second-round series, the No. 2 Rizing Fukuoka play host to the No. 3 Shimane Susanoo Magic, with games scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Ryukyu coach Koto Toyama’s club set a league record by going 42-10 this season and finished atop the Western Conference for the third straight season. (They won their first title in May 2009, capping a 41-11 season under then-first-year coach Dai Oketani.)

In other words, it was business as usual for league MVP Anthony McHenry, Best Five guard Narito Namizato and company.

Toyama left the dysfunctional franchise known as the Miyazaki Shining Suns last spring after two seasons at the helm (35-67 overall record) and took over a team stocked with first-rate talent: versatile, quick, strong youngsters and top-caliber veterans. Team president Tatsuro Kimura assembled a roster that is stacked from top to bottom.

The Golden Kings had only one real thorn in their side this season — Shimane. Led by 62-year-old Croatian bench boss Zeljko Pavlicevic, the former Japan national team coach and two-time Euroleague title winner, the Susanoo Magic were 4-2 against the reigning champs this season. That’s not the story line this weekend, though.

On the other hand, Toyama has never been a head coach in a bj-league playoff series, though he has worked under current Akita Northern Happinets sideline supervisor Kazuo Nakamura for the JBL’s OSG Phoenix, starting in 2005 as a manager, and served as an assistant on Hamamatsu’s two title teams.

So Toyama learned from a successful coach and thrived while keeping the Golden Kings at the elite level this season.

That said, Ryukyu remains the favorite.

“If it was a real three-game series,” a league insider said Thursday, “I think Toyama might feel a little pressure. But all those players in Okinawa have been through this, so it’s just going to come down to who is the better team. . . . I wouldn’t bet against McHenry and Jeff (Newton, the five-time title winner).”

Kyoto coach Honoo Hamaguchi is firmly entrenched as one of the league’s elite coaches. He guided the Sendai 89ers for six seasons before taking over in Kyoto last season. Hamaguchi is 195-137 in the regular season.

Though the Hannaryz (29-23 in the regular season) are 0-4 against the Golden Kings, two of those losses came in the first week of the season, and Kyoto has gained confidence and developed into a cohesive unit after an 0-8 start.

Last weekend, the Hannaryz swept the No. 4 Shiga Lakestars to inch closer to a possible second straight Final Four berth.

Kyoto center Marcus Cousin made a big impact against Shiga. The former Utah Jazz player had 20 points and 15 rebounds in Game 1 last Saturday and 16 points and 16 boards in the series finale.

Masaharu Kataoka, an 18-point scorer in the first-round opener, gives Hamaguchi another capable perimeter scoring option, joining David Palmer, Yu Okada and Jermaine Boyette.

Ryukyu went 23-3 at home; Kyoto finished 13-13 in road contests.

The big addition to the Golden Kings lineup this season is forward Terrance Woodbury, a former NBA Development League player. It’s the notion here that he’s the league’s most efficient scorer, averaging a team-best 17.6 ppg in just under 23 minutes a contest. He also leads Ryukyu in free-throw attempts (202), a telltale sign of his attack-the-rim mentality.

McHenry is the Kings’ second-leading scorer (16.1 ppg) and two-time All-Star Namizato, still only 23, is coming into his own, as evidenced by his 11.5 points and 6.2 assists per game. Morihisa Yamauchi, Naoto Kosuge, Dzaflo Larkai, Tsubasa Yonamine, and Shigeyuki Kinjo are among the Ryukyu players with championship experience.

Gunma Crane Thunders coach Ryan Blackwell thinks both teams have a chance to win the series.

“Okinawa has the advantage in their series with the home-court advantage and their overall experience and level of talent,” Blackwell said of the Golden Kings. “Kyoto is well-coached and has some experience as well with Palmer, Gyno (Pomare), Okada and Boyette.

The series could be decided by which team has the hot hand from 3-point range and other long shots outside of the paint.

“Okinawa has shown when they miss from the perimeter they have trouble scoring,” Blackwell noted. “If Cousin plays aggressive and gets going in the post, that’ll open up everything for Kyoto.”

Fukuoka vs. Shimane: The Rizing (34-18) were the second-highest scoring team in the West (82.6 ppg), while the Susanoo Magic (33-19) counter with the No. 1 shot blocker in Jeral Davis and Michael Parker, who has led the league in steals in five of the past six seasons.

For Shimane, Parker, Davis, Brandon Freeman and B.J. Puckett hold the top four scoring averages — 19.5, 14.1, 11.2 and 9.7 ppg. Tatsuhiro Yokoo, Koki Yabuuchi and Edward Yamamoto have had their shining moments this season as scorers and playmakers, and the December acquisition of forward Kazuya “J.” Hatano bolstered the team’s frontcourt depth, especially for defense and rebounding.

Excited after Shimane’s triumph over Hamamatsu last week, Pavlicevic commended his players for their commitment to excellence and dedication to keep improving.

Shimane won 14 of 26 away contests in the regular season. Fukuoka was 15-11 at home.

Parker and Davis anchor a team that has taken a big step from playoff qualifier to championship contender this season.

“We have to play good D,” Parker told The Japan Times on Thursday, analyzing the series. “They are a team with a lot of talent, so good team defense is No. 1. They play straight up — no gimmicks — so not so much one or two strategies to beat them because they can win a bunch of different ways. You just have to play a complete game to beat them.

“It will definitely be a battle.”

Rizing star Reggie Warren, the league leader in double-doubles, agreed that an intense series awaits him and his teammates. And knowing that Davis has snatched the blocked shots title for three straight seasons means Fukuoka must have a smart offensive game plan.

“Yeah, I think with any shot blocker you got to do one or the other: either attack them aggressively by going right at them or bring them out away from the basket,” Warren said. “Or actually a mix of both could throw them off their game.”

In addition, he said, a blue-collar work ethic is the right plan for continued success this season.

“We just got to come in and show the work that we have been putting in,” Warren said. “Everybody over here is working extremely hard, one through 11 players and coaching staff. . . . I’ve never been on a team in Japan like this one; every player puts in overtime here. It’s a great thing. So of course it’s going to be big for us to get great production and scoring from our local players.

“In most games, it comes down to just that, because the import players normally cancel each other out. With that said, I think our locals know this and understand it and are preparing very well for it. And I will continue to feed them confidence like I’ve been doing all year, because I have been on four different teams in the bj-league and the work these guys put in here during and after practice is unmatched.”

Warren is the team’s top scorer (16.9 ppg), followed by Josh Peppers (16.3) and Julius Ashby (14.0), with Akitomo Takeno and Jun Nakanishi scoring 9.8 and 9.3 ppg, respectively for coach Atsushi Kanazawa’s club.

The Magic were 3-1 against the Rizing in the regular season. But that doesn’t mean much right now, according to Blackwell.

“At this point both coaches have proved what they can do,” Blackwell said. “Shimane had Fukuoka’s number during the regular season but everything starts over in the playoffs. Shimane has come off two solid games vs. the Phoenix and Fukuoka hasn’t played in two weeks so that could be a factor in Game 1 similar to the Miami Heat’s first game vs. the (Chicago) Bulls.”