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Taking stock of the Eastern Conference playoff semifinals


Staff Writer

Four teams remain in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which points the spotlight on the regular-season conference champion Toyama Grouses and Iwate Big Bulls. As the top two seeds, the Grouses and Big Bulls play host to the Niigata Albirex BB and Akita Northern Happinets, respectively, this weekend.

The Grouses (42-10 overall) and Big Bulls (40-12) both earned a bye into the conference semifinals.

Toyama has won 11 straight games and 15 of its last 16. In addition, the positive vibes of guard Masashi Joho earning the regular-season MVP award and Best Five Team accolades along with star forward Ira Brown’s Best Five honor have given the eighth-year franchise additional recognition it had never received in past seasons.

Iwate rides a 12-game winning streak into the playoffs. A high-powered offense and stellar defense combined to fuel the Tohoku team’s late season run.

After earning all-league accolades, Brown, a Gonzaga University alum, delivered a clear message that his focus is on team glory, not personal honors.

“We have other goals to accomplish and individuals do not surpass the playoffs,” Brown told The Japan Times. “It takes a team to win, as well as all five guys being on the same page to accomplish winning the championship.

“So individual goals I don’t care about, but the championship I do. I have been blessed through out this entire season (playing in all 52 games) to stay healthy, so I know that my father is smiling down upon me…”

Here’s a primer on the East’s two weekend series:

No. 1 Toyama (20-6 at home in the regular season) vs. No. 5 Niigata (12-14 away): The Grouses won the season series 3-1.

The teams first met on Nov. 2-3 in a series hosted by the Grouses.

Toyama won 80-60 in the series opener. Joho nailed 4 of 6 3s-pointers en route to 21 points. Four Grouses scored in double figures, and Tatsunori Fujie added nine points. Niigata, meanwhile, was held to 3-for-20 on 3s, and Toyama grabbed momentum in the third quarter, outscoring the visitors 26-13.

A day later, Niigata bounced back to win 75-71. Joho was held to seven points on 1-for-12 shooting and the Grouses had 20 turnovers. Nile Murry led the Albirex with 26 points and seven steals and Patrick Sullivan supplied 17 points and 20 rebounds.

They didn’t meet again until March 22-23, in Niigata Prefecture. Meanwhile, forward Thomas Kennedy, a star on the 2012-13 bj-league champion Yokohama B-Corsairs, had joined the Albirex a month earlier.

Toyama eked out a 65-63 win on March 22 despite shooting 1-for-20 on 3s. Sam Willard, who was the league’s No.2 rebounder (12.5 per game) provided 12 points and 12 boards and Brown had 13 and nine. Takeshi Mito chipped in with 12 points and three steals. The Grouses attempted 31 foul shots; the Albirex had 15.

The Grouses overcame Murry’s 25-point, 12-rebound performance and Yuichi Ikeda’s 16 points, including four 3s.

In the Sunday rematch, Joho brandished his MVP credentials with 13 points and a season-best 11 assists in an 86-77 triumph. Five teammates also scored in double figures, including Fujie (18 points) and Brown (16). Willard notched a double-double (11 points, 11 boards).

Kennedy poured in 21 points in the defeat.

Five things to know about Toyama: 1. Joho captured titles in each of his first two seasons in the league while playing for Osaka and remains a fierce competitor vying for his third championship. 2. The Grouses have increased their win total for four consecutive seasons, with second-year bench boss Bob Nash guiding the club to the elite level. 3. The Grouses play confident, unselfish team ball, relying on smarts, patience and athleticism. 4. Brown is one of the most versatile all-around players in the 21-team circuit. 5. In a big media market, Mito would be a well-publicized star, but in Toyama, his 12.4 points per game, 174 assists and 86 steals to date are only a small part of the bigger story.

Five things to know about Niigata: 1. Kennedy’s Game 3 (tiebreaker mini-game) heroics — 11 points in 10 pressure-packed minutes against the Shinshu Brave Warriors before a rowdy crowd in Chikuma, Nagano Preefcture, on Sunday — carried the Albirex into the second round. 2. Murry, Ikeda and Shuhei Komatsu each sank 72 or more 3-pointers in the regular season. 3. Big man Sullivan is always looking for a chance to jam; he threw done 43 slam dunks before the playoffs. 4. First-year head coach Fujitaka Hiraoka’s familiarity with the franchise (he played for the team from 2000-05 and served as an assistant coach from 2005-13) and the league is a plus. 5. Murry, a smart defender and underrated rebounder, is among the most well-respected players in league history.

No. 2 Iwate (20-6 at home) vs. No. 3 Akita (19-7 away): The Big Bulls won the season series 3-1.

On Nov. 16, coach Dai Oketani’s Big Bulls recorded their first win over the visiting Northern Happinets, 85-70. Scootie Randall’s 26-point effort keyed the victory. Lawrence Blackledge had 14 points and 11 rebounds. Five Iwate players reached double figures in scoring.

In the loss, Akita’s Chas McFarland had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Ruben Boykin contributed 12 points and 18 rebounds (eight offensive). His team shot 4-for-28 from 3-point range.

In the rematch a day later, Akita triumphed 93-89, getting 26 fourth-quarter points. McFarland (20 points, 11 rebounds) and Sixth Man Award winner Richard Roby (19 points) sparked the visitors. All-Star Game MVP Yuki Togashi added 17 points and dished out seven assists, with Boykin contributing 10 points and 12 rebounds.

Iwate’s top scorers were Randall (19 points) and Kenichi Takahashi (18).

On April 5, visiting Iwate edged Akita 78-75 and held the hosts to 4-for-23 3-point shooting. Togashi, named to the Best Five Team last week, was held to one assist; he led the league in that department in his second season as a pro (7.9 per game). Roby had the hot hand with 23 points.

For the Big Bulls, Randall netted 24 points and Blackledge finished with 18.

The next day, the teams’ final meeting of the regular season ended this way: Iwate 81, Akita 78.

Josh Peppers put 18 points on the board and sank 8 of 9 free throws, with Masato Tsukino scoring 16 points. Blackledge’s all-around effort (15 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, two steals) proved vital, too.

Yuto Otsuka had a big game for Akita, draining six 3s en route to 20 points and Deshawn Stephens scored 17 points. Boykin had 15 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. Togashi chalked up nine assists.

Five things to know about Iwate: 1. Blackledge and Gyno Pomare are both in the league’s top 10 in blocked shots. 2. Guard Tsubasa Yonamine, former Ryukyu Golden Kings floor leader, has played under Oketani with the Oita HeatDevils, Ryukyu and now Iwate, and that familiarity might be a key during pivotal moments. 3. Oketani, a beloved figure in Okinawa after capturing titles in 2008-09 and 2011-12, is one of only three head coaches in league history to win two or more titles (see below). 4. Five Big Bulls scored in double digits during the regular season: Randall (14.9 ppg), Blackledge (13.9), Pomare (13.8), Peppers (12.9) and Takahashi (10.1). 5. The team converted 50.5 percent of its shots from inside the arc.

Five things to know about Akita: 1. Macho forward Boykin, the 2013-14 rebounding king (13.5 per game), is one of the top passing big men in the league (187 assists, 97 turnovers). 2. Twenty-year-old Togashi exhibited poise beyond his years, finishing with 409 assists and 132 turnovers. 3. McFarland is an imposing presence in the middle, but also led the league with 14 technical fouls. 4. Togashi and Shigehiro Taguchi nailed a combined 235 3-pointers, which also opened up ample opportunities for Otsuka (99 3s) to fire away from beyond the arc. 5. In what’s expected to be his final season at the helm, 73-year-old coach Kazuo Nakamura could join ex-Osaka Evessa mentor Kensaku Tennichi as the only bench bosses in league history to guide three championship teams.