Like the Osaka Evessa, their Western Conference rival, the Takamatsu Five Arrows did not push the panic button after struggling to string together back-to-back wins in early October.
Coach Kenzo Maeda’s team has turned around its season, winning five of its past seven games. This has happened after a five-game losing streak from Oct. 11-25. The Five Arrows got back on track on Oct. 26, beating the Oita HeatDevils by an 81-67 verdict to salvage a series split. Then, after getting swept by Osaka on Nov. 1-2, Takamatsu (7-7) rattled off four straight victories with series sweeps over the Yokohama B-Corsairs and Shinshu Brave Warriors the past two weekends.
In the road series against the Brave Warriors, big man B.J. Puckett excelled within the team framework on offense. He converted a jaw-dropping 18 of 24 shots from the field in the two contests. He had 21 points and eight rebounds in the series opener and an 18-point, 10-board effort the next day.
The 207-cm veteran big man is second in the league in field-goal shooting (65.3 percent), trailing only Shinshu’s Carl Hall (68.1).
Puckett credits Maeda, who’s in his fourth season at the helm, for orchestrating the team’s turnaround. He noted that Maeda’s “attention to detail” is key, citing film sessions for scouting other teams and team practices to put in the necessary work for upcoming games.
“He does a fine job preparing us for each opponent,” Puckett told The Japan Times, “(and) that has certainly helped us tremendously.”
Puckett, who attended Clayton State, an NCAA Division II school in Georgia, leads the Five Arrows in scoring (14.4 points per game). Former University of North Carolina Tar Heel Justin Watts is second (12.9 ppg), followed by floor leader Dexter Lyons (12.5), post player Andrais Thornton (10.0), key offseason pickup Koki Yabuuchi (7.5) and Hiroyuki Kikuchi (6.8).
Watts has brought excitement to the island of Shikoku with high-flying highlights and a steady supply of dunks — 21 slams in the season’s first 14 games. In addition, teammates Tsubasa Yonezawa and Masaaki Suzuki have been steady contributors, chipping in with 6.1 and 5.2 ppg averages.
“We are indeed very pleased to be playing well as of late and to have climbed back to .500 after somewhat of a shaky start,” Puckett said.
He added: “As with most teams, we were trying to find our identity and our chemistry as a team. At times we showed signs of great potential, but also the miscues and mistakes that are expected while trying to integrate new parts and a new system.
“Our goal from day one of the preseason has been to get a little bit better with each day, and we truly feel we are accomplishing just that.”
Puckett, who played for the Shimane Susanoo Magic (2011-13) and teams in Chile, Mexico and Uruguay, understands that each basket he scores is a piece to the puzzle for Takamatsu, and takes pride in producing at a high level.
“As far as my own personal play, sure, it feels good to be able to play well and help my team be successful,” he said. “I understand that there will be good and bad days, but every night I just try to play within myself and the team, take what the defense gives me on offense, and do my best on defense.
“Fortunately, this (past) weekend I was able to get pretty much what I wanted on offense, but in the system we play, much of that is credited to my teammates.”
Puckett has embraced Takamatsu’s offensive strategy.
“Our game plan has always been to attack the painted area, be it with the dribble or entry pass to the post,” he said. “This weekend, we had a balanced combination of both and fortunately we shot very well from the 3-point line. With that and our guards penetrating, it gave us great offensive rebounding position and easy drop-off opportunities for baskets in the paint.
“I feel like the confidence that winning four games in a row brings will certainly help us against a good Shiga team (this) weekend. We had shown signs earlier in the season of the potential we have, so we are very aware of just what we are capable of. Now it’s about fine-tuning things more this week and the weeks to come so that we can reach that potential.”
Rising 89ers: Guard Kejuan Johnson is among the league’s top newcomers this season. He’s made a profound impact for the Sendai 89ers.
As the league’s No. 2 overall scorer (22.1 ppg), the Long Beach State product is shooting 40.9 percent from 3-point range, 58.0 percent from beyond the arc and gets to the free-throw line with regularity (64-for-83). He’s second on Sendai (9-5) in assists (54) and first in steals (26).
The 29-year-old tormented the visiting Toyama Grouses last weekend, putting 34- and 36-point performances on the board in an exhilarating display of execution and moxie. He drained 9 of 16 3-pointers and 15 of 27 2s in the sweep, earning the league’s weekly MVP award as well.
What’s more, the 89ers are 6-2 since big man Adrian Moss, a member of the University of Florida’s NCAA title-winning team in 2006, joined the club in late October. He has stepped in and provided potent production and key leadership (13.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg) to enhance the frontcourt power of Wendell White and DeAngelo Hamilton.
Don’t discount the contributions of floor general Takehiko Shimura, either. The 89ers’ success of late has also been a direct result of Shimura’s trademark ability to make good decisions with the basketball (59 assists, 19 turnovers.
Weekend schedule: All 22 teams are in action on Saturday and Sunday. Here are the scheduled series: Aomori vs. Fukuoka, Iwate vs. Yokohama, Akita vs. Ryukyu, Sendai vs. Oita, Saitama vs. Hamamatsu, Tokyo vs. Gunma, Kyoto vs. Niigata, Osaka vs. Fukushima, Nara vs. Shinshu, Shimane vs. Toyama and Takamatsu vs. Shiga.
By the numbers: The Eastern Conference-leading Iwate Big Bulls (13-1) are 9-1 on the road. . . . The Akita Northern Happinets (12-2) are averaging a league-high 90.2 ppg in coach Makoto Hasegawa’s first season. . . . Two players have logged 500 or more minutes: Fukushima Firebonds guard Masaya Karimata (514) and Tokyo Cinq Reves guard Yuji Ide (510).
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