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Favorites take care of business in first round of playoffs

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

No big surprises emerged from the Western Conference’s first-round playoff action, with the top four seeds advancing to the semifinals.

That sets up a Saturday-Sunday schedule featuring the top-seeded Kyoto Hannaryz vs. No. 4 Shiga Lakestars and No. 2 and reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings against the third-seeded Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix.

What was surprising, though, was the seventh-seeded Oita HeatDevils’ Game 1 win over the Golden Kings last Saturday in Okinawa City. The poised hosts then took care of business in Game 2 to force the Game 3 10-minute tiebreaker and end Oita’s season.

In the Eastern Conference, one Cinderella remains in the postseason tournament: the sixth-seeded Aomori Wat’s, who knocked off the No. 3 Sendai 89ers.

Credit the Aomori defense for its solid work in slowing down Sendai’s Kejuan Johnson, the regular-season MVP who led the 22-team circuit in scoring (23.8 points per game) during the regular season. In the two-game series, the 89ers held Johnson to 33 points on 10-for-28 shooting from the floor.

That leaves the East No. 1 Akita Northern Happinets (43-11, 23-5 home) vs. the No. 4 Niigata Albirex BB (38-16, 16-10 away) and the No. 2 Iwate Big Bulls (43-11, 23-5 home) against the Wat’s (25-29, 13-15 away).

In the West, the Hannaryz (46-8) went 3-1 against the Lakestars (36-18, 18-8 away) during the regular season. All four contests were one-sided decisions, with Kyoto recording 18-, 19- and 23-point wins, while Shiga posted a 14-point triumph.

The Hannaryz do not wow you with eye-popping, flashy statistics, but their machine-like efficiency has been impressive since the season started.

Through Monday, when the coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s club sent the Takamatsu Five Arrows packing, Kyoto is 25-3 at home.

From past years spent at lesser-known colleges, frontcourt mates Reggie Warren and Kevin Kotzur, who played college ball at West Florida and NCAA Division II St. Mary’s (Texas), respectively, shared the team lead in scoring (13.4 points per game) during Kyoto’s cakewalk through the regular season that included one losing streak (two games; a Dec. 27-28 road trip to Iwate, by eight and four points).

The Lakestars are a scrappy, but experienced outfit, featuring playoff mainstays in Jeff Parmer and Ray Nixon, Yu Okada and Chris Holm, among others. Coach Koto Toyama’s team knocked down 348 3s during the regular season, two fewer than Kyoto, and attempted 174 more shots (1,120 in total) to do so.

Indeed, the Golden Kings are in familiar territory, vying to reach the Final Four for the seventh time in eight years.

Coach Tsutomu Isa’s squad takes a 23-6 home slate into the weekend showdown against the Phoenix. The teams split the season series 2-2.

Sixth man extraordinaire Draelon Burns, who won a title with the Yokohama B-Corsairs in 2012-13 before joining Ryukyu, is the Okinawan powerhouse’s No. 1 scorer (15.1 ppg).

A revamped Hamamatsu squad has thrived with a new cast of go-to players including leading scorer Mo Charlo (18.6 ppg), Olu Ashaolu and the well-traveled Nile Murry, a longtime bj-league star.

Shifting back to the East, Akita has seen the emergence of guard Shigehiro Taguchi, who averaged a career-high 16.3 ppg this season, as a rising star.

The Albirex will not want to leave him open for uncontested shots. The fourth-year pro drained 18 of 31 3s over the past four games.

The Northern Happinets’ weakness?

Free-throw shooting (67.9 percent). Niigata shot 75.5 percent at the line before the playoffs commenced. The Albirex featured a core of Japanese players — Yuichi Ikeda, Kimitake Sato, Takamichi Fujiwara, et al — that’s hungry for its first bj-league title, and the squad is energized by go-to scorer Thomas Kennedy (18.1 ppg), who made integral contributions for the B-Corsairs’ title-winning squad.

For Iwate, early playoff exits in 2013 and last season have been on the players’ minds, admitted veteran guard Masato Tsukino.

“We remember past postseason disappointments,” Tsukino told reporters on Sunday after the Big Bulls eliminated the Fukushima Firebonds. “It’s motivation . . . and it’s a good feeling (to reach the next round).”

Iwate coach Dai Oketani said his team faces a formidable challenge against Aomori’s dominant frontline, including Paul Williams and Gyno Pomare. He called the Wat’s “the league’s No. 1 inside team.”

When comparing the Big Bulls and Wat’s on paper, rebounding totals immediately grab your attention. In 52 games, Iwate collected 1,323 rebounds; Aomori amassed 2,042 boards.

That statistic could determine the outcome of the series.

Insight on Oketani: Iwate star Scootie Randall said his coach’s singular focus is winning, and that focus is contagious for the Big Bulls.

“I think it’s because coach wants to win every game, like even if we’re short an American or short a Japanese player, he wants to win every game, no matter if we’re playing Akita or Saitama,” Randall told The Japan Times last Saturday in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. “So I think that mind-set carries over to us, and we definitely got to follow him and he’s been successful, so we definitely got to listen to him, to what he’s got to say.”

Scheduling quirk: After this weekend’s conference semifinals, the remaining quartet of teams has a bye before the Final Four on May 23-24 at Ariake Colosseum.