This time, there’s a new look on the grand stage.
In the upstart circuit’s 10th Final Four, three of the four participants have a shot at winning a title for the first time, while the other club could claim its third championship and become the third franchise in league history to do so, joining the Osaka Evessa and Ryukyu Golden Kings.
The Akita Northern Happinets (second Final Four appearance), Iwate Big Bulls (first) and Shiga Lakestars (first) aim to collect the championship hardware for the first time at Ariake Colosseum, with Akita looking to avenge last season’s defeat in the title tilt to Ryukyu.
The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, meanwhile, enter the spotlight with a shot at a third title, but first since 2011.
The stage is set for the Western Conference final between third-seeded Hamamatsu (41-11 in the regular season) and fourth-seeded Shiga (34-18) on Saturday at 1:10 p.m. In their head-to-head matchups, the season series is deadlocked at 2-2; the teams’ last encounter on April 19 was a 79-69 road win for the Lakestars.
Expect it to be an emotional reunion for Shiga star Jeff Parmer, MVP of Hamamatsu’s last title-winning club, his former team and its fan base.
“I would say Hamamatsu’s chief strengths are the fact that their pick-and-roll offense is something they run very well as a team,” Parmer told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “Them having multiple players who can run it and be effective doing so makes it a huge strength for them. Their other strength would be their ability to shoot the 3 at a high percentage.”
What are keys to victory for the Lakestars?
“We need to play our style of basketball,” Parmer declared. “It’s a must that we play hard at all times on the defensive end and move the ball, making it hard for them to guard us on the offensive end. If we do that, we give ourselves the best chance to be successful in moving one step closer to our ultimate goal.”
Hamamatsu forward Mo Charlo said his team shouldn’t make drastic changes against Shiga.
“The key to success is to continue playing like we’ve been playing,” Charlo said. “Trusting each other and making the right basketball plays. Shiga is a very good team and it will be a dog fight to the end and we look forward to Saturday.”
The Eastern Conference final is scheduled for 5:10 p.m. on Saturday, with top-seeded Akita (41-11) and No. 2 Iwate (41-11) renewing their intense rivalry. The teams went 2-2 against each other in the regular season, with the Big Bulls recording a 73-55 away victory on April 19 in their most recent showdown.
Sunday’s championship match is slated for 5:10 p.m., with the third-place game penciled in for a 1:10 start.
The essentials: These are the top scorers for the last quartet of teams still preparing for games in the 22-team circuit: Akita’s Richard Roby (20.0 points per game), Charlo (18.6), Iwate’s Scootie Randall (19.7) and Shiga’s Terrance Woodbury (18.3).
Meanwhile, among the four bench bosses plotting for the title, one has tasted the ultimate success of winning it all: Iwate’s Dai Oketani, who led the Golden Kings to titles in 2009 and 2012.
Hamamatsu’s Tomoya Higashino is in his second full season at the helm. Shiga’s Koto Toyama and Akita’s Makoto Hasegawa are both first-year sideline supervisors for their respective teams, though the latter has been with his hometown franchise as both a player and front-office fixture since its inception in 2010.
In the buildup to the final, players and coaches have internalized their strategy instead of speaking volumes about their upcoming opponents.
Or as Oketani put it: “We just focus on our basketball.”
The Big Bulls’ No. 1 focus this season, of course, has been tenacious defense, and that focus paid off. They allowed 3,649 points during the long regular season, the fourth-fewest total in the league.
Randall, a star forward who was named to the league’s Best Five Team, summed up the challenge of facing Akita in Saturday’s high-stakes contest by admitting it’s a formidable challenge.
“They are a very balanced team with an experienced coach that makes sure they’re ready to play,” Roby told this newspaper. “To win the game, we must play team basketball on both ends and 40 minutes of focused basketball.”
Two Happinets standouts — sharpshooter guard Shigehiro Taguchi and do-it-all forward Roby — received Best Five Team accolades this season.
After ex-Akita point guard Yuki Togashi, who led the league in assists in the 2013-14 campaign, moved on to the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends, his dynamic veteran replacement, Akitomo Takeno, whose season ended on Feb. 28 due to a knee injury, helped direct the team’s high-powered offense. Others stepped up, too. Roby and fellow forward Ruben Boykin were among the league’s top 10 assist leaders at 4.3 and 4.0 per game, respectively.
The Happinets led the league in scoring with 4,641 points (89.2 per game).
Akita cannot play a sloppy game, Boykin cautioned.
“Iwate is very good in transition and forcing turnovers for easy scoring opportunities,” Boykin said, “so we have to be careful with our turnovers; and if we turn the ball over, it cannot lead to layups on the other end of the floor.”