Basketball / BJ-League | BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Playoff action heats up with conference semifinals

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Eight teams remain in the hunt for the 11th and final bj-league title.

Of the eight who survived the opening round, two teams — the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Osaka Evessa — both have a shot at winning a record fourth championship later this month.

The Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in both conferences are two wins away from reaching the Final Four, which is set for May 14-15 at Ariake Colosseum.

The Akita Northern Happinets, the East’s No. 3 seed, two No. 5 seeds (the East’s Iwate Big Bulls, the West’s Shiga Lakestars) and the West’s No. 6 squad, the Osaka Evessa, fill out the tournament bracket.

Here are the Eastern Conference semifinal matchups: No 1. Toyama Grouses vs. Iwate and No. 2 Sendai vs. Akita.

The Western Conference semifinal pairings are No. 1 Kyoto Hannaryz vs. Shiga and No. 2 Ryukyu vs. Osaka.

On a roll: The Grouses, the league’s hottest team, take an 11-game winning streak into Saturday’s series opener. They have 18 victories in their past 19 games, doing so with a roster that has remained intact all season under the steady leadership of the league’s 2015-16 Coach of the Year, Bob Nash, who’s in his fourth season at the helm.

How has Toyama fared against Iwate this season? The East’s regular-season champion won three of four games against the Big Bulls.

The teams squared off for an Oct. 3-4 series, opening weekend of the season, at the Toyama Prefectural Sports Center, and the Grouses posted 66-63 and 75-66 victories. They resumed their rivalry on March 26 and 27, in Takizawa, Iwate Prefecture, where the Big Bulls won the opener 79-71, and the Grouses rebounded with an 82-66 triumph. A brief recap: Toyama earned three victories by single-digit margins.

Toyama’s balanced scoring — four players averaged 10 or more points this season, led by Best Five Team guard Masashi Joho’s 17.1 a game — creates challenges for opposing teams. Center Sam Willard has quietly been a model of consistency all season, too, averaging 15.1 points and 13.1 rebounds.

Intriguing storyline: Will the Grouses apply additional defensive pressure on sharpshooter Patrick Sanders, who drained 12 of 20 3-pointers against the Niigata Albirex BB in the first round, or stick to a man-to-man defense?

Tohoku showdown: Shifting to the Sendai-Akita series, the 89ers take a 3-1 record from their head-to-head contests before the playoffs.

On Oct. 17-18, the Tohoku rivals met in Akita Prefecture, and Sendai collected back-to-back wins, 84-78 and 86-80. Fast forward to April 23 and 24, the final weekend of the regular season, and the results were mixed. Sendai eked out an 87-83 victory, and the lost 100-82 in the rematch.

The teams match up well, with standout athletes in both the frontcourt and backcourt. For instance, Sendai forward Wendell White won his second regular-season MVP honor last week; Akita’s Richard Roby can carry his team’s offense for big stretches. Quality veterans dot the rosters of both teams, including Ray Turner, Scott Morrison, Shigehiro Taguchi, Yuto Otsuka, Kenichi Takahashi, Akitomo Takeno from Akita and Takehiko Shimura, Fumiya Sato, Masaharu Kataoka, Terrance Shannon and Jamal Boykin from Sendai.

Bottom line: It should boil down to this: The team that brings its “A” game.

Kansai foes: In the West, the Hannaryz recorded a season sweep of the Lakestars before the postseason tipped off.

Will those results have any bearing on their two-game rematch this weekend? Probably not.

Kyoto got past the Rizing Fukuoka last weekend, and Shiga found a way to end the defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s quest for another title.

First-round hero: Shiga’s Julian Mavunga, a Miami (Ohio) University alum, had the highest-scoring game in the opening round. Mavunga dropped 40 points on the Phoenix in Game 1 of their series at Hamamatsu Arena.

Unlike the aforementioned conference semifinal participants, Kyoto and Shiga didn’t meet early in the season. Instead, they competed in a pair of series after the All-Star Game.

On Feb. 20-21, the host Hannaryz swept the visitors 75-63 and 80-74.

Then, on April 2 and 3, Kyoto bench boss Honoo Hamaguchi’s squad beat the hosts 76-63 and 77-74.

The Hannaryz, a work in progress this season after the unexpected departure of longtime league star David Palmer (retirement after 18 games) and Larry Owens (season-ending knee injury), retooled and grew into a more cohesive unit as newcomers Moses Ehambe and Tyren Johnson grew more comfortable with their roles. Credit Hamaguchi for maintaining the team’s focus and productivity as it added the key newcomers in December.

Meanwhile, Shiga team leader Jeff Parmer had a stellar opening round against Hamamatsu, the team he helped lead to the 2010-11 title, including 20 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks in Game 2. When he’s at the top of his game, he fuels his team’s intensity and all-around play.

Also, keep an eye on Lakestars perimeter marksman Yu Okada: At times, he’s a streaky shooter, but Kyoto will work to make it difficult for Okada, who launched 421 3-pointers (142 makes) in the regular season, to set up shot beyond the arc.

Motivational factor: Kyoto missed out on a fourth straight Final Four trip last May when it lost to Shiga in the conference semis. Shiga, which entered the league in 2008, meanwhile, reached its first Final Four, and remains hungry for its first title.

Historic rivals: Based on their significant place in league history — Osaka won the first three titles, then Ryukyu won the fourth by knocking off the Evessa in the Western Conference final in 2009, an epic game in which ex-Osaka star Jeff Newton had 50 points, en route to its first title — every Evessa-Golden Kings series is intense and intriguing.

Don’t expect anything different this weekend.

The host Golden Kings have been remarkably consistent this season and always have a rowdy, energetic crowd to support them. They are 19-7 at home, including last weekend’s two-game sweep of the Kanazawa Samuraiz.

Former Ryukyu coach Dai Oketani, who guided the team to its first two titles before taking Iwate to new heights during his distinguished three-year tenure in Tohoku, is in his first season with the Evessa.

Osaka’s hard-fought series victory over the No. 3 Shimane Susanoo Magic last weekend was a physical battle, and the veteran-dominated Evessa squad advanced to give Oketani another series in the spotlight in Okinawa, where he remains a beloved figure among the islands’ hoop fanatics.

As expected, Osaka was no pushover for Ryukyu during the regular season.

Oketani demands energy and hustle from his players … and he gets results.

During the teams’ four memorable meetings prior to the postseason, here’s what happened: Osaka won the first meeting 89-72 on Oct. 24 over the visiting Kings, who rebounded to take the series finale 95-92 a day later. To close out the regular season, the teams met again on April 23 and 24, and the series followed the same script: The host Evessa were victorious in the opener, 81-77, and Ryukyu answered with a series-ending 90-71 triumph.

Two to watch: Golden Kings legend Anthony McHenry is a do-it-all floor leader. Evessa’s lanky, tough forward Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge has expanded his game over the years and can take over a game with lockdown defense and savvy offensive playmaking.

Key question: Can the Evessa limit Kings 118-kg big man Evan Ravenel’s effectiveness near the basket at both ends of the floor?

Remarkable: Including the Rizing Fukuoka’s two first-round playoff defeats, guard Cohey Aoki completed his season with 94.7 percent shooting from the free-throw line (107 of 113). … Sendai guard Takehiko Shimura has 260 assists and 42 turnovers through Sunday.

Feedback: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp