The Nagoya Diamond Dolphins have opened the new season with a strong overall showing over the first three weeks.
Second-year coach Reggie Geary’s team has won four straight games and shares the league lead for the best record (5-1) through Sunday. Four other teams — the Alvark Tokyo, Tochigi Brex, Sunrockers Shibuya and San-en NeoPhoenix — have identical records.
Geary credits his team’s solid defense as a key element in its success to date.
“One of my characteristics and one of my signatures since I’ve been here in Japan and in general has always been defensive-first teams,” Geary said during a Wednesday phone interview with The Japan Times.
“We take great pride (in defense),” he added, noting that veteran post player Justin Burrell is the team’s defensive anchor “of what we want to do here.”
Geary credited hard-working players Takaya Sasayama, Taito Nakahigashi and Tenketsu Harimoto, among others, for helping raise the intensity level on defense.
“Early in the season, even though our points-per-game average is up higher than usual,” said Geary, who coached the Yokohama B-Corsairs to the 2012-13 bj-league title, “we’ve found stretches of time where we’ve (also) really played a high level of defense.”
That, of course, remains one of his targets for this season’s team.
So far, so good.
The Diamond Dolphins split their opening series with the Kyoto Hannaryz, winning 81-74 and losing 79-76. Since then, they have recorded series sweeps against the SeaHorses Mikawa (87-82 and 78-73) and Osaka Evessa (68-57 and 70-60).
Prevailing in close games has been one of the team’s trademarks so far.
“Last weekend, I didn’t necessarily think we played our best basketball, especially on the offensive end,” Geary said, “but again I thought we did enough defensively and did enough down the stretch, especially making plays and getting stops when necessary, that we were able to get those wins.”
While holding opponents to less than 80 points in five of six games, Nagoya has illustrated how defense remains its foundation.
At the same time, Geary, a former NBA guard, is encouraged by what he’s seen thus far from his offense.
Burrell, the 2011-12 bj-league MVP while playing for the B-Corsairs, leads the Diamond Dolphins in scoring (18.5 points per game, tied for the third-highest total in the 18-team first division).
“We feel we can get stops, we feel we can get rebounds . . . and can get high-percentage opportunities before the defense can get set up,” the coach said.
In addition to Burrell, who’s in his second season with the Diamond Dolphins, newcomer Jerome Tillman, a University of Ohio product who spent the past three seasons with the Levanga Hokkaido, has quickly stepped into a big role with Nagoya, scoring 16.5 ppg.
“He’s been very good for us in our style of play,” Geary said of Tillman.
Starting point guard Sasayama, 23, has had three 17-point performances and reached double figures in scoring in every game, and is fourth in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (52.9). He’s had a pair of games with five 3-pointers.
“He’s really been finding a niche of confidence where he’s running our team and finding opportunities for himself to score,” Geary said of Sasayama. “And he’s looking good.”
Sasayama’s long hours in the gym working on his game have paid off, according to Geary.
“He’s a gym rat,” Geary, a former standout defensive guard at the University of Arizona, said. “This is a kid who stays in the gym. He’s always with our assistants or myself getting extra shots up. This is a young player that understands that his opportunity is in front of him, and the great thing about Sasa from day one is he’s very confident in his abilities, and so you never have to prod him to be aggressive. He’s looking for opportunities . . .”
Nagoya small forward Seiya Funyu, whom Geary praised for bringing a lot of energy to the team, leads the league in steals (2.7) and teammate Nakahigashi, a stellar rookie last season, is one of three players among the league’s top five with 1.8 steals a game.
Forward Jun Uzawa, the team’s elder statesman at almost age 35 (his birthday is Oct. 28), in a starting role “really offensively keeps things well-oiled, keeps the ball moving,” Geary said of the player he called the team’s “super veteran.”
Captain Takumi Ishizaki, who splits time at point guard and shooting guard, has been nursing an ankle injury, and is expected to return to the rotation soon.
In addition, 218-cm big man Jordan Bachynski, an Arizona State alum, is set to make his season debut sometime soon.
The team’s foundation is anchored by the strong rapport that Geary and Burrell first built during their time together at Yokohama (2011-2).
“I can just see how he’s grown and the leadership that he has taken, and for me it’s a little bit of a security blanket,” Geary admitted. “Physically, I love what he does on the court. Off the court, he’s a really good individual. . . . He helps our team, he helps me in terms of getting guys up to speed and quicker, because he knows what I want to see, he knows what the system requires to be able to support me on the court. So he’s been great.”
And now, as a sixth-year pro, Burrell has become “more and more comfortable with that role” as a go-to player for key stretches, Geary said.
How does Geary view the challenges of coaching in a new league with a number of new foes?
Geary admitted that he and his coaching staff must “be prepared.”
“It’s also our job,” he said, “to look at this as an exciting time for our guys and for our fans. New teams, they present different type of challenges, and if we want to continue to be the team that we think we are, we are going to have to kind of accept these challenges and face them and learn from them.
“So from a coaching standpoint, it’s been a lot of fun, and I think the fans are enjoying it, too.”
Monday rewind: The Levanga Hokkaido completed a series sweep of the visiting Akita Northern Happinets, winning 63-55. Hokkaido improved to 3-3; Akita slipped to 1-5.
For the Levanga, Daniel Miller had 15 points and 11 rebounds and Asahi Tajima scored nine points, while Takanobu Nishikwa contributed eight points.
Kevin Palmer paced the Happinets with 12 points, Shigehiro Taguchi poured in nine and Seiya Ando had three.
Upcoming games: The Levanga Hokkaido-Tochigi Brex series got underway on Thursday night in Hokkaido, while the weekend action is slated to tip off on Saturday. Here are the Saturday-Sunday series matchups: Nagoya vs. Shiga, Niigata vs. San-en, Osaka vs. Mikawa, Akita vs. Chiba, Tokyo vs. Sendai, Shibuya vs. Kawasaki, Toyama vs. Yokohama and Kyoto vs. Ryukyu.
Insight on Aoki: In the aftermath of Cohey Aoki’s retirement last weekend, shortly before his expected season debut with the second-division Shimane Susanoo Magic, former Tokyo Apache assistant and Saitama Broncos head coach Natalie Nakase weighed in on the iconic guard’s legacy.
Aoki, a nine-time bj-league All-Star played for the now-defunct Apache and three other current B. League squads when they were in the bj-league (the first-division Evessa and Tokyo Cinq Reves and Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka, now both in the third division).
“Cohey has been one of my favorite players I have coached but also learned so much from as a player,” Nakase, now an assistant video coordinator with the Los Angeles Clippers, told The Japan Times on Wednesday. “Cohey is a true professional. Always the first one to show up and be ready to work. When we practiced, he was very competitive and always wanted to win. (He was) one of the best leaders by example and you can tell he had respect off all the players.
“Cohey was probably one of the smartest players I’ve been around. . . . If you just observe and watch how he plays the game, you can tell he’s way above and beyond the rest of the league. Probably the best memory I have of Cohey was his ability to make everyone laugh and have fun. His facial expressions and contagious personality was the best.”
Nakase, a former UCLA guard, remains a staunch advocate, retroactively, of Aoki’s career. She dished out this insight: “Cohey definitely deserved to be on the national team. I never understood that reason why he wasn’t on there. He was by far one of the best scorers regardless of his height. Defensively he was never a risk factor because he was so smart on defense. He never put himself in a position to have a disadvantage.”
In conclusion, Nakase called Aoki “a huge inspiration to Japanese basketball.”
Second-division spotlight on . . . Iwate Big Bulls: Under first-year coach, Yasunori Ueda the Big Bulls (0-6) remain the lone winless team in B2. Iwate has been unable to prevail in down-to-the-wire contests so for this season.
Iwate lost 89-85 and 71-68 at home to the Fukushima Firebonds on Sept. 24 and 25. A week later, the host Ibaraki Robots swept the Big Bulls, winning 84-75 and 79-71. Last weekend, the visiting Aomori Wat’s recorded 83-66 and 78-67 victories.