The Shiga Lakestars’ rise to playoff contender occurred after a poor start.
The Lakestars dropped six of their first seven games, but it wasn’t time to push the panic button.
Since then, first-year coach Shawn Dennis’ squad has triumphed in seven of its last eight games, including four straight.
In a blog entry posted (in English and Japanese) on the team website on Nov. 8, the Australian mentor wrote, “After a good learning period to start the season we are starting to see benefits of all the lessons we have been learning. . . . While we all would have liked the process to be quicker, I am really pleased with where we sit and how far we have come as a team.”
Veteran leaders Narito Namizato and D’or Fischer, among others, have made significant contributions to fuel the team’s turnaround. Shiga is 8-7 and sits in third place in the six-team West Division. Namizato, a key performer on two Ryukyu Golden Kings championship teams in the bj-league era (2011-12, 2013-14), is the team’s top scorer (13.0 points a game), passer (6.3 assists per game, No. 2 in B1) and theft artist (1.1 steals).
Fischer is the team’s last line of defense, its irreplaceable rim protector. The veteran pivot is No. 1 in the 18-team top flight in blocks (3.4), including prolific output over the past six games (seven, five, four, two, five and five blocks) that coincides with Shiga’s improved results.
A Philadelphia native, the 36-year-old Fischer’s college career began at Northwestern (Louisiana) State and ended at West Virginia University in 2005. A globetrotting pro career has followed, including stints with Israeli clubs Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem and Spanish teams Real Madrid and Bilbao Basket, as well as stops in Poland, Germany, Belgium (2008 Belgian League MVP), Russia, Ukraine, Latvia and the NBA Development League. (Fischer was also with the Washington Wizards in September 2013 during the preseason, but was cut before the season started.)
The 211-cm, 116-kg Fischer is Shiga’s second-leading scorer (11.5). He’s the club’s top rebounder (8.6) and sixth in the first division in free-throw shooting accuracy (89.2 percent). The big man’s all-around impact also includes 1.9 assists and 0.9 steals per contest.
Dennis eloquently articulated how important Fischer’s hustle and productivity at both ends of the floor have been for the Kansai club.
“D’or is a very good communicator at the back of our defense,” Dennis declared. “He allows our players to play a lot more aggressive. Our players are learning that he is at the back to help them and protect the rim.”
The coach went on: “D’or is an outstanding defender and a player who takes great pride in his defense. This has certainly helped the team be more effective at the defensive end.”
Dennis, a top assistant for the 2016-17 champion Tochigi Brex before moving on to Shiga, sees the big picture and recognizes the 60-game season will involve incremental adjustments for his team and its foes. He summed up the contributions of Fischer and fellow frontcourt newcomer Omar Samhan by saying they are “now settling in and starting to play with more consistency.”
Samhan is second on the club in rebounds (8.0). Lakestars sharpshooter Tomonobu Hasegawa is No. 6 in the league in 3-point shooting accuracy (37.1 percent).
“It has taken a while for us to understand about consistency in defense,” Dennis told The Japan Times. “When recruiting we identified rebounding and defense as a weakness of last year’s team and we want to improve in those two areas.”
For Shiga, that’s why Fischer’s skill set is vital for success this season.
“He is a world-class shot blocker who has a very good understanding of when to come and block the shot,” Dennis said. “Because he is so long he can come very late and block the shot so he does not have to leave his feet too early. Also, a lot of opponents underestimate how long he is.
“You have to understand,” Dennis pointed out, “this is a player that has had an outstanding career in Europe for some of the biggest clubs. If he was a little heavier, he would have had a great NBA career, but his frame most likely scared the NBA clubs off.”
A naturalized Israeli citizen, Fischer has also suited up for the Israeli national team in recent years.
A crowd pleaser
Dunking with authority in the first quarter of Sunday’s road game against the Chiba Jets Funabashi, Alvark Tokyo rookie Yudai Baba, who turned 22 on Nov. 7, exhibited a flair for showmanship beyond his years. Baba soared through the air and slammed the ball through the net with 6:33 remaining in the quarter.
In his first start of the season, Baba gave hoop fans a glimpse of his potential — not just on that play, but with energy and hustle, scoring seven points, grabbing seven boards, dishing out three assists and registering two steals and two blocks in a team-high 29:54 of court time. He was like the Energizer Bunny.
Since losing on opening night against the Brex, the SeaHorses Mikawa have cobbled together a 14-game winning streak.
For longtime SeaHorses coach Kimikazu Suzuki’s team, splendid 3-point shooting, pinpoint passing, tenacious defense and consistent rebounding have been staples of its play this season.
This weekend’s top-flight schedule features Tokyo vs. Hokkaido in a series that begins on Friday. A day later, it’s Mikawa vs. Yokohama, Kyoto vs. Chiba, San-en vs. Osaka, Shibuya vs. Shimane, Toyama vs. Kawasaki, Nishinomiya vs. Tochigi and Ryukyu vs. Nagoya.
On Monday, Shiga puts its aforementioned winning streak on the line in the series opener against Niigata.
After Jets guard Yuki Togashi scored 42 points and canned 11 of 15 3-pointers against the Alvark on Sunday, Tokyo forward Jawad Williams had this to say about Togashi: “He took some tough shots. They were contested. Our guys did a great job of making him take tough shots, but he couldn’t miss today. That’s one of the best performances I’ve seen on any level. (He) was unbelievable shooting the ball today.”
The last word
“Last night, he didn’t say much. He just reminded us that we didn’t stick to our game plan and we didn’t do what we do best, which is to take care of the defensive end and not turn the ball over,” said Williams, looking back on the Alvark’s 95-59 loss on Saturday to the Jets and revealing coach Luka Pavicevic’s message to his team before Sunday’s rematch, which Tokyo won 77-67.
“So the focus today was to come out, stick to our game plan and whatever happens happens, but make sure that we what we do what we do best, and it turned around for us today.”
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