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Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007
Five Arrows have potential to contend for title this season
By ED ODEVEN
The Takamatsu Five Arrows are proving that last season's runnerup finish was no fluke.
The second-year bj-league team is once again among the league's elite.
With a 9-3 record, the Five Arrows are tied for the league's best record, sharing the top spot with the two-time champion Osaka Evessa and the Tokyo Apache. The Sendai 89ers, who have played two less games than the aforementioned trio, are 8-2.
Two of the Five Arrows' losses have come against the Evessa. Naturally, they'll eagerly await their next rematch with the stellar Kansai team.
Takamatsu, coached by Motofumi Aoki, is 6-0 at home. This weekend, it plays a pair of games against the host Toyama Grouses (0-12). Saturday's tipoff is 5 p.m. Sunday's showdown is set for 1:30.
And the Five Arrows will look to begin a new victory streak. Aoki's club had a seven-game stretch of success on snapped Sunday, after falling 86-80 to the Rizing Fukuoka.
Fukuoka ended that game in impressive fashion, outscoring the out-of-towners 25-10 in the decisive fourth quarter.
"We were totally different teams in the first and second halves," Aoki said. "In the first, the game became high scoring and it was us who (set) the pace. In the second half, we were caught by the opponent's defense. Our shooters were stopped and we couldn't score."
It has become increasingly clear that Takamatsu's depth is one of its top strengths. The club, in fact, may possess the league's deepest bench.
Case in point: On Dec. 2, in a 78-56 shellacking of the Grouses, the Five Arrows had 11 players put points on the board.
One runaway win doesn't give a team a trademark, but there are others signs that illustrate this point, too. And it all starts with the team's spread-the-ball philosophy.
Rasheed Sparks, The Japan Times' 2006-07 bj-league MVP, leads the team with a respectable 4.0 assists per game, a slight drop from his passing output last season.
Sparks, however, has the mind-set and the ability to dish out 10 or more every time he steps onto the court.
Instead, Aoki is relying on other players to help make the offense click. Yu Okada and Satoshi Takeda have 29 assists apiece, while center George Leach, a newcomer to Japan this season, has 24. Power forward Reggie Warren, who often gets double-teamed in the low post, has 20.
As a result, there are plenty of shots to go around, including a plethora of 3-pointers for Okada, who dropped 103 beyond-the-arc shots through the net last season. The "Shiga Sharpshooter" has made 34 of 84 this season, tops on the team.
Warren's 19.7 points per game is No. 1, while Steven Horne, another newcomer, has thrived as a key player off the bench. In 25.1 minutes per game, he's scoring 14.9 ppg. His productivity reminds one of ex-Detroit Pistons backup Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson, a standout guard who provided instant offense during the team's back-to-back championship seasons.
In the weeks to come, it'll be interesting to see how this Takamatsu squad matches up with the three Eastern Conference teams it has yet to face: the Apache, the 89ers and the Saitama Broncos.
But this much is certain: No one expects the Five Arrows to slip out of playoff contention.
Aoki, named the league's top coach last season, has built a team that relies on youth and experience. He consistently uses a nine-man rotation and gets the most out of his players.
For instance, Hiroyuki Kikuchi, who enjoyed a 7-for-7 shooting line in the season's second game, has given the team steady production off the bench. He turned 24 on Thursday, just 12 days after his three-assist, three steal effort in 21 busy minutes against Toyama.