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Friday, April 4, 2008

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Evessa, 89ers set for clash in Osaka


Staff writer

Ladies and gentlemen, give the schedule-makers a round of applause.

They deserve it.

They drummed up the following delightful scenario for basketball fans' viewing pleasure for the final two weeks of the bj-league's regular season: The Eastern Conference's best team, the Sendai 89ers, will face the Western Conference-leading Osaka Evessa in a pair of two-game series.

The teams have not met yet this season.

But the next four games offer a possible preview of the championship game, which will be played on May 4 at Ariake Colosseum. The 89ers and Evessa both enter this weekend with identical 28-12 records.

Osaka hosts this weekend's two-day extravaganza. The action shifts to Tohoku for the teams' 43rd and 44th regular-season contests.

Sendai, which clinched its first playoff berth last weekend, and Osaka, the two-time defending champion, have a chance now to see how they match up with their possible foe for the playoff's grand finale.

In addition, this much is certain: Fresh information and game film from April is more valuable for playoff preparation than scouting tidbits and box scores from November, a time of the season when teams are just starting to find out if they are great, good, mediocre or pathetic.

So now the Evessa quickly turn the page, putting their 117-113 triple-overtime triumph over the Takamatsu Five Arrows last Sunday in Shikoku behind them.

But, of course, it was a game that forced Osaka coach Kensaku Tennichi to be in a reflective mood when it finally finished.

"We've done a better defense than before," Tennichi told reporters, "and we could keep attacking from inside — those were pretty good.

"It was a well-fought game to compete for the top spot in the Western Conference."

Now one game separates the Evessa and the Five Arrows (27-13), who attracted 3,066 fans to watch a game that deserves to be talked about for years to come.

Sunday's showdown was a game in which Takamatsu's Steven Horne made a plethora of big shots in key moments and Jeff Newton, a pit bull in the paint, solidified his reputation as an irreplaceable anchor in the middle for Osaka with a 38-point, 14-rebound, five-block performance.

"It is a pity that we lost our final home game, though it was a wonderful game," Five Arrows coach Motofumi Aoki said. "In this regular-season's climax game, we played as if we were in the finals. I believe this experience will become effective in the playoffs."

For Sendai, riding the emotional high of beating the Niigata Albirex BB by a point on a game-winning shot by Ryan Blackwell with 4 seconds left last Sunday, the team's ability to hit the outside shot should be a vital ingredient for success.

The question is, will Tennichi concoct a defense to force the 89ers to attack the hole and go up against defensive stalwart Newton (a league-best 138 blocks)?

Consider: Seven Sendai players have attempted 50 or more 3-points shots, led by Bobby St. Preux's 219 (he's made 101), Nick DeWitz's 189 and Kenichi Takahashi's 111.

Hikaru Kusaka remains the 89ers' top assist man with 176. His ball-making decisions also deserve favorable comparison to Oita HeatDevils point guard Tsubasa Yonamine.

Kusaka has turned the ball over only 51 times in 1,041 minutes.

LOOKING AHEAD: The Saitama Broncos (20-20) travel to Niigata (23-17) in a pivotal series for both teams, starting on Saturday. The Tokyo Apache (23-17) face the Ryukyu Golden Kings (10-30) in Okinawa.

Saitama needs to win three of its final four games and hope Tokyo and Niigata stumble to have even an outside shot at nabbing the wild-card (third-place) playoff spot in the East.

The Apache are 5-1 against the Broncos this season, while Niigata is 2-2 against David Benoit's squad. So at this point, the tiebreaker (head-to-head record) would not work in Saitama's favor against Tokyo.

Saitama finishes the season at home on April 12-13 against the Toyama Grouses. The Broncos are 3-1 against Toyama this season.

Also this weekend, the Grouses (6-34) play host to the Rizing Fukuoka (16-24) and Oita (19-21) faces the visiting Five Arrows in a preview of the Western Conference's wild-card playoff game, which will be held on April 20.

NOTE: The wild-card games were originally slated for April 17. The East's Nos. 2 and 3 seeds will also square off on April 20.



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