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Friday, April 11, 2008


Playoff spots on line as season wraps up

Staff writer

It's a sign of strength, an indication of quality players and stellar coaching, that three bj-league teams enter the season's final weekend tied for the league's top record.

The Sendai 89ers, Takamatsu Five Arrows and Osaka Evessa all have 29-13 records.

Two of these teams will emerge as conference champions; the other will host a wild-card playoff game on April 20 against a to-be-determined foe.

Indeed, each of these teams is capable of winning the league title on May 4 at Ariake Colosseum.

But first things first. The 2007-08 regular season must be completed. Ten more games must be played before the playoff picture is sorted out.

Sendai is the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. And after Sunday's showdown in Tohoku against the Evessa, the 89ers will have a three-week break until their May 3 clash against either the Tokyo Apache or Niigata Albirex BB in the playoff semifinals.

The Apache and Albirex are both 25-17 entering this weekend. If the teams finish tied in the standings, Niigata holds the tiebreaker (a 4-2 record against Joe Bryant's club). Whichever team places second in the East will be the host for the April 20 winner-moves-on rematch.

Niigata plays host to the Five Arrows this weekend. The Albirex are 0-2 against the Western Conference stalwart.

Tokyo squares off against the visiting Oita HeatDevils, taking a 1-1 record against the Kyushu-based team into the weekend series.

The West's wild-card entry is still up in the air. The HeatDevils (19-23) and the expansion Rizing Fukuoka (18-24) are both mathematically alive.

Oita and Fukuoka have each won three games against the other this season.

If Oita splits with Tokyo and Fukuoka earns a sweep against the Ryukyu Golden Kings, the other first-year club, in a series that begins on Friday in Fukuoka, both playoff hopefuls would be 20-24.

The second tiebreaker is overall point differential for the season. The team with the higher number would get the nod.

Oita is at -1.9 (scoring 84.5 points per game; allowing 86.4); Fukuoka is scoring 86.4 ppg and yielding 89.5, giving it a -3.1 point differential.

Coach John Neumann's club, by the way, is 4-0 against the Golden Kings.

The Saitama Broncos (20-22), meanwhile, end the regular season with a two-game homestand against the 6-36 Toyama Grouses, who are looking to end the season on a positive note after spending much of the past several months struggling to overcome a string of lowlights.

MARQUEE MATCHUP: In a much-awaited showdown between the Evessa and 89ers last weekend in Osaka, more than 12,000 fans showed up to witness the teams each grab a victory.

The Kansai faithful left Osaka Central Gym in a happy mood on Saturday after the home team posted an 87-61 victory.

The fans' mind-set changed a day later as the 89ers stormed back for an 85-83 victory.

"We had too many turnovers and couldn't play with our own pace because of the foul troubles," Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi told reporters after the game.

"We have two more games to play and would like to come in those games fixing issues we should correct."

89ers coach Honoo Hamaguchi provided this insight after the morale-boosting win:

"To the contrary to yesterday's game in which we were beaten so badly, we played a very good basketball game today. We weren't able to win against Osaka at all last season, so this win gives us big confidence."

Looking back at this series, a few statistics jump out at you.

Sendai made 11-of-22 3-pointers in Sunday's game. This could, of course, mean a couple of things: One, the Evessa defenders were ineffective and slow on the perimeter.

Two, Sendai simply shot the lights out.

Three, sharp ball movement led to quality scoring chances the 89ers.

Osaka took an eye-popping 82 field-goal attempts in Saturday's game, including 60 from the 2-point range (made 30 inside the arc). Sendai, on the other hand, took 44 2-pointers and made 18.

In earning a runaway victory on Saturday, Osaka committed just five turnovers. This is a number that underscores the ability of the two-time defending league champions to raise the level of their play when it matters most — in big games.

A 14-turnover performance on Sunday by Tennichi's players provided plenty of material for discussion during this week's preparation for the upcoming two-game rematch.

It also gave Hamaguchi's club a jolt of inspiration as it contrasts what went right on Sunday after a disastrous defeat the day before.

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