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Friday, Dec. 5, 2008

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Hamamatsu trying to regain momentum


Staff writer

It's time to get back to basics, coaches often say after a loss.

So don't be surprised if Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura has told his basketball team the same thing. The Phoenix (6-8) own a four-game losing streak, including three by six points or less.

In early November, the team was in first place in the Eastern Conference standings. Hamamatsu, which has stumbled to fifth in the conference, will return to action on Saturday against the visiting Rizing Fukuoka and look to break a negative trend — a failure to consistently win close games.

The Phoenix have lost seven games by nine points or less, including a pair of one-point defeats (86-85 to the Sendai 89ers on Oct. 19 and 102-101 to the Takamatsu Five Arrows on Nov. 22).

Hamamatsu has one of the league's deepest rosters. It includes the league's reigning scoring champion (Andy Ellis, who played under Division I's all-time winningest coach Bobby Knight at Texas Tech University), South Korean natives Kim Jung Yoon and Baek Sung Hyun, Shanghai-born forward Chen Haimo, who first came to Japan as a high school student and later obtained Japanese citizenship and his 236-cm compatriot Sun Ming Ming, and point guard Michael Gardener, the team's leading scorer (19.1 ppg) and the league's top assist man (7.9 per game).

But the team has to develop an ability to successfully close out games.

Up next: In other weekend action, the Saitama Broncos (8-6) play host to the Osaka Evessa (9-5) in the lone matchup featuring two above .500 teams. Also slated are these two-game sets: Shiga Lakestars (7-7) at Sendai 89ers (7-7); Tokyo Apache (8-4) at Oita HeatDevils (4-10); Toyama Grouses (3-9) vs. Takamatsu Five Arrows (8-4); and Niigata Albirex BB (4-8) at Ryukyu Golden Kings (11-3).

High expectations: When the Shiga Lakestars made forward Yosuke Machida the No. 1 pick in the bj-league draft in May, coach Bob Pierce said the team expected him to become a consistent all-around contributor.

Machida is averaging 8.3 ppg, but is coming off an 0-for-7, zero-point outing, a game Pierce will point to as a learning tool for him.

"Our expectations for Machida are very high, so for right now I would say he still has a long way to go," Pierce said. "In our wins he has played good defense. In our four-game win streak he helped hold shooters like (Shigeyuki) Kinjo (Ryukyu), (Yuichi) Ikeda (Niigata), and (Kazuhiro) Shoji (Saitama) below their averages and to below-average shooting percentages. But during that same time he has really struggled with his own shooting."

Earlier this season, Machida had six straight double-digit scoring games, but has had five straight outings in single digits.

"Machida has to learn how to be consistent," Pierce said. "He often struggles with confidence and decision making. He really needs to learn how to be more aggressive and play with a little swagger. Shoji, who suffers from none of those deficits, really took him to school on Sunday, pulling out all of the veteran tricks, scoring 11 points to Machida's zero. Shoji's eight points at the start of the third quarter blew open the game.

"But I can see Machida learning from practicing with Ryan Rourke and Bobby Nash, and lately he has been working on his ball handling with Wara (Takamichi Fujiwara) and Harayuki Ishibashi. But he has a long, long way to go.

"He has the potential to do the exact same things as the import players his size, like Ryan and Bobby, so until he plays that same all-around game I won't be satisfied. But all this game experience will really help him. Decision making, however, is the hardest to teach (can't be taught, I've even been told) so there is a long, tough road ahead."

Miscellany: Golden Kings center Chris Ayer played his best game of the season on Sunday, scoring a season-best 27 points against Tokyo. He also set season highs in minutes (32), field-goal attempts (19), field goals (12) and dunks (five).

A former Loyola Marymount player, Ayer is now in his third season in the bj-league (he spent the previous two with the Oita HeatDevils with the same coach, Dai Oketani).

Oketani has seen the solid progress the 25-year-old has made since joining Ryukyu. "With screens and spacing, he has improved a lot," according to Oketani.

In practice, Jeff Newton and Anthony McHenry have helped Ayer elevate his game as well.

"That's why he's improved more," Oketani said. "Jeff and Mac, they know how to move and they know how to create basketball (mismatches), and so he follows them as well."



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