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Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Apache hopes to block out Sun


Staff writer

There should be ample opportunities for photography enthusiasts to snap memorable shots of Sun Ming Ming this weekend at Ariake Colosseum.

One suggestion: Take pictures of the 236-cm center whenever Tokyo Apache guard Cohey Aoki, a 167-cm All-Star, enters into Sun's orbit. The David vs. Goliath contrast will reproduce beautifully on film or in digital pixels.

Sun, in his first year playing in the bj-league, has attracted a King Kong-size following among casual observers and hard-core fans alike.

After all, the Chinese native is taller than any player in NBA history; and since he arrived in Japan to play for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix this season, he's appeared on numerous TV shows and in a number of Internet blogs and magazine articles.

Now he makes his Tokyo debut. (Obviously, this would grab Godzilla's attention if he decided to become a basketball fan.)

The Phoenix (7-9), losers of five of their last six games, take on the Tokyo Apache, who have rattled off five straight victories and sit atop the Eastern Conference standings with a 10-4 mark. The series opener is at 6 p.m. on Saturday. The rematch is slated for 2 p.m. on Sunday.

The Apache's winning streak began with a thrilling 91-90 triumph over the three-time defending champion Osaka Evessa on Nov. 20. Aoki scored the game-winning basket, outsmarting three defenders in the process and putting up a seemingly impossible reverse layup in the game's closing seconds.

Hamamatsu posted impressive home victories over the Apache in the teams' first series, winning 96-61 on Oct. 25 and 106-87 the next day.

In the first blowout, veteran coach Kazuo Nakamura's squad routed Tokyo 22-5 in the fourth quarter. A day later, the Phoenix amassed 37 third-quarter points on an afternoon when small forward Josh Peppers had game-high totals in points (28) and rebounds (14).

Peppers no longer plays for Hamamatsu. He was cut last week along with power forward Andy Ellis, who was the bj-league's leading scorer last season (25.1 points per game) while playing for the Oita HeatDevils.

Point guard Michael Gardener now shoulders a large portion of the offensive load. He's been a bright spot all season, leading the league in assists (7.6 per game) and making smart decisions with the basketball (122 assists, 58 turnovers) to go along with 42 steals.

Gardener can also score points in bunches (19.6 per game), including 34- and 42-point outbursts in recent weeks.

Sun, however, should be eager to produce his first 20-point outing of the season. He has one 17-point outing to date and three 15-point efforts, including one against Tokyo on Oct. 25.

Perhaps the Chinese giant's best defensive game in Japan was against the Apache on Oct. 26. He had a season-high five blocked shots in that contest in 31 minutes (also a season-high). And with a wingspan that seems to go on forever, the big fellow alters the trajectory of several shots before they are ever taken.

Consider: Tokyo had two bad shooting games in that series. The Apache were 23-for-67 from the field in the opener and 34-for-75 in the rematch. This included 15-for-52 from 3-point range, numbers that indicate Tokyo never got into a relaxed rhythm on offense.

That's what happens when a 236-cm, 160-kg pivotman occupies precious real estate in front of the basket.

Tokyo enters this series playing terrific basketball.

John Humphrey is the catalyst, scoring a team-high 24.9 ppg. Center Nick Davis is the second-leading scorer at 13.3 ppg and a deft passer, too (his 46 assists are the most on the team).

Cohey Aoki (12.0 ppg, 22 3-pointers, 36-for-36 from the foul line), Masashi Joho (11.4 ppg, 29-for-84 3s) and Julius Ashby (9.7 ppg) give Apache coach Joe Bryant a slew of varied scoring options as well.

Sun's size creates mismatch problems for every opponent. Speed, however, is not one of his strengths, and that's one reason he has a relatively low 10 blocked shots.

Davis and Ashby, on the other hand, are fleet-footed big men and nimble as they challenge shooters, which has led to 23 blocks for the former and 22 swats for the latter.

Keep an eye on . . . Chris Holm: The Sendai 89ers center has quietly risen to the top of the rebounding charts, a spot that has been claimed by Gordon James at the end of the previous two seasons.

Holm is averaging 14.9 rebounds and 14.4 points per game to give Sendai a formidable presence in the middle. The former University of Vermont player has pulled down double-digit totals in boards in all but one game (Nov. 15, when he had nine against the Niigata Albirex BB). And this includes a 26-rebound effort against the Rizing Fukuoka on Nov. 29.

James, who joined the Takamatsu Five Arrows this season after a two-year stint with the Saitama Broncos, is currently No. 2 with 13.7 rpg.

Three others — Michael Parker of the Rizing Fukuoka, Jeff Newton of the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Lynn Washington of the Osaka Evessa — are all averaging more than 13.0 rpg, creating a feisty competition for the coveted individual honor at season's end.

Upcoming games: Two enticing Western Conference matchups are on tap this weekend: Takamatsu Five Arrows (10-4) at Shiga Lakestars (8-8) and Osaka Evessa (10-6) at Ryukyu Golden Kings (12-4).

In other action, it's the Toyama Grouses (3-11) vs. the Sendai 89ers (8-8), the Oita HeatDevils (4-10) vs. the Rizing Fukuoka (6-10) and the Niigata Albirex BB (5-9) vs. the Saitama Broncos (9-7).



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