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Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Phoenix roll into All-Star break


Staff writer

The streak began on Dec. 20, and so much has changed since then — their season and, possibly, the foundation of the world's geopolitical order.

The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix have won eight straight games, beginning the successful stretch with a 91-72 road win over the Sendai 89ers. Since then, coach Kazuo Nakamura's team has won contests by these margins: 23, 21, 24, 27, 20, 19 and 13.

Marcus Morrison scored a team-high 22 points in the streak-opening victory. All-Star guard Michael Gardener has been the top scorer in each of the past seven games, posting 42-, 24-, 22-, 27-, 32-, 30-, and 32-point efforts in succession.

Gardener has grown into his role as the team's leader at both ends of the court, and his supporting cast has blended into the forefront to create a flat-out dangerous team.

Pivotman Stanley Ocitti has been a strong addition to the frontcourt mix, averaging 10.8 points and 8.0 rebounds in 12 games since joining the squad.

Swingman Marcus Morrison is scoring 15.5 ppg in his 10 games in a Hamamatsu uniform. Fellow swingman Levonn Jordan, who has also played in just 10 games with the club, has provided a spark off the bench (7.8 ppg).

Among the team's mainstays, veteran guard Masahiro Oguchi has been a vital cog in the team's defensive success. He has made a steal in all but four games and finished with six on two occasions. In fact, his 2.3 steals per game is second only to Gardener's 2.6

As the bj-league's hottest team, the Phoenix (16-10) have risen to second place in the Eastern Conference standings. They'll entering the visiting and first-place Tokyo Apache (18-8) on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 in a pivotal series for both clubs as they begin the second half of the season.

But first things first. This weekend's All-Star Game in Beppu, Oita Prefecture will give Gardener, the league's third-leading scorer (23.1 points per game) and top passer (7.5 assists), and 236-cm center Sun Ming Ming a chance to enjoy the spotlight.

Comic relief: Like every other coach in the league, Tokyo Apache floor boss Joe Bryant watches NBA games from time to time. After all, his son Kobe is the Los Angeles Lakers' top player.

Naturally, the elder Bryant also finds plenty of time to watch game tape of his own team's games, doing so with his players and turning the experience into a fun gathering.

"I try to be critical but in a comical way," Bryant said, describing these occasions as the team's version of "comedy hour."

Watching videos of the team's games is a valuable learning tool, he said.

Apache players have enjoyed these video sessions, joining in on the impromptu comedy, especially after witnessing their own mistakes.

"Oh damn, I was stupid. What was I thinking?" Bryant said, recounting what a player might say.

Roster upgrade?: Saitama Broncos coach David Benoit, whose team has lost four straight games, said he would like to see the team make a few additions, adding a few more import players, to the team's 12-man roster.

"Hopefully we can get a couple more guys in here to help us out," he said after his team slipped to 11-15 following its Jan. 18 loss to the Apache.

"I guess I just have to be able to speak to the GM about that and see what he can do, because I'm not really in control of that part of (the team). I'm just running the team as far as on the court."

Miscellany: The 2008-09 All-Star Game will be televised by BS Fuji on Sunday. Coverage begins at noon, and the replay is scheduled for Feb. 1 from 2 p.m. to 4:55 p.m. . . . Mikey Marshall, who played for the Osaka Evessa last season and the Oita HeatDevils in 2006-07, has helped his new team, Al Quadsia of the Kuwait League, start the season with an 8-0 record. . . . Ryukyu Golden Kings guard Yosuke Sugawara had a season-high 14 points in his team's 91-78 win over the Shiga Lakestars on Jan. 18.



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