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Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009


Experience helps Lakestars excel

Staff writer

The Shiga Lakestars have staged their own October surprise.

News photo
Floor leader: Point guard Takamichi Fujiwara has helped the Shiga Lakestars begin their second season with a 6-2 record. While Fujiwara is sidelined with a shoulder injury for the next few weeks, the team will rely on other players to step up and fill the void. SHIGA LAKESTARS / bj-league

But there's nothing political about it; it's all about winning.

The Lakestars, 6-2 after a series sweep against the Osaka Evessa last weekend, have put themselves in position to be a formidable playoff contender in their second season in the bj-league.

This is a positive development for the league: increased interest in one of its smaller markets.

Of course, Shiga, the Western Conference's first-place team, needs to play 44 more games, but the foundation has been established for a new, successful, fan-pleasing chapter in the team's young history.

"The biggest difference between this year and last year is that we have players who can make plays in crunch time," Lakestars coach Bob Pierce said. "Last year, we lost several close games early in the season. This year, we have won some close games."

In fact, the team has won its last three games by a combined margin of 13 points — an eight-point road win over the defending champion Ryukyu Golden Kings on Oct. 18, followed by a two-point win over the Evessa last Saturday and a three-point triumph in the rematch a day later.

Winning close games is a sign of maturation. Oftentimes, it's a reflection of a team's mental psyche as well.

"Last season we relied on some really young players," Pierce said, reflecting on Shiga's 19-33 season, "for example, Ray Schafer and Bobby Nash, who had just graduated from college. And one of our key Japanese players, Yosuke Machida, was new to the bj-league, and wasn't ready for all the pressure. This season, we have added veterans like Gary Hamilton, Chris Schlatter, Mike Hall, and our key addition, Masashi Joho. Plus players like Bobby Nash and Shinya Ogawa have matured after a full season here."

One of the league's most exciting players, Joho has appeared in all four bj-league finals, first as a member of the title-winning Evessa in 2005-06 and 2006-07, and in the past two seasons as a key member of the runnerup Tokyo Apache.

(Golden Kings center Jeff Newton, a four-time champion, is the only other player to appear in all four title games.)

"I love Joho," Pierce declared, referring to his team's leading scorer (17.0 points per game). "I like players who are confident and can make plays. Certainly he is not at Kobe Bryant's level, but just as Kobe often goes away from (Los Angeles Lakers coach) Phil Jackson's triangle offense to create his own shots, Joho often deviates from our offensive patterns to create his own shots.

"If everyone were to do that it would be chaos, but our players understand that it's Joho, so they prepare to rebound or spot up if he passes. That extra 'uncontrollable' element has been a huge plus for us."

Former Apache coach Joe Bryant, Kobe's father, spoke in glowing terms about Joho's athleticism, daring ways and mesmerizing mix of offensive moves. Pierce has provided similar views.

"He is a really good 3-point shooter," Pierce said of Joho, "but it's his dribble-drive hook shots and floaters that set him apart from every other Japanese player. Plus he works hard in the weight room and is really strong, which allows him to defend and withstand the punishment from the opponents."

Indeed, Pierce, a former NBA scout in Asia for the Cleveland Cavaliers, doesn't shy away from giving thorough critiques of a player's strengths and weaknesses. The same detailed analysis of his team is expected when he's approached by a member of the media.

Here's what he had to say about newcomer Hamilton, a bruising power forward who played college ball at the University of Miami:

"He is a unique big man in that he isn't a great scorer, but as a kid growing up in Los Angeles he learned how to handle and pass the ball before he started playing organized ball late in his high school years. So while he matches up with other teams' scorers and leads our team in rebounding like a classic power forward, he also leads our team in assists and steals."

The 27-year-old Hamilton, who has previously played pro ball in Germany, is averaging 10.4 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. He also has 25 assists, 19 steals and 10 blocked shots.

The Lakestars play host to the Takamatsu Five Arrows (1-5) this weekend but will do so without injured floor leader Takamichi Fujiwara. The veteran point guard sustained a dislocated shoulder in the third minute against Osaka last Sunday, and he's expected to be sidelined for three-to-six weeks.

No doubt, his presence will be missed, including his 6.8 ppg and dependable ball handling (24 assists, 10 turnovers).

"Wara has been great," Pierce notes. "Now in our second year together, he has been running the team as a coach on the floor. His decision making has been great and he does whatever the team needs to get a win."

The Lakestars, however, do have depth in the backcourt, as evidenced by Shinya Ogawa's 12-point, four-assist performance in 32 minutes while stepping in to replace Fujiwara.

"But the key over the next several weeks will be whether Shinya can continue to play like that," Pierce said candidly, "and whether other players like Haruyuki Ishibashi, Mike Hall and Bobby Nash can step in the fill the void left by Takamichi Fujiwara. Losing a key starter can be tough, but it can also be a chance for other players to grow."

Stepping up and playing consistently will be a never-ending challenge for the Lakestars on their quest to win a championship. Defense will be the key ingredient to attain that goal, and Pierce has noted that his players have gotten "crucial stops" and "timely steals" in the fourth quarter this season, another positive sign for the club.

"We have been able to win some big games," he said, accentuating the positive.

And it hasn't hurt either that six Lakestars have double-digit scoring averages: Joho, Hamilton, Washington State product Schlatter (12.6), former BYU performer Hall (11.3), ex-University of Hawaii player Nash (10.6) and ex-Notre Dame forward Luke Zeller (10.0).

"This makes it hard for opponents to key on any one player," the coach said. "But the negative side of that is that we don't always know who our 'go-to' guy is in a given situation and sometimes players over-pass when they should have been looking to score. But if we keep playing hard on defense, and playing together on offense, most of those things will work themselves out as the season goes on."

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