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Friday, Jan. 8, 2010
Coach says Phoenix players focus on team
By ED ODEVEN
With 20 games in the books and 17 victories to date, the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix are on pace to have the finest season in bj-league history. The Ryukyu Golden Kings went 41-11 in the 2008-09 season en route to the team's first championship.
Phoenix coach Kazuo Nakamura credits his team's discipline and unselfish play as keys to its sensational start, including a league-high 87.0 points per game.
During a wide-ranging phone interview on Wednesday evening, he admitted he wasn't aware that the team had only been whistled for three technical fouls so far this season. But he did say this statistic is indicative of the team's heady performance during its second season in the bj-league.
"One thing I say to my players is no technical fouls," Nakamura said. "Keep it poised, and if anything gets out of line, the coach himself will be the one to get a technical foul to stand up for the players.
"That last thing I want is for the players to stand up for the players."
The Phoenix, previously known as the OSG Phoenix, defected from the JBL after the 2007-08 season, and won the Eastern Conference regular-season title with a 36-16 record last season. They've experienced similar success this season, but improved their overall team chemistry.
"The strength of our team is that everybody is very unselfish and they can run the team's plays," Nakamura said, "and we've got a talented group of players that can score and play within the system.
"I didn't expect us to go 17-3 (to start the season)," the veteran coach added, reflecting on his season outlook. "But I did think we had a great group of guys and a great team and that we would make a good run at it."
Swingman Wendell White (25.1 points per game, No. 3 in the league) and power forward William Knight (21.4, seventh-best) form the team's Dynamic Duo ("The White Knight Show"), but don't discount the contributions of the team's other players who have helped Hamamatsu build a five-game lead over the second-place Sendai 89ers.
"The other guys are very important, actually," Nakamura said without hesitation, citing point guards Limar Wilson and Masahiro Oguchi as examples of role players who are flourishing within the team's system.
Newcomer Ashley Parham, a former University of Maryland-Eastern Shore center who made his season debut on Dec. 26, gives the offense a more balanced attack. And the team's size, or lack thereof, has been a bit of a weakness, according to the coach, creating a need to make a move.
White is No. 5 in the league in assists (4.3 per game) and seventh in steals. Oguchi is No. 3 in 3-point shooting (41.7 percent). Wilson and Knight are among the league's top free-throw shooters, with the former atop the charts at 93.1 percent and Knight at No. 4 with 84.9 percent accuracy.
With 182 free throws — points when time stands still — between them, Wilson and Knight flex their muscles in a subtle way for the Phoenix.
"Yes, I feel like this is a very reliable thing: guys that can shoot free throws," Nakamura said. "That is our strength. The players might not feel very comfortable (at the line), but we play very hard and can be great examples for kids, from mini-basketball to middle school kids."
Furthermore, Nakamura believes the Phoenix have the right mix of brains and brawn to contend for a title.
"We have a good chance for a championship based on our record," he said.
The Phoenix play host to the Shiga Lakestars (12-12) on Saturday and Sunday in their first encounters this season.
Nakamura believes a commitment to discipline is a big factor in the team's success, saying the team's American players and Japanese players must follow the same sets of rules on and off the court.
"Right now, concentration and discipline can lead us to more consistency," he added, looking ahead to further improvements.
"We are not going to have a big meltdown in a big game."
Despite cultural differences between Japan and the United States, Nakamura has found a way to mold the team's collection of players into a cohesive unit.
"It was not an easy thing to do because of the different cultures," he revealed, "but the American players are starting to understand what we are trying to do and we are coming together right now."
Even though Hamamatsu has yet to face the Golden Kings, a possible championship game foe in May, in 2009-10, Nakamura recognizes the value of forward Anthony McHenry to the defending champions' success.
"He's an all-around player, one of the best players in the league," Nakamura said. "I feel like McHenry's not getting enough credit, feel he's a little underrated."
Nakamura also dished out praise for Rizing Fukuoka forward Michael Parker, calling him a "great player" and Sendai's frontcourt tandem of Gyno Pomare and Chris Holm. "They have been really effective against us," he said.
Upcoming schedule: The Sendai 89ers (13-9) play host to the Oita HeatDevils (8-14) in a series starting on Friday. Four other two-game sets begin on Saturday, including Niigata Albirex BB (10-10) vs. Tokyo Apache (5-13), Kyoto Hannaryz (6-14) and Osaka Evessa (10-12 ) vs. Ryukyu Golden Kings (17-5).
Weekly accolade: Saitama Broncos guard Taishiro Shimizu is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week. The veteran guard scored 20 points and knocked down all four of his 3-point attempts in a loss to the Ryukyu Golden Kings last Saturday.
He was held to nine points in the Sunday rematch, but delivered in the clutch, sinking two game-deciding free throws with 4 seconds to play in overtime as Saitama earned a 77-75 triumph.
Solid debut: Former Florida State power forward Uche Echefu made an immediate impact in his first bj-league games for the Niigata Albirex BB last weekend. Echefu, a native of Nigeria, scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds and added an assist and a blocked shot in 12 minutes on Saturday. A day later, he had an 11-point, five-rebound, three-block, two-steal, one-assist effort in 21 minutes.
Back in Japan: Ex-University of Central Florida standout Josh Peppers, who has previously played for the Rizing Fukuoka, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and Sendai 89ers during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, has returned to Japan to play for Sendai for the remainder of the season. Peppers is one of the most explosive players in the league, scoring in bunches in traffic, popping a long-range shot or finishing in transition. He's capable of scoring 30 points in every game.
Return to Shiga: Another American player has made his way back to Japan for the final five months of the season. Center Ray Schafer has rejoined the Lakestars. The former University of Oregon big man averaged 14.7 points and 7.4 rebounds while playing in all 52 regular-season games in Shiga's inaugural season.
Lakestars coach Bob Pierce considers the move to be an essential transaction for the team as it fights to stay in the playoff chase. He cited two reasons.
"So many teams in the Western Conference have good big men, like (Kyoto's) Reda Rhalimi, (Ryukyu's) George Leach, (Oita's) Rashaad Singleton, (Takamatsu's) Antoine Broxsie and (Takamatsu's) Terrance Farley," Pierce said. "And teams like Fukuoka have four big guys: Parker, (Isaiah) Fox, (Richard) Ford and (Thiago) Cordeiro. So we felt the need to add another big man if we could find one available. Ray played for us last season, so he should be able to fit into our system right away.
"The other factor was that (power forward) Gary Hamilton has turned out to be such a good passer that we can play him away from the low post more and let him create more opportunities for others, but that means someone else needs to be in the low post, thus creating a need and an opportunity for a good low post player like Ray."
He added: "We are in third now, so our first goal is to stay in the top four and preserve that playoff spot. But another reason to bring in Ray is to try to make a push for a home game in the playoffs, which means trying to move up into second place if possible."
Earlier this season, Schafer played for the Cangrejeros de Cartagena in Colombia. He also participated in preseason training camp with the Idaho Stampede of the NBA Development League (NBADL).
Show of strength: Pomare had nine offensive rebounds and 19 total boards in the 89ers' 82-74 road win over the Rizing on Tuesday. Teammate Holm pulled down 14 rebounds. Both inside stalwarts played a key role in giving Sendai a series split against a quality opponent on the road.
Did you know?: Fukuoka forward Michael Parker leads the league in minutes played (1,048). Takamatsu's Yu Okada is No. 2 (894) and McHenry is third (810).
The last word: "One good thing about Japanese people is they are very disciplined, and that's what we are all about. We are very disciplined and that's why we win games," said Nakamura, describing his team's recipe for success.