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Friday, April 30, 2010


Wild final week looms as teams eye playoffs

Staff writer

The bj-league's fifth season — a hectic dash to the finish line — wraps up on May 9.

Between Friday and the last date of the regular season, there will be at least one game each day, thanks to Golden Week.

Several playoff positions have yet to be finalized.

Many players will solidify their spots on their teams for next season, or fall further out of favor with their current employers.

And it says here that a handful of coaches will work their final regular-season games with their current clubs.

Before an offseason of uncertainty kicks off, though, the excitement of the playoffs will become the focus of our attention.

But first, these are among the most compelling questions that have yet to be answered:

• Which team will win the Western Conference's regular-season title? And which teams will be seeded second, third and fourth for the postseason tournament?

• In the Eastern Conference, will the fourth-place Tokyo Apache continue their unlikely climb, moving up from the cellar to the No. 3 seed?

Tokyo coach Motofumi Aoki's team has won eight of its last 10 games. Backcourt catalyst Rasheed Sparks has 32 assists against 18 turnovers and racked up 26 steals and eight blocked shots to go along with a solid 14.0 ppg in that span.

• Will the Niigata Albirex BB fall to fourth in the East?

• Will Apache guard Cohey Aoki win his fourth free-throw shooting title?

He's in position to do so, shooting 87.7 percent entering this weekend's contests.

• Will Niigata big man Paul Butorac or Ryukyu Golden Kings forward Bryan Simpson be the top field-goal shooter when the regular season concludes?

Both are tied at 56 percent.

• Will Shiga Lakestars power forward Gary Hamilton or Sendai 89ers center Chris Holm claim the title of league's best rebounder?

Holm, the defending champ, is No. 2 at 13.8 rebounds per game; Hamilton is atop the charts at 14.2.

• Will Saitama Broncos fans, who ought to be fed up with the team's perpetual mediocrity, voice their disgust about the team's fifth straight non-playoff season?

Will they collectively demand changes in the team's front office?

• Will Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf end his season with the Kyoto Hannaryz on a positive note?

In other words, will the 41-year-old shooting guard, averaging 17.5 points per game, deliver a special performance in the season's closing moments?

He's playing at a high level right now, what with nine straight games of 16 or more points.

Upcoming games: On Friday, the East-leading Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (38-10) begin a home series against the Broncos (15-33). On Saturday, three series commence: Toyama Grouses (16-32) vs. Niigata (22-26); Oita HeatDevils (24-24) vs. Shiga (28-22); and Sendai (33-15) vs. Tokyo (21-27).

On Monday, Kyoto (16-32) plays host to the West-leading Osaka Evessa (30-18), looking to play late-season spoiler in the series. On Tuesday, the Takamatsu Five Arrows (12-36) begin a series against the visiting Rizing Fukuoka (28-20).

The Apache return to Tokyo to play their final two regular season games at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 next Thursday and Friday against the Grouses.

Next week's notebook will detail the significance of the other teams' final regular-season games on May 8-9.

League accolades: Ryukyu center George Leach, who helped lead his team to a weekend sweep over the Takamatsu Five Arrows, is the Circle K Sunkus Player of the Week.

Leach had a 16-point performance in the series opener, followed by a 20-point, 23-rebound outing in the rematch.

An Indiana University product, Leach is averaging 14.6 ppg.

The April MVP honor goes to Shiga shooting guard Masashi Joho, who helped the team go 6-2 in the month.

Joho averaged 15.6 ppg in April, including four straight 20-point games in that span.

Takahashi update: Sendai guard Kenichi Takahashi has been sidelined since April 10 with a right ankle injury.

When he's healthy, Takahashi gives the 88ers another capable passer and dependable perimeter shooter (11.4 ppg). He's a solid, quick, active defender as well.

What's more, Takahashi generally makes good decisions with the basketball (157 assists, 70 turnovers).

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