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Thursday, May 13, 2010


Eight teams set for playoff party

Staff writer

The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix made a habit of winning this season — 41 times in 52 games to be precise.

And now the playoffs begin, with veteran coach Kazuo Nakamura's club a heavy favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the championship game on May 23.

Hamamatsu faces the visiting Tokyo Apache (22-30) on Saturday and Sunday in the opening round of the playoffs.

The East's other first-round series pits the host Sendai 89ers (35-17) against the Niigata Albirex BB (25-27).

In the Western Conference, the Osaka Evessa (34-18) take on the visiting Shiga Lakestars (29-23) and the defending champion Ryukyu Golden Kings (33-19) play host to the Rizing Fukuoka (30-22).

Here's a brief breakdown of each of those series:

• Hamamatsu vs. Tokyo — The Phoenix won four of six regular-season meetings, twice by 12 points and once by 15. Tokyo's two wins were by a combined 15 points.

Hamamatsu shoots the ball well from the free-throw line (73.9 percent) and makes good decisions on offense (839 assists, 585 turnovers).

The Phoenix have perhaps the league's best one-two punch in Wendell White (see below) and William Knight, who averaged 22.2 and 19.6 points per game, respectively.

Tokyo, under first-year coach Motofumi Aoki, played better on the road (12-14) than at home (10-16). Apache veterans Julius Ashby, Rasheed Sparks and Cohey Aoki have all played quality minutes in the playoffs in previous years, including title games. They have probably the weakest bench of any playoff squad, though.

• Sendai vs. Niigata — The 89ers beat the Albirex five times out of six. What's more, they've gone 22-8 since gifted scorer Josh Peppers made his season debut on Jan. 8.

Peppers averaged 20.2 ppg, the highest output of any player in this series. Center Chris Holm is a galvanizing force in the paint, grabbing 13.8 rebounds per game, scoring 12.9 ppg and asserting himself as a capable passer (118 assists) when the situation presents itself.

The Albirex attempted 1,168 shots from inside the 3-point arc and took 1,134 shots from 3-point range, illustrating their commitment to spread the floor and create space for their shooters. Antonio Burks is the team's top perimeter marksman (111-for-278 on 3s), while Yuichi Ikeda knocked down 80 3-point shots. If those two find their rhythm early, it opens up the inside for forwards Paul Butorac, Uche Echefu and Tyrone Levett.

• Osaka vs. Shiga — The Evessa took care of business at home, winning 19 of 26 games during the regular season. Now, they'll play in Kobe in the first round of the playoffs. (A quick timeout for two necessary questions: Shouldn't a team with three titles in the league's first four seasons be given a chance to play in their home city to open the playoffs? Shouldn't the league have guaranteed that this would happen?)

Floor leaders Lynn Washington and Nile Murry paced the veteran-laden squad with 20.2 and 14.5 ppg, respectively. David Palmer (14.4) and Ryan Blackwell (12.0) were the team's other double-digit scorers, with Shota Konno, Jun Nakanishi, Jason Klotz and Hirohisa Takada making valuable contributions as the team closed out a regular-season conference title.

The Lakestars went 14-12 on the road, showing poise and confidence away from Shiga Prefecture.

High-energy power forward Gary Hamilton led the league in rebounding (14.3), as well as compiling team-high totals in assists, blocks and steals. He also scored 14.1 ppg. Masashi Joho, who averaged 15.0 ppg and Mikey Marshall, a 19.6 ppg scorer who joined the club in March and helped it go 11-5 to wrap up the season, are a formidable duo in their own right.

• Ryukyu vs. Fukuoka — In an injury-plagued regular season, the Golden Kings went 4-4 against Osaka, 3-3 against the Rizing and 3-3 against the Lakestars. But a playoff-tested lineup, bolstered by the additions of center George Leach and point guard Tusbasa Yonamine in the off-season and the emergence of Yosuke Sugawara and Masashi Obuchi as elite Japanese players in the league, is hungry to defend its title.

Golden Kings star forward Jeff Newton, the only player in league history to win four championships, returned to the lineup for the final eight games of the regular season, including double-doubles in four of the last five games. He had missed 17 games due to a dislocated shoulder.

Newton is the key figure for coach Dai Oketani's squad, a game-changing presence at both ends of the floor, as evidenced by his 50-point outburst against Osaka in the Final Four last May.

Ryukyu's poor free-throw shooting (60.3 percent) could be a factor if the games are close.

Second-year Golden Kings forward Anthony McHenry may be the best pure athlete in the league and is a gifted all-around player, too.

Two-time scoring champion Michael Parker is Fukuoka's most complete player, but a strong supporting cast, including underrated forward Marlyn Bryant and solid guards Kohei Mitomo and Tsuyoshi Kawazura, give coach Tadaharu Ogawa's squad a balanced attack on offense and an efficient effort on defense.

All-League honors: The 2009-10 Best Five team is comprised of Hamamatsu forward and league MVP Wendell White, the circuit's third-leading scorer (22.2 ppg); Rizing forward Michael Parker, the scoring champ (26.5 ppg) who placed in the top 10 in rebounds, steals, dunks, blocks and minutes; Kyoto Hannaryz guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, 41, who averaged 17.9 ppg; Apache guard Cohey Aoki, who averaged 15.2 ppg and made numerous clutch baskets in the fourth quarter; and Apache center Julius Ashby, the league's eighth-leading scorer (19.8 ppg), 10th-leading rebounder (10.6 rpg) and third-leading shot-blocker (1.7 per game).

The league announced the news on Wednesday.

Immediately after the selections were released voices of disapproval were heard around the nation.

"Three out of five players from teams with losing records?" one Western Conference coach blurted out with disgust to The Japan Times. "Are you kidding me?"

Also Wednesday, Phoenix bench boss Kazuo Nakamura was selected as the Coach of the Year. The high-scoring Phoenix were the model franchise in the East and a dominant force all season.

Best Sixth Man accolades went to Fukuoka guard Kohei Mitomo, who averaged 9.2 points in 50 games (eight starts).

Toyama Grouses guard Takeshi Mito was the recipient of the Most Improved Player award. After averaging 4.4 ppg in 2008-09, scored 11.7 ppg this season and nearly tripled his minutes.

Takamatsu Five Arrows shooting guard Yu Okada received the Commissioner Special Award in recognition of his 19.0 ppg season. Okada, the league's 10th-leading scorer and the first Japanese to finish in the top 10 in the league's five-year history, is a prolific 3-point shooter (175-for-484).

He was also No. 2 in steals (2.3 per game).

The Shiga Lakestars fans were given the Best Booster Award.

Voting was done by commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi, the league's 13 head coaches and players. However, players and coaches could not vote for players on their own team.

Terrific turnaround: Oita HeatDevils coach Brian Rowsom guided his club to a 25-27 record in his first season at the helm. The team won 17 more games than it did in 2008-09.

Though they missed the playoffs, the HeatDevils laid the foundation for a run at the Final Four next season — that is, if the team retains its nucleus.

"I am proud of my team for their commitment to working hard this season and improving themselves as players first and then as a team," Rowsom said. "Back in September, I knew I had a lot of work to be done but I tried to be positive and patient with them after the long season they had last year.

"Honestly, coming into this situation I was hoping for about 15 wins the first year. Then all of a sudden we started to get better and improve and I saw we could be even more competitive, so overall it was a great season and a 17-game improvement in one year. In my wildest imagination I did not expect that.

"We still have a lot of work to do going forward and I am already looking at some subtle changes that can get us into the playoffs next season, of course assuming we are all back.

He added: "I know what we need, though, after seeing other teams in the league and I think we can make those changes. I will also be a better coach having gone through a season now in the league so I am excited about the possibilities."

Shimane scoop: Zeljko Pavlicevic, the Japan men's national team's head coach from 2003 through the 2006 FIBA World Championship, has attracted the interest of expansion club Shimane Susanoo Magic, sources say, adding that he's expected to be named Shimane's first head coach.

Pavlicevic, 59, is from Croatia.

His coaching career also includes stops in Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Spain and Serbia. He guided Cibona (Croatia) in 1986 to a Euroleague title, and won another Euro title in 1991 with anther Croatian club, Split.

Difficult decision: The Golden Kings have earned a loyal following throughout the Okinawa islands, but they are still a minor piece of the region's economic puzzle.

An Okinawan basketball insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes the heated debate over whether to move all or part of Futenma Air Base would be a costly mistake.

"Okinawa needs the bases here for a number of reasons:

"1. The number of people who work on the base is around 10,000.

"2. The number of companies that have contracts with the bases. How many thousands more?

"3. Support companies that provide support and services to the bases. How many thousands more?

"4. The housing agencies who charge ridiculous rental fees for housing for the military ($3,000 to $5,000 per month per house/apartment).

"5. And not to mention the number of other restaurants and business that are visited by the military being here. How many thousands more?

"So, in other words, Okinawa could not make it without the bases being here. Right now the central government pumps billions of dollars into the Okinawa government that would also go away if the bases go."

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