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Friday, May 21, 2010

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Evessa, Kings set for titanic battle


Staff writer

Before the bj-league unveiled its current two-conference format, the Osaka Evessa were the league's first elite team.

The Evessa collected three consecutive titles, starting in the spring of 2006. And then they faced the second-year Ryukyu Golden Kings in the Western Conference final last May at Ariake Colosseum.

Ex-Evessa star Jeff Newton, who quickly became Ryukyu's franchise player, delivered the greatest clutch performance in league history in that game, scoring a then-league record 50 points in a thrilling comeback to carry the Golden Kings into the title game for the first time.

Ryukyu completed its season-long mission to win a title and delivered a historic first professional sports title to Okinawa.

Now the teams with all four of the bj-league's titles between them seek to experience the sweet taste of a championship conquest once more.

One of these teams will represent the Western Conference in Sunday's title game at 4:40 p.m. at Ariake against the Eastern Conference finalist.

On Saturday, the Niigata Albirex BB face the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix in the 7:10 p.m. game. The Western final begins at 3:30 p.m.

Osaka, the West's regular-season champ, reached the conference final after a two-game sweep over the Shiga Lakestars, including a 61-60 victory in the opener. Lynn Washington, nationally recognized as Evessa's heart and soul player, scored a buzzer-beating basket to clinch the win.

Ryukyu returned to the Final Four by eliminating the Rizing Fukuoka last weekend.

Both coaches, Dai Oketani of the Golden Kings and Kensaku Tennichi of the Evessa, preach the need for their teams to play fundamental basketball, about the importance of defense and rebounding and making smart decisions on offense.

Former Indiana University forwards, Newton and Washington give Ryukyu and Osaka, respectively, a proven go-to player with the ability to lead his team to victory. More importantly, both players exude confidence which rubs off on their teammates.

During the regular season, the Golden Kings and the Evessa split their eight contests.

Indeed, the teams are quite familiar with one another. They share similar winning traits. They made smart signings to improve their clubs during the off-season and the current season.

The Golden Kings, for example, brought in ex-Takamatsu Five Arrows center George Leach, another ex-Indiana Hoosier, to shore up their frontline. He's added quality shot-blocking, rebounding and low-post scoring to the mix. They also added guard Masashi Obuchi, a former JBL player, to the lineup in January. He's made major contributions as a perimeter scorer in recent weeks.

The same could be said for point guard Tsubasa Yonamine, who replaced two-time Best Five Team player Naoto Takushi (who joined the Kyoto Hannaryz last spring) in the backcourt. In addition, Yonamine's passing, defensive contributions and leadership skills have been outstanding all season.

The Evessa signed forward David Palmer, the league's MVP in 2006-07 who helped Osaka win its first two championships, after a two-year absence from Japan. Big man Jason Klotz, who played at Texas, has fit in well in Tennichi's no-frills system.

Osaka point guard Nile Murry has been a productive floor leader all season. When he brings his "A" game, the Evessa are a tough team to beat.

Ryukyu forward Anthony McHenry, a player many consider to be the league's finest all-around athlete, is a valuable asset for the defending champs. Rebounds, blocks, steals, assists and double-digit point totals are all regular contributions from the Georgia Tech product.

While rising star Shigeyuki Kinjo has been sidelined since December with a knee injury, fellow guard Yosuke Sugawara has elevated his game and embraced the challenge of giving the team quality minutes in Kinjo's absence. Sugawara's skills and athleticism combined for a solid performance in the series opener against the Rizing (12 points, five rebounds and five assists).

Off the bench, forward Bryan Simpson provides instant energy for Oketani's squad. His effort in the aforementioned opener — 14 points (three dunks) and four rebounds in 25 minutes — was a reminder of his role all season.

For the Evessa, Tennichi has found a way to challenge his players to step up as the season progresses. Hirohisa Takada made sizable contributions as a starter over the final three-plus months. In addition, forward Hideki Katsumata scored a season-high 13 points in Sunday's series-clinching win over Shiga. That bodes well for the team's confidence level entering the Final Four.

Afterthought: As stated numerous times in The Japan Times, the bj-league needs to find a way to give teams a primary home venue. The use of five, six, seven or more home gyms is a bad precedent for any team to have.

The latest reminder of the urgency of this problem — to find a solution to this issue — occurred last Saturday in Kobe, where the "home team," Osaka, and the Shiga Lakestars competed in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.

Sure, defensive intensity, which is greater during the playoffs, played a part in the teams' woeful 3-point shooting (a combined 4-for-41), but using a gym that neither team can accurately call its home gym was the major factor.

Fans deserve better than this. And it makes the league look bad.



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