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Saturday, May 22, 2010


Powerhouse Phoenix favored over Albirex

Staff writer

Everyone expected the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to reach the Final Four.

That's what happens when a team goes 41-11 in the regular season, and coach Kazuo Nakamura's squad is built to win a championship — right now.

Blessed with an alluring mix of athleticism and talent, youth and experienced veterans, the Phoenix have all the ingredients to win the team's first title on Sunday at Ariake Colosseum.

The Niigata Albirex BB, meanwhile, did enough things right last Sunday to eliminate the host Sendai 89ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, wrapping up the weekend with a victory in the 10-minute tiebreaker that followed Game 2.

And so the Eastern Conference final pits the top-seeded Phoenix against the No. 3 Albirex. The game is slated to begin at 7:10 p.m. on Saturday, also at Ariake.

Regular-season MVP Wendell White, the league's No. 3 scorer at 22.2 points per game, is a stabilizing force for Hamamatsu, but the All-Star's productivity could be limited due to an ankle injury sustained on Sunday against the Tokyo Apache.

The Phoenix feature capable backcourt defenders in Takuro Ito and Masahiro Oguchi and talented shooters in Shingo Okada and Kazutoshi Ota to complement established veterans White, William Knight and Dzaflo Larkai.

Keeping Larkai out of the paint will likely be a key for Niigata coach Masaya Hirose's team. Larkai shot 70 percent from the field in the regular season. And when he's double-teamed in the paint, he often finds the open man.

Which gives space for Hamamatsu's Wayne Arnold, the league's top 3-point shooter (40.0 percent, or 74-for-185), to operate on the perimeter.

The Albirex counter with their own inside-outside attack, using Paul Butorac and Uche Echefu as the primary scorers in the lane, with Antonio Burks, Yuichi Ikeda, Akitomo Takeno, Shuhei Komatsu and Tyrone Levett teaming up to give the squad a number of long-distance shooting options.

Niigata is at its best when the speedy Takeno stays alert and involved on offense, dishing the ball to his teammates and creating shots for himself.

The Albirex have a tendency to play their best basketball when they are forced to rally from a big deficit or in the final moments of a game. However, maintaining that high level of performance has been a struggle all season.

The Phoenix have played at such a high level all season that it's far from shocking to report details such as the following from last Saturday's Eastern Conference semifinal opener:

On a night when no Hamamatsu player was on the court for more than 22 minutes — 28-point blowouts give coaches a chance to use bench players early and often — a few defensive numbers illustrated the fierce determination the Phoenix had to take away Tokyo's strengths. The hosts finished with 12 steals and seven blocked shots — those 19 plays equaled one less than Tokyo's total two-point baskets.

Such is the determination Hamamatsu has exhibited all season, putting itself in position to be the league's Eastern Conference representative in the title game.

The Albirex have experienced a roller-coaster season, never straying a few games from .500 after putting together a lengthy winning streak in the fall.

Ikeda believes Niigata's import players have all made positive contributions for the team, doing so in different ways.

"Levett is our leader," Ikeda said in a recent phone interview. "Burks is our scorer from outside. Butorac is a key man inside. (Calvin) Chitwood is a phenomenal defender and shows gutsy plays that give the team energy. Echefu is our mood maker."

Butorac, who joined the Albirex last season, said the team's confidence never wavered despite its up-and-down season.

"We know what we are capable of doing," he said. "It's a matter of going out there and playing hard and getting those wins."

Nakamura said his team can't take any opponent lightly, even a team that won 16 fewer games in the regular season. He said the Phoenix's focus will remain the same: hard-nosed defense and balanced scoring.

Hamamatsu's deep bench gives him multiple options, especially if injuries and/or foul trouble require a change.

Looking back: A year ago, the Phoenix were one of the league's most intriguing teams with 236-cm center Sun Ming Ming and high-scoring guard Michael Gardener. Both players are now elsewhere — Sun in his native China, while Gardener wrapped up a tough season with the 13-win Takamatsu Five Arrows.

TV schedule: Saturday's conference final games will be televised by both BS Fuji and Gaora, with Gaora's coverage beginning at 3 p.m., 30 minutes before the Western final. BS Fuji's broadcast begins at 3:30. The Eastern final's coverage starts at 7 for both stations.

On Sunday, both stations will show the third-place game (Gaora's coverage begins at 12:55 and BS Fuji's at 1 p.m.) Gaora's championship game coverage kicks off at 4 p.m. and at 4:30 for BS Fuji.

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