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Friday, Jan. 14, 2011

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Blackwell takes stock of sweep by Phoenix

Staff writer

How a team responds after a key series can be a defining moment in a season.

News photo
Man in charge: Shimane Susanoo Magic coach Zeljko Pavlicevic (above, center) speaks to his players during the Jan. 8 game against the Tokyo Apache at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2. (Below) Pavlicevic gives instructions to guard Takumi Ishizaki, who will play in the All-Star Game on Jan. 23 in Osaka. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO
News photo

Osaka Evessa coach Ryan Blackwell is now faced with this situation after his team dropped a pair of home games to the defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix on Sunday and Monday.

The Phoenix, led by fiery sideline conductor Kazuo Nakamura, were clearly the better team in both games, winning by 18 and 10 points.

Blackwell acknowledged his squad had a tough weekend against a strong foe.

"They had a good plan the first game, especially against our zone," Blackwell said. "We had no energy on defense and let them do whatever they wanted, especially Wayne Arnold (who scored 35 points).

"In the second game we played good for 30 minutes and then lost focus the last quarter, missing defensive assignments and turning the ball over (19 total) at crucial times. We have to keep our composure at all times and be consistent and focused for 40 minutes, no matter who we play against. When we do that, we are fine."

He added: "Hamamatsu is talented, deep, disciplined and confident. They do a good job of keeping their composure and they play well together. They play a hectic style of defense that works in this type of league. They try to take you out of your normal routine and get you flustered on offense.

"The main thing is to be patient, move the ball fast — you can't go one-on-one too much — find the openings and be aggressive. Someone is always going to have an open shot or drive against that defense and I stressed to my team to just be ready to make a play."

Now, Blackwell, a first-year coach whose club is atop the Western Conference standings with a 17-7 record, refocuses his team on its next set of games — against the host Saitama Broncos, winners of five straight.

Naturally, the Evessa would like to meet the Phoenix again during the regular season. But due to the unbalanced schedule — seven Eastern Conference teams and nine West squads — last weekend's two-game set was their only series of the season.

And so Blackwell and Co. have their sights set on facing Hamamatsu in the title game for the second year in a row.

"Like I told my team, they won that battle, but the war is far from over," Blackwell said.

Coaching spotlight: When Zeljko Pavlicevic, a legendary coach in Europe, matched wits with Tokyo coach Bob Hill during the Apache-Susanoo Magic weekend series at Yoyogi, this high-profile matchup had many people's attention.

"It's the different styles," Shimane forward Forrest Ray Fisher III said in a Sunday interview. "With Bob Hill, he likes to play more with big men and play defensive schemes and our coach is more run, pressure defense and things like that. . . . There's a very big difference in the styles, but it's always nice when you have a game like this and two-big time coaches together."

The Susanoo Magic's first road trip to Tokyo ended with a 1-1 record and a sense of accomplishment considering the team has been coping with a rash of injuries, including center Will Caudle (elbow).

Room to grow: The Shimane Susanoo Magic sit in seventh place in the nine-team West with a 9-15 record. They've played two fewer games than the sixth-place Oita HeatDevils (12-14), who are coming off a two-game sweep of the Akita Northern Happinets on Tuesday and Wednesday. There's plenty of time for them to improve their playoff chances in the weeks to come.

Fisher, a former U.S. Marine, experienced his share of stern discipline while serving in the military. He believes Pavlicevic's commitment to excellence has helped plant the seeds for future success.

"In the Marine Corps, they are really strict and try to break you down (psychologically) to the bottom and build you back up, and this coach works in the same way," Fisher told The Japan Times after Sunday's game against Tokyo at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2. "A player can react in one of two ways: He's either going to go very high or very low, and it's rough on the players.

"But we are starting to grasp his concepts and we are becoming stronger as a team. We're very young on the Japanese side with a lot of rookies, and so it's hard to built, but the team is getting stronger and better. And the coach is drilling us more than on any other team I've ever played with."

Pavlicevic wants perfection from his players.

Fisher cited the example of an offensive drill the team might run, saying the coach will have the players do it 100 times but also expect them to do it with "an intensity level of 150 percent."

"He's going to work you to the max," Fisher added.

Vying for the playoffs: It's still early, but one wonders if any of the three expansion teams — Akita (8-16) and Miyazaki (7-17) are the others — can qualify for the playoffs this season.

The Susanoo Magic appear to have the best chance to do so.

"The thing is, the way I feel right now is that we're still growing," Fisher said. "You don't want to hit your peak at the beginning of the season. You really want to hit your peak as a team going into the playoffs, and I feel we have a really good chance of doing that.

"If we can make the playoffs as the one seed or the sixth seed, it shows that we can be really strong in the playoffs because we are constantly growing. We started out slow, but it's a step, it's a day-to-day process, we're having to grow as a team."

Fearlessness and versatility are two chief traits of the expansion club and opponents have commended the Magic's hard-nosed play since the preseason.

According to Fisher, these performance characteristics are by design.

"You can tell that was one of the main things the coach focused on when picking these players," he said. "We have a bunch of rookies but he picked the players that are going to go get it, are going to play hard. And we might not be the best team, but we are going to play harder, we are going to play physical, we are going to take the contact, and if you ever saw one of our practices, you would understand why. It's basically a war."

A typical Shimane practice lasts 2 1/2 to 3 hours, he said.

Making an impression: Asked to select the best player he's played with or against this season, Fisher offered a name that may surprise many people around the league: Reggie Golson.

The 201-cm Magic forward is averaging 17.2 ppg.

"He's so versatile. He's a great defender. He can guard guys bigger, guys smaller, and offensively he's a deadly threat," Fisher said. "I think the league really isn't getting to see his full potential because he hasn't been (100 percent) with his hamstring injury. It's the same thing with our whole team. I think once Reggie's 100 percent, he'll probably be the best player in this league."

In addition, Fisher called Osaka the best team he's seen.

"You can tell they've played together and it shows on the court. They don't get rattled if something's going wrong."

Emerging talent: Shimane guard Tatsuhiro Yokoo is the team's fifth-leading scorer (8.3 ppg). He's a rookie player in the bj-league who has made big strides since joining the team. Yokoo is gaining confidence and a solid sense of what it takes to succeed in this league.

According to Pavlicevic, Yokoo will be given greater opportunities to score and will also be challenged to make bigger contributions on defense in the weeks to come. The coach expects Yokoo to be able to handle greater responsibilities as the season progresses.

He also said forward Terry Evans (7.1 points, 1.5 steals, nearly one block per game) helps bolster the effectiveness of the team's frontcourt players due to his versatility and explosiveness as a defender or scorer, noting Davis' leaping ability is a special asset for the squad.

Staying humble: Oita coach L.J. Hepp admitted he was happy his team earned a split last week in Tokyo, bouncing back to the series finale.

To say he's 1-1 against Hill this season, what are Hepp's thoughts on the matter?

"I do appreciate the question and first and foremost I think it's about our group of guys and their group of guys," Hepp told a news conference. "It's not really about myself as a coach or Coach Hill as a coach, although it is a great challenge. And really, frankly, it's an honor to be able to coach in the same league as Coach Hill.

"The friends that I have that have NBA ties, they all know that he's over here . . . and frankly for me it is a neat thing to be able to say, 'Yeah, we are in the same league.' "

More HeatDevils coverage: Veteran guards Kimitake Sato and Hiroki Sato are giving the club solid productivity and Hepp believes this will continue and increase as the season progresses.

"Their numbers this year have been better from a shooting percentage-wise than they've ever been in the past," Hepp said. "They are both guys that have been HeatDevils for a long time (Hiroki Sato since 2005 and Kimitake Sato for two-plus seasons). . . . I think they are probably playing their best basketball of their career right now, and we are playing them a lot, they play a lot of minutes for us. We've given them some freedom and I think in time — we are going into our fifth month together now — we are probably more comfortable with each other.

"I think mainly where they are getting better is understanding where shots can come on offense and certainly just from a mentality standpoint that we want them to play aggressively, we want them to play freely and we've got confidence in them to produce. And they really have certainly since our break in early December. They've both played really, really well these last eight games."

Hiroki Sato is averaging 6.8 ppg, second-most among the team's Japanese players.

Catching up with . . . Bobby St. Preux: The former Sendai 89ers standout and All-Star Game MVP is now playing professionally in the 12-team Iran Super League. He signed a contract in early January to play for B.A. Shiraz.

Full slate: All 16 teams are in action this weekend, with the All-Star break just around the corner. Here are the matchups: Niigata vs. Oita, Saitama vs. Osaka, Hamamatsu vs. Takamatsu, Miyazaki vs. Tokyo, Shimane vs. Toyama, Fukuoka vs. Akita and Ryukyu vs. Sendai.

Choosing a name: Fans have been asked to submit ideas to the new Iwate Prefecture franchise, which begins play next fall, for its nickname.

Send suggestions via fax (019-651-5015) or e-mail (teamname@bj-iwate.info).

In addition to your name suggestion, jot down the idea behind the name, as well as your name, address, age, occupation and telephone number.

The team plans to decide on a name in February. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks.

Here is the team's website: www.bj-iwate.info/blog/

Fourth-quarter impact: This reporter has never seen an individual breakdown on statistics that shows which players are the league's top scorers in the first, second, third or fourth quarters. The league's stats only show game totals.

But that begs the question: Who are the league's top scorers in the fourth quarter?

"If it's not (Michael) Parker, I would guess Lynn (Washington) next," a league observer told The Japan Times.

Those are two good guesses. Parker frequently goes to the free-throw line and has been a go-to scorer since joining the Rizing in the 2007-08 season. The same is true for Osaka's Washington since Day One in the bj-league.

Small fraternity: Through Tuesday, this is a list of the Japanese players averaging 10 or more points per game:

• Shiga's Masashi Joho (13.7)

• Shimane's Takumi Ishizaki (12.9)

• Saitama's Kazuya "J." Hatano (10.8; his 88 free-throw attempts are tops among Japanese players)

• Takamatsu's Satoshi Takeda (10.7)

• Tokyo's Cohey Aoki (10.6)

• Takamatsu's Hiroyuki Kikuchi (10.5)

• Niigata's Yuichi Ikeda and Tokyo's Jumpei Nakama (10.2)

• Toyama's Takeshi Mito (10.0) Several Japanese are averaging between eight and 10 points. They are:

• Miyazaki's Taishiro Shimizu (9.9)

• Ryukyu's Shigeyuki Kinjo and Fukuoka's Akitomo Takeno (9.5)

• Takamatsu's Shuichi Takada (9.1)

• Miyazaki's Takuro Ito and Ryukyu's Naoto Kosuge (8.7)

• Shiga's Yu Okada (8.6)

• Fukuoka's Jun Nakanishi (8.4)

• Saitama's Daiki Terashita and Shimane's Tatsuhiro Yokoo (8.3)

• Oita's Kimitake Sato (8.2)

More numbers: Kikuchi has made one start in 22 games, has scored in double digits in all but five contests. Kyoto's Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is 19-for-21 at the free-throw line, so he ought to be taking more foul shots.

Miyazaki's Hiroki Fujita is 13-for-13 at the charity stripe and a solid 26-for-63 from 3-point range. Fukuoka's Jartavious Henderson is 30-for-77 at the line.

Injury report: Evessa guard Shota Konno will be sidelined for six weeks with a fractured left leg, sustained earlier this week against Hamamatsu. Konno is averaging 6.5 ppg and has played 576 minutes, tops among native players. He won't play in the 2010-11 All-Star Game in Osaka.

League spokesman Akihiro Ejima said on Thursday evening that a replacement player will not be named to fill Konno's spot. Abdul-Rauf would appear to be the logical choice and sentimental fan favorite to replace Konno if the league changed its mind. After all, he's already scheduled to appear in the 3-Point Shootout prior to the All-Star Game on Jan. 23.

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