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Saturday, May 7, 2011

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Hanging tough: Shiga Lakestars guard Masashi Joho defends Kyoto Hannaryz guard Hikaru Kusaka in the bj-league's Western Conference first-round series last Saturday in Otsu. Joho's team and seven other bj-league clubs are in action this weekend in the conference semifinals round. KYODO PHOTO

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Conference semifinals put top stars on display


STAFF WRITER

Eight teams remain in the hunt for the bj-league's sixth title, including the three-time champion Osaka Evessa and the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, both of whom have one title apiece.

The Phoenix (40-6) enter the postseason as the defending champion and the Eastern Conference's undisputed top team until proven otherwise. Coach Kazuo Nakamura's club plays host to the Toyama Grouses (13-31) this weekend in the East's semifinal round.

The other series pits the Niigata Albirex BB (20-20) against the visiting Akita Northern Happinets (18-32).

In the Western Conference, top-seeded Ryukyu (34-16), coming off a bye week, faces the visiting Shiga Lakestars, who eliminated the Kyoto Hannaryz last weekend, and Osaka (32-18), also well rested after a week off, renew their rivalry with the Rizing Fukuoka.

In the opening round of the playoffs last week, Fukuoka handed the Shimane Susanoo Magic a two-game sweep, advancing to face a team it went 3-3 against in the regular season.

The four remaining West teams were separated by five wins before the postseason, with the Lakestars and Rizing both collecting 30.

The four series winners advance to the Final Four, which will be held at Ariake Colosseum on May 21-22.

What follows is a breakdown of the four conference semifinal series.

Hamamatsu vs. Toyama: Nakamura's team went 5-1 against the Grouses this season. The Phoenix are 6-2 since play resumed after the March 11 earthquake.

Kazuaki Shimoji replaced Kohei Eto as Toyama's coach in early February, when the team was 8-18.

In the season's final eight games, Shimoji's squad went 1-7, not the type of record that would please any coach.

John Davis and Takeshi Mito at 11.7 and 10.5 points per game, respectively, are Toyama's only double-digit scorers. All-Star forward Brian Harper's departure in March hurt the team's depth; he was the leading scorer. But Jerrell Smith (9.8 points) and Haakim Johnson (9.1) are capable of handling bigger roles.

Hamamatsu specializes in draining 3-pointers early and often, which opens up the game inside for backdoor cuts and quick forays to the rack. Six Phoenix players flushed 38 or more 3s, including Wayne Arnold (112) and Ray Nixon (94). MVP Jeffrey Parmer is the team's second-leading scorer (16.9 points) and catalyst on offense and defense. Arnold, the team's super substitute, paced the team with 18.6 points as it cruised to the regular-season conference title.

"It's been a great season," Arnold told The Japan Times. "Some of the games we have pulled out have been amazing. We have a confidence about ourselves that we can always win a game regardless of what the situation is."

Entering the playoffs, "our mind-set is basically that if we don't win the championship, we had a great season for nothing. It's almost like baking a birthday cake but forget the icing. It just wouldn't be right.

"We have every intention of winning the title again this year. We know its not going to be easy. We also know that we can't take Toyama lightly in the first round either. We have to come into that game with a championship in mind."

Niigata vs. Akita: This is another atypical playoff series, with six former Albirex players — Makoto Hasegawa, Paul Butorac, Ryosuke Mizumachi, Dokun Akingbade, Antonio Burks and Kazuhiro Shoji (from the team's JBL days) — now wearing a Happinets uniform.

In addition, Niigata played 10 fewer regular-season games, so the ebb and flow of its season was quite different than Akita's.

The expansion Happinets, led by veteran coach Bob Pierce, went 4-2 against the Albirex, who were a Final Four team last season.

Center George Leach played four games for Niigata in April, joining the team after the Saitama Broncos season ended. The Indiana University product averaged 7.5 points, grabbed 40 rebounds and blocked five shots in those games.

Zach Andrews is the Albirex's leading scorer (16.4 ppg), followed by Julius Ashby (11.5) and Yuichi Ikeda (10.2 ppg, 87 3-pointers). Issa Konare (7.9 ppg), Shuhei Komatsu adds another perimeter threat to the mix, and two-time Best Five selection Naoto Takushi, the starting point guard for Ryukyu during the team's championship season, averaged 6.9 points and took care of the basketball (128 assists, 67 turnovers).

In Leach's view, Niigata has made the most of its idle time — only six games since March 1 (2-4 record in that span — and will be a tough foe for Akita.

"We all wish we had games during this time but the upside is we got to fine tune things individually," Leach said. "After playing three seasons out here, my mind-set is geared towards playing every weekend. I like our team's preparation so far. Coach (Masaya) Hirose is a teaching coach and is adamant on game preparation. He constantly says that he's not just coaching us to win games but ultimately to take our basketball skills to the next level.

"Our biggest test so far the past two months was to get everyone back in shape. Like me, Kenny Satterfield and Gordon Klaiber (Saitama teammates) were fortunate to get picked up by other teams. After the earthquake hit, it was tough to go to any gym in the area for three weeks or so. All we could do is running outside and push-ups and sit-ups in the house."

The Albirex have maintained their focus in the buildup to the playoffs, though

"Practices have been very productive. ... There are no egos on this team and everyone respects each other and that creates a good practice environment," Leach said. "Veteran guys like Julius Ashby and Ikeda are vocal, along with myself, when needed."

"The thing with going up against Akita is that they are better than their record," added Leach. "Adding Will Graves helped their team and they are well coached. They also have good Japanese player such as Hasegawa, Shoji and (Saitama guard) Yuuki Kitamuki. As a team we can't and won't take any team lightly. Coach Hirose addresses that. We are looking to forward to playing Akita. We have worked extremely hard and we would love for our fans here in Niigata see our hard work pay off."

Former North Carolina Tar Heel Will Graves, who joined Akita in February, leads the team in scoring (22.2 ppg), followed by fellow rookie Sek Henry (18.7), while Butorac (14.4) and Burks (10.9) also score in double digits. Akingbade (9.3) and Shoji (6.0) round out the team's top six, with Makoto Sawaguchi, a year removed from high school, and Hasegawa, who turned 40 last month, each averaging 5.3 ppg.

Pierce and Hirose both have encountered challenges in concocting their scouting reports for this weekend's series.

Listen to Pierce's explanation:

"We have played Niigata six times this season, but we have never faced this lineup before, and that is a very strange occurrence, caused by the earthquake. The last time we played them they had George Leach and Julius Ashby, but they kept Zach Andrews on the bench because he had just returned from the (United) States. Issa Konare returned later. So we have never seen the Niigata team with those four players together.

"Against Hamamatsu at the end of the season they played with only two imports on the court, starting George Leach and Julius Ashby, and bringing Zach and Issa in as subs. They went 1-1 against Hamamatsu (on April 23-24). But we heard that in a scrimmage with Toyama this past weekend they played George, Julius, and Issa together. So we have to prepare for both lineups."

Against the Phoenix last month the Albirex won the battle on the boards in both games, and Pierce considers that his team's "biggest concern" for this series.

Akingbade and Andrews, however, both had 11.3 rebounds per game, tied for fourth in the league. Graves, meanwhile, added 21- and 20-rebound efforts against Niigata in their last two-game series on April 2-3, though Pierce acknowledged that happened while the Albirex were short-handed.

Niigata is also very dangerous because of Takushi at the point and Ikeda (35.8 percent for 3s, 17th in the league), although it was Komatsu (five 3s) and (Hirotaka) Kondo (four 3s), respectively, who did the damage from outside against Hamamatsu," Pierce said.

Above all, the coach said, here's the basic breakdown on the series:

Ryukyu vs. Shiga: The Golden Kings, built to make a run for another championship, are 7-1 since April 1.

What's more, coach Dai Oketani's team features a balanced scoring attack, led by leading point-getters Carlos Dixon (15.9) and David Palmer (13.5), and proven lockdown defenders in Jeff Newton and Anthony McHenry.

In his first season in Okinawa, former All-Star Game MVP Naoto Kosuge has been a steady scorer for the Kings (10.5 ppg). Shigeyuki Kinjo, a season removed from a major knee injury, has also made a solid impact (9.3 ppg). Late-season pickup Takehiko Shimura scored 14 points on 5-for-5 shooting in the season finale against Miyazaki. The longtime Sendai player had 23 assists and five steals in the last eight games, improving the backcourt rotation that also includes Tsubasa Yonamine.

The Lakestars lost three of four games against the Golden Kings this season.

Shiga's Mikey Marshall doesn't expect any big surprises this weekend.

"I think it's going to kind of be the same (type of) series," Marshall said of facing Ryukyu after his team wrapped up the first-round triumph last weekend against Kyoto. "It's going to be drag-out (showdown), either team can win. It's just going to come down to defense and who is a little better on offense, because the defense is definitely going to be there."

Shiga's regular rotation, which includes guards Takamichi Fujiwara, Yu Okada and Masashi Joho and frontcourt players Josh Peppers, Lamar Rice Gary Hamilton and Ray Schafer, benefits when Joho brings his "A" game to the arena.

"He was aggressive early trying to get to the basket," Marshall said last Sunday after Joho's 15-point Game 2 performance. "You know when you have a good Japanese player playing well, it's a bonus for a team.

Joho is one of the better finishers in the league among the Japanese players, Marshall said.

"Joho is a plus for us," added Marshall. "He's one of our key guys and you just never know. He could go off for 20 points any night. It's just a plus for our team."

Osaka vs. Fukuoka: The Evessa were a Final Four team in each of the league's first five seasons, and now try to extend that streak under rookie head coach Ryan Blackwell.

Osaka closed out the regular season with five wins in eight games. Newcomers Kenny Satterfield (Saitama) and Tseng Wen-ting (Taiwan) bolstered the team's play at point guard and center, respectively, in the season's final weeks. Satterfield led the league in assists. Tseng averaged 8.3 points and blocked 26 shots in 14 games, but fouled out three times.

Two-time MVP Lynn Washington remains the team's emotional leader and undisputed go-to player (19.7 ppg), though Billy Knight is another dangerous scorer (17.1 ppg), with Wayne Marshall, Shota Konno and Hirohisa Takada filling roles as complementary players.

The Evessa want to limit the effectiveness of Fukuoka's Michael Parker, the league's top scorer (27.3), on offense, but that's easier said than done. He has, after all, been the scoring champion for three consecutive seasons.

"The biggest challenge with Fukuoka is to not turn the ball over and transition D.," Washington said. "Also, stopping Parker and letting the other players beat you is essential."

Akitomo Takeno, a rising star in the backcourt, is a game-changer for the Rizing, shooting a league-best 46 percent from 3-point range and averaging 10.2 points in the first season of his second tour of duty with Fukuoka, and will have the Evessa's full and undivided attention.

"Takeno is one of the best Japanese players in the league," said Washington. "You have to know where he is at all times."

Point guard figures to be an interesting individual matchup as Satterfield takes on the Rizing's Nile Murry, who helped lead Osaka to the title game last spring.

"If we control what we are doing and keep our defensive principles and play the right way, we should be fine," said Satterfield in a Thursday phone interview. "We are more worried about ourselves."

Around the league: Here's how Kyoto's Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf described teammate Reggie Warren, one of the top inside players in league history: "Reggie's a rebounding monster." ... In each of the first five title games, either Newton or Washington, or both, suited up, with the former Indiana University standouts teaming up to lead the Evessa to the first three titles, while Newton helped Ryukyu win it all in 2008-09 and Washington guided Osaka back to the title game in Kensaku Tennichi's final contest as head coach last spring.

Who were the best replacement pickups for the season's stretch run? Here's how one league insider analyzed that question: "Actually I thought Kyoto made great pickups with (Saitama's Gordon) Klaiber and (Sendai's Hikaru) Kusaka. They briefly moved into fourth place, beat Ryukyu in Okinawa, and could easily have beat Shiga in the first round after their opening win.

"But if Osaka or Niigata can get to the final game, then Satterfield or Leach would be the best pickup, although neither is a 'perfect' fit at the moment," the source added.

Quotable: "He was in his first (full) year and he did the best he could. We've got to keep learning from our mistakes and that's the only way you're going to grow. That's the only way. Just like me, I'm still growing as a player. I'm still learning from my mistakes." - Warren on Hannaryz coach Kazuto Aono.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league? Send an e-mail to edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp



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