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Monday, May 23, 2011

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Phoenix from the flames: Hamamatsu's Shingo Okada shoots during the Phoenix's 82-68 win over the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the bj-league final on Sunday. YOSHIAKI MIURA

Phoenix claim second straight title


Staff writer

The beast of the East proved once again it is the bj-league's best team.

The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix defended their title with style and swagger from start to finish this season, concluding with Sunday's 82-68 triumph over the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the championship game at Ariake Colosseum.

Never one to settle for mediocrity, the inimitable Kazuo Nakamura, the Phoenix's high-energy, 70-year-old coach, wasn't particularly impressed with his team's play, though the result did produce a smile on his face. He didn't need to cite the team's 9-for-38 shooting on 3-pointers or 16 turnovers. Instead, generalized commentary delivered his point.

"As far as the game, we probably played our worst game of the year," said Nakamura. "But that we played patiently in the first half paid off in the end."

Both teams knew history would be made on Sunday.

Either the Phoenix would become the second team in league history to win consecutive titles or the Golden Kings would become the first team with another title (2008-09) after not capturing it in the previous season.

Though Hamamatsu knew it had a change to accomplish something special, Nakamaura insisted the team didn't feel overwhelming pressure to make it happen.

"Not at all," he said. "We didn't have the mind-set that we had to win. We wanted to win a championship just like every other year. But this year's team has been the most united team I've ever coached."

Hamamatsu cruised to the Eastern Conference's regular-season title, posting a 40-6 record and never losing more than two games in a row. Based on that overall dominance, the team was expected to return to the championship game.

The Golden Kings were one of several top Western Conference teams, but found the right combination of play under Dai Oketani's steady leadership to reach the Final Four for the third straight season.

Wayne Arnold paced the Phoenix with 27 points, including five 3-pointers, Final Four MVP Jeffrey Parmer scored 19 and grabbed 12 rebounds for a double-double, while Shingo Okada scored 15, including 7-for-9 on 2-point shots, and Ray Nixon scored 11.

Anthony McHenry scored 19 to lead Ryukyu and Naoto Kosuge had 13. Former MVP David Palmer was held to nine points on 2-for-8 shooting.

In a long fourth quarter, slowed down by the teams' combined 36 free-throw attempts, a big 3-pointer by Nixon before a timeout gave the Phoenix a 61-54 lead with just under 5 minutes to play.

Palmer sank two free throws to keep it a two-possession game, bringing the Kings to within 63-59 with 4:09 to play.

Parmer, meanwhile, showed his clutch shooting form, drilling a 3 to make it 66-59 with about 2:40 remaining.

The Golden Kings' championship hopes were fading in the closing minutes, however. Arnold delivered a dagger, banging in a 3-pointer to beat the 24-second shot clock as the lead reached 69-61 with just over 90 seconds remaining.

Ryukyu looked to regroup with 1:07 left in a timeout, facing a 71-63 deficit on the scoreboard after two Arnold free throws. McHenry missed a spinning jumper at the other end seconds later.

The tough-as-nails Phoenix sealed the win at the foul line, making 17 of 18 free throws in the final stanza, including Arnold's perfect 10-for-10.

Palmer, who won a pair of rings with the Osaka Evessa in 2005-06 and 2006-07, said the East's powerhouse team deserves credit for a well-played game.

"Today, they just had a little more energy and effort," Palmer said. "I think that was the biggest difference today."

"Arnold stepped up for us and led our team," Nakamura said. "To me, it's nothing to do with Jeffrey, but I wanted Arnold to win it (the MVP)."

Arnold, the league's Sixth Man Award winner, picked up his third foul with 6:02 to play in the third quarter and was replaced by Okada.

The Phoenix led 31-23 entering the third quarter, closing out the half on a 9-0 spurt that started with an Okada jumper and ended with Arnold's straightaway 3-pointer.

A pair of McHenry free throws cut Hamamatsu's lead to 38-36. Then Kosuge drilled a jumper to tie it at 38-38 as the rowdy Ryukyu supporters screamed with wild delight. Back-to-back bad passes, one by each team, before Palmer nailed a 3 put Ryukyu ahead 41-40 for a few seconds. After a 3-pointer moments later, Okada's jumper stretched the Phoenix lead to 45-41 and they led 47-41 with 1:43 to play in the third. As part of a momentum-shifting 10-0 run, Dzaflo Larkai completed an old-fashioned three-point play, scoring on a strong inside move and hitting the subsequent free throw.

Kings guard Tsubasa Yonamine stopped the run with a 3-pointer from the right wing. That trimmed the Hamamatsu lead to 50-44. But Arnold followed with a jumper to stretch the lead back to eight before the close of the quarter.

Hamamatsu's tireless work on the boards, especially on the offensive boards, created second-chance points possession after possession. Through three quarters, the Phoenix had 24 offensive boards to Ryukyu's three.

When the game was over, Hamamatsu had outrebounded Ryukyu 59-40 overall and 25-7 on the offensive glass. In addition, Ryukyu committed 20 turnovers.

If the Golden Kings had a chance to face the Phoenix in a series for the title rather than the one-game title game format, star Jeff Newton said his team knows what it would need to do better.

"We've got to play better defense," Newton said, "got to rebound better and we've got to make very few mistakes. They (the Phoenix) are a really good team."

Ryukyu held a 17-13 advantage after the opening period marked by relentless defensive tenacity from both teams with a bulldog mentality for each loose ball and the intensity to match it. But Nixon's two 3-pointers in the quarter kept the Phoenix offense in striking distance while other players struggled with their shot.

McHenry, the catalyst of Ryukyu's defense, made three steals in the quarter, but also turned the ball over three times. Kings center Dillion Sneed picked up two first-quarter fouls.

Hamamatsu led 31-23 at the half after holding Ryukyu to six second-quarter points.

Kosuge said his team, despite leading by three at one point in the third quarter, "failed to seize the momentum." Overall, he said, "there's no other word except I'm disappointed."

He added: "We were focusing on defense and we could achieve it, but offensively we could've gone more aggressively and we probably should have."

Responding to what went wrong for his team, Oketani pointed to "too many turnovers" and the team's rebounding difficulties in a game in which Sneed had six boards and Newton, slowed down by a recent ankle injury, only grabbed three and scored only one point. "We couldn't grab rebounds — we allowed 18 more offensive rebounds," the coach lamented.

Okada, one of the top Japanese perimeter defenders in the league, credited his team's preparation as a key to victory.

"Our zone defense worked out and that's one of the things that was good for us," Okada said. He added: "We actually didn't practice the defense much but I've personally played it so many times and in my head I was understanding it as well."

In the third-place game, the Osaka Evessa rebounded from Saturday's loss in the Western Conference final, beating the Niigata Albirex BB 85-75.

As ordered by coach Ryan Blackwell before the game, the Evessa guards, led by Kenny Satterfield and Billy Knight, pounded the ball inside to big man Wayne Marshall (27 points, 17 rebounds) with regularity. This tactic cleared up space on the perimeter for Shota Konno (22 points, 8-for-10 free throws), Satterfield (10 points), Lynn Washington (nine) and Knight (eight) to get open looks.

"We got the ball into Wayne a lot more," Blackwell said, citing a key to the victory.

Marshall, a Temple University product, often commanded double teams in the post, which forced the Albirex to exert a lot of energy. On the other end of the floor, the Niigata offense was up and down for much of the game, including 30-for-74 shooting.

The Evessa (35-19) were rewarded for their aggressive play, getting 35 foul shots (24 makes); Niigata was 10-for-15.

Ex-NBA floor leader Satterfield made a strong all-around impact, finishing with eight rebounds, five assists and three steals.

Center George Leach paced the Albirex (22-22) with 17 points with nine rebounds. Shuhei Komatsu hit four 3s and scored 14 points and Hirotaka Kondo poured in 11, while Zach Andrews added seven points and 10 boards. Naoto Takushi and Julius Ashby each scored eight points.



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