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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012

Levanga cruises past Jets

Staff writer

If anything, Wednesday afternoon's Chiba Jets-Levanga Hokkaido contest was a small step forward for Japanese basketball.

News photo
No problem: Levanga guard Haruhito Shishito drives against the Jets defense during their Emperor's Cup game on Wednesday. Levanga routed the Jets 97-59. KYODO

After all, it represented the first Japan Basketball Association-sanctioned game between a bj-league club (the expansion Jets) and the old-guard, established JBL (Levanga). That it took place during the All-Japan National Championship, aka the 87th Emperor's Cup, at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 gave it the spotlight it deserved.

The final score — Hokkaido 97, Chiba 59 — was no surprise. The fans, though, were the clear winner, getting to see this mix of old school and the upstart bj-league, now in its seventh season with 19 teams and an 2011 NBA Draft pick collecting a paycheck from the Golden State Warriors this season (Jeremy Tyler, formerly of the defunct Tokyo Apache).

"Truly, this was good for Japanese basketball, and for Japanese basketball fans, this was good to see," said Levanga guard Takehiko Orimo. "It's good for the sport."

Chiba guard Takaki Ishida called the game a "good challenge" for his club even if it turned into a one-sided loss. He also admitted it was nice to compete against Hokkaido foward Ryota Sakurai, his former Toyota Motors Alvark teammate, who had nine rebounds and five assists in 24 gritty minutes.

The Levanga turned the game into a rout in the third quarter, taking a 64-34 lead on Masanobu Ito's layup with a little over a minute left in the period. After Jets forward Reina Itakura made a baseline jumper, Ito flushed a 3-pointer seconds later to give his club a 67-36 advantage entering the fourth quarter. The Jets trailed by 40 points in the closing minutes before Hiroki Sato drained a 3-pointer to account for the game's final points.

Chiba coach Eric Gardow said, "We stopped scoring the basketball early in the second and we cut it to seven (26-19) and midway through. We were in the bonus with 5 minutes to play but we just stopped scoring.

". . . We couldn't get to the free-throw line from there and when we were getting to the free-throw line we missed."

Forward Jamel Staten's layup pulled the Jets within 24-19 early in the second stanza. But Hokkaido closed out the half with a 15-4 run, getting good looks in transition and taking advantage of its superior size to score inside and execute its half-court offense.

The Jets faced a 39-23 deficit entering the second half. Before they stepped onto the court for the third quarter, Gardow told his players to "keep fighting, keep working hard. Remember you're here to represent the Chiba Jets and the bj-league."

Gardow said his team was happy to participate in the All-Japan National Championship. In the future, he said, "it does make sense" to have both leagues stage interleague competitions, as well as having all bj-league teams compete in the Emperor's Cup.

Fast forward to the fourth quarter. Orimo, the longtime Japan national team sharpshooter and fan favorite, canned a rainbow 3-pointer from the left wing to make it 78-44 near the 6-minute mark. He finished with eight points and plenty of applause from spectators.

Orimo's longevity — he'll turn 42 in May — also provides an inspiration for Japanese players in both leagues.

"He's a legend. He's an icon. . . . So they want to raise their game to his level," said Hokkaido veteran forward Mamadou Diouf, who hails from Senegal. "So I'm glad Japan has a player like him."

Diouf said Orimo's feats over the years can help "raise Japanese basketball to a higher level."

Jai Lewis and Ito each scored 13 points and three teammates had 10 points apiece. Hokkaido shot 40-for-79 from the field and registered 25 assists, including Lewis' team-best six, while seven Levanga players had two or more assists. Chiba managed a meager seven assists.

Another key statistic: Ten Levanga players made more than 50 percent of their 2-point shots.

The rout, one could argue, gave Hokkaido a "statement win," but the team quickly turned its attention to the next round of the Emperor's Cup on Friday.

Nevertheless, now that the Jets-Levanga contest was held between the rival leagues, the JBA can't pretend that doing so again would be "too difficult," a phrase that's been uttered by top officials within the Japanese basketball community. Yet the question that now remains is this: How would JBL teams fare against bj-league competition using bj-league rules?

Call it progress, if you will, though the format gave Hokkaido, one of eight JBL teams, a huge advantage.

The one-on-court import rule employed by the JBL put Hokkaido in the driver's seat from the get-go, and it picked up steam as the game carried on. (Naturalized Japanese citizens don't count against the JBL's one-import rule.) While in the bj-league, three foreigners are permitted on the court at all times except the second quarter (when it's two).

Hokkaido won the battle on the boards (66-36 edge in rebounds). Chiba struggled to get into an offensive rhythm, often looking like a rushed baker pulling cakes out of an oven to meet the demands of customers in a long line.

"Size was an issue today," Gardow admitted.

He added: "Guys were in positions today they hadn't played all year."

This, of course, described the team's patchwork lineup.

The Jets were 19-for-70 from the field, including 5-for-23 from 3-point range. Itakura led Chiba with 16 points. He was 8-for-12 at the free-throw line, and like his teammates had a tough time making shots (4-for-15 from the field). Staten added 10 points on 2-for-12 shooting from the field (he was also 6-for-14 at the line on a day Gardow called his worst shooting game of the season), Ishida had eight and Kensuke Tanaka, the bj-league's Most Improved Player last season, has seven. Chiba was 16-for-30 at the line.

Four former bj-league forwards Jo Kurino (Tokyo Apache, Oita HeatDevils), Diouf (Sendai 89ers, Saitama Broncos) and Kenji Hilke (Tokyo) and guard Haruhito Shishito (Osaka Evessa, Toyama Grouses, Saitama) now suit up for Hokkaido. It gave the club a bit of a familiarity edge from a player's perspective.

Chiba advanced to Wednesday's game with a 99-68 win over Yamaguchi Prefecture-based club team Two Three on Monday.

Naturally, for the ultra-competitive Gardow, Wednesday's lopsided loss was a big disappointment.

"We're playing with a new team," was the way he described the experience. "This is not the Chiba Jets. I didn't play three or four of my players because of the way this (tournament) is set up. It's a little unfair from that standpoint. I would like to play with my full team. But that's the way it is with respect to the rules."

Staten said the one-import-on-court rule and a first-time foe for him and his teammates made the game "feel like an exhibition game. "It was entirely different for us," he added, noting also that Chiba's Japanese players "put a little nervous pressure on themselves."

"We had the odds stacked against us," Staten said.

The Jets now shift their focus to rest and recuperation, as the roster has been hampered by injuries and sickness, according to Gardow, who'll be the Eastern Conference's assistant coach in the 2011-12 All-Star Game, the bj-league's sixth annual midseason showcase, on Jan. 15 at Saitama Super Arena. Saitama Broncos bench boss Natalie Nakase will be the East's head coach.

The Emperor's Cup concludes on Monday.

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