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Sunday, March 9, 2008
Washington closing in on return to powerhouse Evessa
By ED ODEVEN
The Osaka Evessa's 2007-08 season opened in typical fashion: with a victory. A 91-71 win over the Rizing Fukuoka on Oct. 30 signaled the start of the team's quest for a three-peat.
The only champion in bj-league history, the Evessa rolled to victories in their first five games.
In the sixth game, on Nov. 18, Lynn Washington, the team's talented power forward and 2005-06 league MVP, sustained a serious right knee injury in the first quarter of an 83-80 home loss to the Tokyo Apache.
His knee suffered ligament damage, torn cartilage and a muscle tear that required surgery.
The former Indiana University standout has been sidelined ever since.
But Osaka remains the league's No. 1 team. The Evessa (25-7 overall) have gone 22-6 without Washington, a sign of Kensaku Tennichi's coaching skills and the team's ability to pick up the slack in his absence.
Washington is now preparing for his return. He took part in his first practice on Feb. 28. He said he initially started working on light drills and one-on-one play.
"I've been shooting for 1 1/2 months now," Washington said by phone from Osaka. "It feels good. I feel pretty good about my shot."
Washington's target date to return to the lineup is March 29, a road game against the Takamatsu Five Arrows. He said he wants to play in the season's final six regular-season games.
"I'm not going to come back until I'm 100 percent," he said, adding that the team is playing well in his absence. "I expect to play as much as I can and I need to help the team has much as I can."
In a recent interview, Washington said his condition is at about 75 percent.
"I see no reason to return until there are six games left," he said.
Washington had knee surgery on Nov. 27 at an Osaka hospital and spent three weeks there.
His demanding physical rehabilitation began shortly thereafter. And, he said, it's a credit to Osaka athletic trainer Satoshi Fukuda that the rehab has gone so smoothly.
"He's provided great support. He got me really strong," Washington said.
"I'm getting my timing back, my movement back. I'm concentrating to just get my leg stronger."
Teammates have shown their collective support for Washington while he's been sidelined.
Center Jeff Newton hasn't had a haircut since Washington's injury. He told his teammate he wouldn't get it trimmed until he returned to a game.
Teams often rally around an injured player, using it as a motivational tool for their next game.
When he's in the game, Washington commands attention. Big and strong (200 cm, 102 kg), he has the ability to shoot the ball from the outside and bang with the big boys in the paint.
Did his absence change the way Osaka played its game?
"Maybe for the first few games since I was out," said Washington, a vocal supporter of his teammates during games since his injury. "After that, they got accustomed to being without me.
"After that, it was back to business as usual."
The team's current starters — Newton, guards Mikey Marshall, Matt Lottich and Naoto Nakamura and forward Kazuya "Jay" Hatano — have played inspired, quality basketball, no question about it.
"Coach Ten (Tennichi) no doubt has done a great job to get players prepared mentally," Washington observed.
The continued emergence of the team's Japanese players has been a byproduct of that.
Hatano has increased his rebounding output and been a steady 10.1 points-per-game scorer this season.
Nakamura's perimeter defense and 10.0 ppg have been consistent, too.
"I can't say enough about what Jay and Naoto have done on the court," Washington said.
Washington also praised Newton's standard excellence on both ends of the floor.
"He doesn't offer anything under the rim," were the words Washington used to describe Newton's defensive presence.
"He definitely stepped up his defensive intensity since I've been out. Jay has filled the void on the court as well."
The bj-league playoffs schedule works in Washington's favor.
The regular season ends on April 13. The second round of the playoffs starts three weeks later, and barring a late-season collapse, Osaka will be playing in the semifinals at Ariake Colosseum on May 3.
By then, he'll have played three weeks of games, back-to-back contests stretched out over three weekends.
"If they are not ready, I definitely will be," Washington declared, speaking of his teammates.
They'll be ready. The past 28 games have revealed a lot about the Evessa's collective ability to elevate their play despite the absence of the team's most well-known player, a recognizable star in a league that is still discovering its stars.