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Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009
No surprise to see Apache in sorry state after offseason upheaval
By ED ODEVEN
Losing can breed disgust or apathy, and the Tokyo Apache have fallen on hard times in the bj-league's fifth season.
Dropping six straight games, they take a 5-13 record, worst in the Eastern Conference and tied for the lousiest record in the league, into a three-week layoff. Now, they know their season can regain a level of respectability with a dramatic turnaround, but the deck is stacked against them.
In their latest loss, the Apache blew a 25-point lead in Thursday's 70-65 defeat to the defending champion Ryukyu Golden Kings at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
After the game, new Apache forward Michael Chappell spoke of the team's "work in progress" and the need to improve each game. Guard Takanori Goya told me the team needs to "push the ball every time" and not settle for jump shots, particularly when the team is holding a lead. But here they are 18 games into the 54-game season and they are basically still in preseason mode. (How else can you describe a team that changed ownership, added a new coach, switched home venues and didn't piece together its roster until just days before the season tipped off? In a word: chaos has been the constant theme.)
Fans understand this, but aren't thrilled by this new reality. A few vocal Apache boosters booed the team after Thursday's painful defeat while post-game comments were being made on the court. And one sign near courtside urged the Apache to bring back ex-point guard Darin Satoshi Maki, one of three key guards — Masashi Joho and Jun Iwasa being the others — who were not brought back after the team's second straight trip to the bj-league finals.
New coach Motofumi Aoki, who replaced Joe Bryant in the offseason, will need time to implement his system in Tokyo, so there's no surprise the Apache aren't tied with the Golden Kings and Eastern Conference-leading Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix for the league's best record (15-3).
Primarily, what we have witnessed over the first 18 games is the fact that the Apache are frantically searching for the right combination of players to turn things around during the course of a game (initiating a run or stopping an opponent's spurt), a series (bouncing back in a series finale after a loss in the opener) and a wacky schedule (a three-week break, followed by six games in 11 days, followed by another three-week layoff) that no team should be forced to have.
Bryant had spent years learning what makes each player tick, how to get the best production from each of them, when to issue a personal challenge to one of them (example: he pushed center Julius Ashby to play a tough, hard-nosed game after one mediocre effort last season, issuing this rejoinder through the press after a question about the team's listless performance), and when to shuffle the starting lineup (All-Star guard Cohey Aoki thrived as a sixth man when he was put in this role).
Coaches can't hold a magic wand and suddenly make brilliant substitutions 99 times out of 100. There's a learning process that takes place for each team, and coach Aoki understands this as well as any one.
"I'm just sorry for our fans," were the words he carefully chose to use after Thursday's setback.
Aoki experienced three winning seasons as the Takamatsu Five Arrows' sideline supervisor, including a trip to finals in the team's first season (2006-07). So he has a track record of success to build off of.
And that's where the team's New Year's goals come into the picture.
It's time to "rebuild the team — and come back for next year," he told reporters.
The goal, he said, is to improve the team's offensive structure, creating more perimeter opportunities for Chappell and Shoji Nakanishi, two capable outside shooters. By doing so, Tokyo can make Ashby a more effective scoring presence in the low post; and without John Humphrey and Dameion Baker this season, the Apache have fewer attack-the-basket options.
The Apache-Golden Kings series served as a useful reminder that championship-caliber teams need stability — not wholesale changes — to stay at that level.
Wisely, the Golden Kings have stuck to this approach. They've added two important pieces to the puzzle — point guard Tsubasa Yonamine and center George Leach — but retained the same nucleus of players for another run at the title.
Their outlook remains the same.
"What we need to work on is defense, someone needs to hustle and can give that energy to the team," Ryukyu coach Dai Oketani said, describing his team's comeback plan on Thursday.
That strategy should pay off in every game.
The Golden Kings, 8-0 on the road, head into the break with a confidence-boosting sweep against the Apache, knowing that even if they shoot 1-for-14 from the floor in the first quarter (like in Wednesday's game at Yoyogi), they still have the moxie to return to form during the course of a 40-minute game.
"The players gave me an early Christmas present," Oketani said.
Throughout my interview, the Ryukyu coach repeated the words "energy" and "defense" as keys for his team.
Watching the Apache lose three games in the past two weeks from courtside, I observed those elements coming and going like high tide and low tide.
The great challenge is for Aoki to deliver the same message, and for his players to respond with a sense of urgency. Few teams make the playoffs after 5-13 starts in any league, but the task is not impossible.