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Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010

HOOP SCOOP

Clutch shooters create excitement in bj-league


Basketball aficionados and casual fans alike remember Michael Jordan's clutch shots in the closing seconds of games. Other clutch shooters, such as Jerry West and Reggie Miller, have buried dozens of shots that separate them from the NBA's ordinary scorers.

Ed Odeven

Think of them as a special breed of player, one who thrives under pressure.

In the bj-league's brief history, the first generation of stars is still playing and so it'll take time to develop a greater sense of who will eventually be classified as the league's top clutch shooters.

Yet already we have a sense of which players will be given the go-ahead to take a team's final shot to try and tie or win a game in the fourth quarter or in an overtime period.

Just ask Osaka Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi, whose team won the league's first three champions (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08).

"I like a player who can drive to the basket and draw a foul in the last second, rather than just take a jump shot," Tennichi told Hoop Scoop.

Tennichi lists two-time MVP Lynn Washington, widely recognized as the heart and soul of the Evessa, as a player he trusts in crunch time.

"Washington has had the ball a lot of times in the last seconds over the past four-plus seasons," the coach added.

Tennichi also praised the contributions of veteran forward David Palmer, a member of two title-winning teams who rejoined Osaka this season after a two-year absence.

"He really understands how important it is to get to the rim. That is the reason I like him very much," Tennichi said of Palmer.

Some coaches use their last timeout to draw up a play for one shooter, while others have multiple options with the game on the line. Tennichi likes to have options.

"In the last second, I believe we have to get the ball inside," he revealed, citing post-up plays or dribble penetration as ways to achieve this goal.

"If you get to the paint, there are many good things (that can happen)," he added. "For example, you might get a foul call, you might put back your own shot, kick it out to a shooter and so on."

Tennichi admitted Takamatsu Five Arrows point guard Michael Gardener can cause his heart rate to increase in down-to-the-wire games.

"This season, I really don't like when Gardener has the ball in the last seconds of the game," Tennichi said. "He'll never be afraid of taking the last shot, he can dish to a big man, he can take 3-point shots . . . sometimes he takes 22-foot (6.7-meter) shots or farther."

Ryukyu Golden Kings bench boss Dai Oketani, who guided the team to a championship in its second season in 2008-09, has complete confidence in reigning regular-season and playoff MVP Jeff Newton to deliver in the clutch.

"Newton is our core player on the team," Oketani said recently. "Most of our last shots come from him. . . . If it is him, his teammates accept this situation, even if it's his last shot that cost us the game."

He added: "In addition, I commit to him most of the time, not only because of his technical (skills) to get a foul or hit a clutch shot in a last-second situation, but also because of his mental aspect to give credit to his teammates."

While Newton recovers from a dislocated left shoulder — he's expected to rejoin the team in April — other Ryukyu players will be asked to accept the challenge of being go-to guys in pressure-packed moments in his absence.

Having been an assistant or head coach in the bj-league since its establishment, Oketani, who previously guided the Oita HeatDevils, has seen thousands of hours of game film of all the league's teams. And so it's no surprise he pointed to Tokyo Apache guard Cohey Aoki as one of the league's most dependable, feared money players.

"He is a very good clutch shooter. His free throws are also good, even if you try to stop him with a foul," Oketani said of the three-time free-throw shooting champion (he's a career 90.7 percent shooter from the line entering this season).

"He is a good passer and can pass out of double teams, and he makes the play to finish with a shot by all means."

Toyama Grouses coach Charles Johnson, in his first season with the team, admitted he's still learning which of his players he wants to rely on as time winds down in a tight game.

"(Kirby) Lemons, (Takeshi) Mito, (Kenya) Tomori and (Makoto) Kato can be hot or cold in those situations," Johnson said.

Days after Oita swingman Ricky Woods scored 44 and 40 points in back-to-back games on Jan. 16-17 against the Niigata Albirex BB, HeatDevils coach Brian Rowsom dished out the following insight:

"For my team, our go-to man has been Ricky Woods. He single-handedly took over both of (those) games."

Rowsom has been impressed with the go-for-the gusto attitude of Shiga Lakestars shooting guard Masashi Joho, one of only two players to appear in the first four bj-league finals (Newton is the other).

"I am a big fan of Masashi Joho," Rowsom said of the ex-Evessa and Apache performer. "I remember him hitting some tough shots against us and he shot them over and around people."

Shiga coach Bob Pierce responded to my inquiry by saying, "For us, I think we'd give the ball to Joho. I like the fact that he really wants to take those kinds of shots. Many (most) players don't want that pressure. I think Joho dreams of taking those shots, and lives for those moments. Plus he can create his shot off the dribble, can shoot from deep, and practices shooting off-balance shots, which last-second shots often become."

Pierce has seen a number of opposing players lift their teams to victory at the end of games.

"As for players on other teams, there are many to choose from," he added. "Big Bashi (Lakestars assistant coach Takatoshi Ishibashi) said he would go with Lynn Washington, just because his heart and will to win are so strong. Jeff Newton was also a good choice for the same reason.

"But watching games recently, I think that if all you needed was a 2-point shot, or the two free throws if he got fouled, I would go with Billy Knight from Hamamatsu. He has a great touch. He's left-handed, which can be hard to guard because defenders aren't used to it. He's really strong, and can use that strength to get by the defender and get off his shot. He can pull up off the dribble as well as anyone, plus he has a great step-back move, so you know he can get off a shot no matter who guards him. And he's supremely confident, which is crucial.

"However, if the shot had to be a 3-point shot, I might change. I like (Hamamatsu star) Wendell White's high release, so I think I might give him the nod if the defense knows it has to be a 3-point shot."

Pierce also said he'd like to see Gardener, Aoki, Joho, Takamatsu's Yu Okada, Sendai's Josh Peppers and Ryukyu's Shigeyuki Kinjo get chances to fire up last-second 3-point shots. After all, they've all proven themselves as successful shooters regardless of what time it is in a game.

Even more specifically, Pierce said Shiga big man Luke Zeller, a Notre Dame product, is well-equipped to take a half-court shot, citing his heroics in the 2005 Indiana State High School Championship at Conseco Fieldhouse, where he nailed a buzzer-beating shot.

The scene lives on in YouTube's archives as a part of Indiana's rich basketball lore.

The bj-league's basketball lore will continue to grow as more players replicate Zeller's jaw-dropping shot from yesteryear.



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