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Saturday, May 1, 2010

HOOP SCOOP

Hirose still seeking right formula for Albirex


Blessed with talent and depth, this season's Niigata Albirex BB squad has failed to live up to its potential.

Ed Odeven

Coach Masaya Hirose's team is 22-26 entering its weekend series against the host Toyama Grouses. It has an 11-13 home record and an 11-13 road record.

In addition, the Albirex have been careless caretakers of the basketball, as evidenced by their 634 assists and 639 turnovers. No coach would be pleased by similar numbers.

What's more, the team has little margin for error. It is scoring 80.7 points per game while allowing 79.3.

Niigata, which has one of the most rabid fan bases in the bj-league, can't seem to find a way to beat the Eastern Conference's elite teams.

The third-place Albirex have a combined 2-12 record against the Sendai 89ers and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, who are the second- and first-place clubs, respectively, in the six-team conference. (Interestingly enough, Hirose's club is 9-5 against Western Conference foes.)

Teams always want to enter the playoffs playing their best ball of the season. That's hardly been the case for the Albirex, who were the runnerup to the Osaka Evessa in the title game in the inaugural 2005-06 season. They've lost five of six and six of their last eight games.

For whatever reason, Niigata hasn't been able to put everything together at this critical stage of the season. And now the Tokyo Apache (21-27) have a good shot at moving up from the fourth seed to No. 3 over the final two weeks of the regular season.

In a recent interview, Hirose said the team's reliance on 3-point shooting is the root of its offensive problems.

"Our strength is our explosive outside shots," the coach told The Japan Ties. "Our weakness is that we don't really have other ways of scoring when we can't make shots from outside."

In other words, defenses put pressure on Niigata to beat them from long range; otherwise, its inside attack loses its impact.

Antonio Burks is the team's top perimeter marksman. He's No. 2 in the league in 3-point shooting accuracy (39.2 percent or 98-for-250). Four other players have knocked down 40 or more 3s: Yuichi Ikeda (69-for-227), Tyrone Levett (49-for-152), Shuhei Komatsu (41-for-113) and Akitomo Takeno (40-for-145).

But the Albirex lack a go-to scorer, which has contributed to their unpredictable play.

So it's no surprise that Hirose had a difficult time deciding which of his players has been the team's top performer this season when this question was given to him.

"There are not many players that perform consistently, so it depends on the games," he said. "Our best all-around player is Levett, we could say, because he can play both inside and outside."

Frustration is natural for a team with more losses than wins. So, too, is a sense of urgency about postseason play.

Just ask Ikeda, a popular All-Star forward.

"I don't think we can improve in a short period, so it will be important that each player raises his motivation," Ikeda said. That said, Ikeda believes the team's best games are punctuated by lock-down defense to fuel the offense.

Or as Ikeda explained: "Since we're not blessed with size, we play a fast game that is generated from tenacious defense."

Center Paul Butorac, who joined the club last season, revealed that the team's collective psyche remains upbeat despite more defeats than triumphs.

"We have a really good team," he said by telephone from Niigata, "and each game that we lose, we kind of look at each other like, 'Why did we lose that game?' "

But Butorac gave credit where credit is due, recognizing the bj-league has made significant strides in its first five seasons — increased talent being No. 1 on that list.

"There are a lot of good teams," he said, without citing the fact that five of the West's seven teams have .500 or better records.

"Each year the bj-league is getting stronger," added the Eastern Washington University product.

Butorac paused, collected his thoughts and gave an honest assessment of the team's situation.

"Are we disappointed? Well, we are where we are now," said Butorac, whose team hopes to break a four-game losing streak on Saturday. "We have to deal with it and try to get each and every one of these (upcoming) games and try to go into the playoffs with a lot of momentum."

* * * * *

Butorac missed 10 games with a broken bone in his hand from Feb. 20 to March 7. Before the injury, he had 14 double-doubles, giving the Albirex a forceful presence in the middle. He's still the team's leading scorer (16.2 ppg), but he's made less of an impact on the boards since returning to the lineup on March 13 — zero double-doubles since then.

It took a few weeks for Butorac to improve his fitness level, but other aspects of his game haven't reached the level they were at earlier this season, according to Hirose.

"He's been able to play his game since around the April 17 game," Hirose noted. "But he still is inconsistent mentally, and I don't think he's 100 percent yet."

Butorac's teammates have also had numerous frustrating moments this season.

Take Takeno, for example.

He was a key factor in the team's early season turnaround after a 2-8 start.

Between Nov. 8 and Jan. 2, the 24-year-old Takeno had 12 straight double-digit scoring games during which Niigata rattled off seven straight wins. Since then, he's scored 10 or more points only seven times in 29 games, including only back-to-back double-digit outings on Feb. 27-28 against Hamamatsu. In fact, over the past 10 games, Takeno has scored more than six points only once (11 vs. the Phoenix on April 18).

To be fair, Takeno, an 8.7 ppg scorer, isn't the team's only scoring option — Levett averages 15.3, Burks is scoring 12.9 and Uche Echefu 11.4 — but when he plays at his best, the team's success rate rises dramatically.

Butorac believes Takeno's reduced playing time is directly linked to Hirose's commitment to giving all his charges a chance to play.

"Coach is kind of experimenting and seeing what he's going to work with (for the playoffs)," Butorac said.

Does that mean, however, that Takeno's confidence has dropped?

"His confidence is there," Butorac told me. "He's playing great in practice. . . . Yeah, he might (be having) a tough stretch, but I see him every day and I'm totally confident in him.

"I know what he's capable of doing."

Collectively, the Albirex players want to make their remaining games a success, learning lessons from what they've accomplished — and failed to do — in the season's first 48 games.

Or as Ikeda, speaking about his own play, said bluntly: "This season is far from satisfying."

Indeed, his teammates have said similar things to each other and to other media outlets. And they've had plenty of reasons to complain, or to blame themselves for mediocrity.

Of course that doesn't mean Niigata can't advance to the Final Four, but it would be a big, big surprise.

* * * * *

One of the most interesting questions to ask any athlete is this: What are your coach's top strengths?

I've asked that question dozens of times and always look forward to finding out what a player has to say on the subject.

Speaking about Hirose, Butorac commended his mentor's character and passion for the game.

"His way to motivate players is something that's really great," Butorac told me. "His presence in the gym, you can feel his presence."

I pressed him for a few more details.

Said Butorac: "He doesn't have to be loud at all. We are shooting around and we are like, 'Coach's here.'

"He does so many great things to motivate us and at the same time he builds our confidence," Butorac continued. "That's something that a lot of coaches haven't done in my years playing basketball. He's quick to tell you what you've done right."

Hirose, the Albirex's lone bench boss since the bj-league was established, is a hands-on coach, not above giving pointers to any and all of his players.

Butorac recalled that earlier in the season a couple Niigata players were having shooting problems. Hirose worked with them individually on a number of shooting drills to work out the kinks.

"The next week out, they were stroking the ball," Butorac said.

Hirose's coaching persona extends well beyond the Xs and Os and game-day management.

"He's really good at reading personalities," Butorac said. "I took a couple psychology classes at college, and it's almost like he's reading us. . . . Sometimes, when it happens, it's just like, 'Wow.' It's shocking."

Few people are shocked that the Albirex rallied from their woeful start to become a playoff-bound team despite having no players among the league's top 10 in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals or blocks. It's a reflection of Hirose's dedication to build a strong team unit.

And if the Albirex can stage a second dramatic turnaround — this time with their season on the line — Hirose's reputation can only improve.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.



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