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BASKETBALL | Ryukyu Golden Kings Riding High in Dai Oketani’s Second Stint at the Helm

Ignited by a dynamic defense and a consistent offense, the Okinawa club is playing at a championship-caliber level.

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Ryukyu Golden Kings sharpshooter Keita Imamura launches a 3-pointer against the Sunrockers Shibuya on December 19 at Aoyama Gakuin University Memorial Hall. (B. LEAGUE)

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It’s now more than one-third of the way through the B. League’s 60-game season, and the Ryukyu Golden Kings (18-3) are on pace to make a run at the league record for wins.

The Chiba Jets went 52-8 in the 2018-19 season, finishing as the championship runner-up club.

Ryukyu, led by veteran coach Dai Oketani, owns the league’s longest current winning streak (eight games) through Sunday, December 19. In addition, the Okinawa-based club is 10-1 in away games.

The Golden Kings completed a series sweep of the Sunrockers Shibuya on Sunday at Aoyama Gakuin University Memorial Hall. 

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Keita Imamura nailed a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:34 remaining in the fourth quarter to give his club a two-point lead, and the Golden Kings hung on for an 89-84 victory.

Imamura connected on 4 of 5 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter to give his team a big boost.

In an intense final period, Shibuya pulled ahead twice late, taking its first lead of the game, 81-80, on a Leo Vendrame layup with 3:32 to play.

A pair of Josh Harrellson free throws put the hosts in front 84-83 less than a minute later.

But the Golden Kings regained their composure and made big shots down the stretch, starting with Imamura’s seventh 3-pointer (out of eight attempts). Imamura paced Ryukyu with 23 points ー a day after he scored 19 in the visitors’ 80-60, series-opening triumph.

A Dwayne Evans hook shot in the lane extended the lead to 88-84, and he made the second of two free-throw attempts with 20.5 seconds remaining for Ryukyu’s final point.

Vendrame sank a free throw with 3 seconds left to account for the game’s final margin.

The Sunrockers fell to 14-7, putting them in a three-way tie for the second-best record in the East Division with the Utsunomiya Brex and Alvark Tokyo, both of whom have won three straight.

Shibuya, on the other hand, has lost three straight. Sunrockers coach Tsutomu Isa’s squad will take its first losing streak of the season into a Christmas weekend home series against the reigning champion Chiba Jets (16-5), who share the division lead with the Kawasaki Brave Thunders.

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The Akita Northern Happinets (13-8), who routed the Gunma Crane Thunders 81-68 on Sunday for their second win in as many days, are also above .500 in the competitive East. The cellar-dwelling Niigata Albirex BB (2-19) have suffered 18 straight losses.

In the 11-team West Division, the Golden Kings hold a three-game lead over the Shimane Susanoo Magic (15-6), who are followed in the standings by the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins (14-7, winners of five straight), and the Hiroshima Dragonflies (13-8, four straight wins). The SeaHorses Mikawa (12-9) and Osaka Evessa (11-10) are also both above .500. The San-en NeoPhoenix and Kyoto Hannaryz both have 3-18 records.

The Golden Kings are back on the road on December 25-26 against the Yokohama B-Corsairs (7-14).

Sunday's Top Ryukyu, Shibuya Performances

In keeping alive its win streak on Sunday, four players shared the scoring load for Ryukyu. Evans poured in 19, Allen Durham added 17 on 8-for-9 shooting and Narito Namizato, who made his Kings debut in 2011, scored 11.

Ryukyu converted 13 of 17 foul shots; Shibuya made 17 of 27.

“It was a difficult and tough match that we couldn't quite grasp the flow of our offense today,” Namizato told reporters. “But I think that it was a good result that everyone was able to play with the same image without breaking down, [relying on] patience.”

The focus remains on winning, according to Namizato 

“While there are many talented players [on our team], I think that everyone will find their own job and do it thoroughly, so that we will be closer to winning,” he added.

For the Sunrockers, James Michael McAdoo, a former University of North Carolina and NBA forward, was the top scorer with 34 points on 14-for-21 shooting.

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Harrellson and Vendrame also reached double digits in points, scoring 15 and 13, respectively.

Isa said his team “played with pride at the end of the game.” Reacting to the outcome of the game, he said: “Our team fought with confidence. It’s a shame not to be able to [pull off] a win.”

Ryukyu’s Standard of Excellence

The Golden Kings, who joined the bj-league in 2007 as an expansion team, established a standard of excellence early on and have strived to maintain their high standards.

It was a focal point of Oketani’s greeting to the team’s rabid fans when he was introduced as Ryukyu coach for a second time in July 2021.

“It's been a long time since I have been back with everyone in Okinawa and all of the Kings fans,” Oketani said in a statement. “Nice to meet you all, my name is Dai Oketani, and I am the new head coach for the Kings. Although the players and the staff have changed, we will do our best to continue to grow and strengthen the Kings’ winning culture."

Team president Tatsuro Kimura has an impressive track record of success when it comes to hiring head coaches, and that is the foundation of the team’s winning culture.

Kimura hired Oketani to take over as the second bench boss in team history in June 2008, replacing American Hernando Planells. He gave the former Oita HeatDevils coach a shot at building a winner in Okinawa. The move paid immediate dividends as the bj-league team won the 2008-09 title in its second season, and Oketani was at the helm for another league title in his final year in charge, 2011-12. 

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Over the next decade, Kimura appointed four men to serve as head coach: Koto Toyama, Isa, Norio Sassa and Hiroki Fujita, and all four guided the Golden Kings to playoff berths. Isa won a pair of bj-league titles (2013-14 and 2015-16) before the merger of the bj-league and NBL to create the B. League in 2016 and left Ryukyu after the B. League’s inaugural campaign.

Isa, who began his pro coaching career as an assistant on Planells’ staff in 2007, has built a strong foundation with the Sunrockers over the past few years, while his former boss Oketani patrolled the sidelines for B2’s Sendai 89ers for the past three seasons.

Key Season Statistics for Ryukyu

This season, the Golden Kings are the B. League’s second-stingiest defense, holding opponents to 72.1 points per game. 

In looking at the NBA as a historical model, top defensive teams often contend for titles. A prime example: the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who yielded the third-fewest points per game and went 72-10 en route to their fourth titles of the Michael Jordan era.

Oketani employs elements of the triangle offense, which the Bulls used throughout the 1990s under legendary coach Phil Jackson. And it’s been a good fit in Okinawa. The Golden Kings have been one of the B. League’s premier passing teams, averaging 19.5 assists and 10.1 turnovers per contest.

In other words, the Kings are consistently making good decisions with the basketball on offense.

Sunday’s game is a good example. Imamura had the hot shooting hand, so Ryukyu players worked to get him the ball in his comfort zone and set effective screens to give him plenty of space to launch his shots.

Their balanced offense features eight players averaging 6.0 or more points per game, with Evans (17.2), Durham (14.6), Jack Cooley (11.4), Imamura (10.7) and Ryuichi Kishimoto (9.0) leading the way.

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And the Kings’ exceptional rebounding, led by Cooley (10.8 per game), Durham (7.8) and Evans (6.8), helps reduce shot opportunities and points for the opposition.

The veteran-laden Ryukyu roster is built to win now. Which is one reason Oketani, who turns 44 on December 23, has to smile. He grinned on a number of occasions during his postgame news conference on Sunday while speaking about the team’s development over the first 21 games of the season ー plus its latest grind-it-out victory.

“We couldn’t control the offense as much as I’d expected, but I’m glad the inside players found Imamura, who is a [perimeter] shooter, to score consecutive baskets and didn’t pass the rhythm to the opponent,” Oketani commented. 

“The Kings have a lot of talented players … and we want to grow as a team challenge.”

By all accounts, it’s the proper course of action for the title-contending Ryukyu Golden Kings.

Author: Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward's [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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