Finals tip off with preliminary roundKorean sports fans had their collective spring baseball fix this month, as the national team reached the semifinals in the World Baseball Classic. Now, it’s time for fans to shift their attention to the hardwood ― playoffs of the Korean Basketball League begin Friday.
The top six teams of the 10-squad league advanced to the postseason, and the regular season race was so tight that the final seedings weren’t determined until the final day of the season last Sunday. A testament to the league’s parity, seven teams concluded the season at or better than a .500 winning percentage.
Mobis Phoebus, which has been at or near the top of the standings for most of the season, wrapped up regular play at 36-18, thanks to a balanced attack led by Chris Williams (the only player ranked in the top 10 in points, rebounds and assists) and airtight defense that enabled the team to finish first in fewest points allowed and second in steals. They were four games ahead of the Samsung Thunders, a trendy early season pick to take this year’s title. Center Seo Jang-hoon was once again the league’s top Korean scorer, and forward Nate Johnson and center Olumide Oyedeji provided more than adequate help, leading the team in scoring and rebounds, respectively.
These two teams got the byes to the best-of-five semifinal round, awaiting the winners from the best-of-three first round.
Defending champs Dongbu Promy, which finished third under the new title sponsor and new nickname, will face the sixth-ranked Daegu Orions, the 2002 champions. The winner will play the Thunders starting April 8.
In the other bracket, KTF Magic Wings will square off against the KCC Egis, which made the playoffs in the first season under the Korean basketball legend Hur Jae as head coach. Whoever comes out on top of this round will get the unenviable task of challenging the Phoebus beginning April 7.
Let’s size up the two first-round match ups.
The Promy leads the season series 4-2. The duo of Kim Joo-sung and Jameel Watkins is a lethal post combination, helping the team lead the league in block shots. Yang Kyung-min, KBL’s second leading three-point shooter, and Son Gyu-wan provide the perimeter attack. The team’s high-percentage offense has kept them in the top echelon for the most of the season.
The Orions are this year’s proverbial “team that no one wants to play.” Point guard Kim Seung-hyun, perhaps the fastest player in the KBL, is sure to wreak havoc among the slow-footed Promy players, and the Promy’s loss of point guard Shin Ki-sung, reigning most valuable player and a superb defender, to the free agency last offseason will be a huge factor in this series.
Sharp-shooting Kim Byung-chul is the backcourt master, and the two Kims were the highest-scoring guard duo, combining to make 197 three-pointers and to average more than 26 points per game. Daegu, which boasts the highest field-goal percentage in the KBL, has the momentum on its side, having trounced the Promy 105-69 in their last match on March 11.
Another dark horse in the match up will be the Orions’ center Lee Benson, who was acquired in a mid-season trade from the hapless Et Land Blackslamer. Chided for his selfish, ball-hogging nature of play while with the struggling Blackslamer, Benson was rejuvenated in his 23 games for the Orions, averaging 26.8 points per game while grabbing 14.3 boards. For all his selfish play, Benson was the only player in the league to finish in the top five in both scoring and rebounding. So not only must the Promy contend with two top-rated guards, they somehow must find a way to slow down Benson. A tough task, indeed, especially in such a short series.
Pick: Orions in a two-game sweep.
The Magic Wings have the 4-2 edge in the regular season, and took the last three matches. They feature a strong backcourt of Shin Ki-sung and Hwang Jin-won, an energetic sidekick to the steady Shin. Small forward Cho Sang-hyun is one of the league’s leading three-point shooters, but was injured in the latter part of the season.
Aaron McGhee was the team’s go-to guy, averaging 22.9 points per game, but he is not a true center and could have difficulty handling the Egis’ center Arthur Long, who has 10 double-doubles in points and rebounds in 18 games he has played for the team. The Wings’ Ken Johnson, signed earlier in March to replace injured center Nigel Dixon, has played substantial minutes but has not been as dominant a force as Dixon, the league’s top rebounder before a left knee injury last month.
The 2004 champion Egis, which played in the last two championship finals, is a veteran squad, another way of saying they are an old team. They rely heavily on 30-somethings like point guard Lee Sang-min (33), and shot-making forwards Cho Sung-won (34) and Choo Seung-gyun (31). The team’s leading scorer is 32-year-old Charles Minlend, the league’s second-best scorer at 28.6 points per game.
KCC couldn’t afford to rest their veterans as they battled with the Orions and KT&G Kites for the final two playoff spots. It remains to be seen whether they have anything left in their tanks.
The series will come down to individual match ups. The rivalry of Shin and Lee goes a long way back to their college days, when the then-Korea University and Yonsei University point guards, respectively, were at the forefront of the surging popularity of basketball in the early 1990s. Minlend and McGhee will put up their usual numbers, but they will need all the help they can get from local players. More experienced Egis gets the nod here.
Pick: Egis in three games.
by Yoo Jee-ho