Casey’s Corner – Final 6 Preview

Photo credit: Gameface NZ

The regular season has come to its conclusion, with teams fighting down to the last second of the regular season to secure finals positions, and following a couple of final week upsets the Final 6 is set with six teams that will rightfully see paths to cutting down the nets this Sunday. The Auckland Tuatara and Otago Nuggets come into the finals as odds on favourites, despite wearing losses to finish the season but all six teams are capable of pulling off a post season win streak and grabbing the title. 

Auckland Tuatara  

The Auckland Tuatara looked to be keeping the league at arms reach during a 10-game winning streak before a two loss wobble was encountered to finish the season. A top ranked offence (119 ORTG at 57% EFG) has been a driving force all season long as they have been able to find easy opportunities with Jarrad Weeks as the engine in transition and through Rob Loe in the half court. Tough d and timely scoring from Cam Glidgon and Reuben Te Rangi has balanced out the offensive punch, with both capable of carrying the entire load of the offence if needed.

Combined with strong support on the interior from Joe Lawson and his unconventional buckets and the continued growth of Charlie Dalton they have been able to grind out teams with physicality and work rate. The final addition of Kruz Perott-Hunt offers depth at all positions to wear down opponents on the defensive end and apply continued pressure offensively. 

The offence can be careless with the ball at times, but a frugal defence (best defensive PPG @85.4 PPG) with Loe erasing mistakes has made up for it, but overall this is a team that has displayed few weaknesses even as they stumbled slightly down the stretch.  

Keys to Victory

Keep draining 3’s - 39.1% from three is best in the league, if they keep falling the space to operate inside the arc increases and makes them very difficult to defend 

Defend and Rebound - They have kept the opposition to the lowest field goal percentage in the league (44.1%) and take down the most defensive rebounds per game in the league. If they win the possession game they normally win. 

Key Stat - Shooting 39.1% from three .

X-Factor: Cam Gliddon’s trey ball - With defences focusing on Loe and Weeks, Gliddon could find some space on the perimeter and when his flame is burning the Tuatara offence can’t be caught by many teams in the league.

Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets 

The Nuggets come into the finals in the best form in the league having won 4-of-5 with the loss coming in the final game of the season with no real stakes on the table with the second seed locked in. Tai Webster has filled the void left by JaQuori McLaughlin to power the Nuggets on both ends of the floor to bring the Nuggets back to the form found in a 7-0 start to the year. Todd Withers has been stellar defensively, finding another gear when needed to put the clamps on opponents while dropping 41% from deep.

When both he and Michael Harris find form the onslaught has been unstoppable. Sam Timmins has been a strength everywhere but the free throw line, and his size is a weapon on both ends of the court. They take care of the ball (a league low 13% turnover percentage) and play the second fastest pace in the league (Saints 1st) creating more opportunities for their big play offence to take advantage of. The bench has stepped up with Matt Bardsely and Jack Andrew offering efficiency off the bench to combine with physicality on the defensive end that helps power one of the best defences in the league. 

When the offence gets stagnant they can rely on the three ball, but they have the size to rebound their way out of misses if necessary.  

Keys to Victory  

Get hot from 3-point land - With the highest 3-point rate of any team in the finals (44% of shots from 3) they put stretch the floor and put pressure on defences to rotate out to multiple shooters. When shooting well driving lanes and o board opportunities are plentiful as defences are constantly in scramble mode, when shooting poorly it can turn into a quick shot-a-thon, giving up transition to opponents and keeping the stellar D from setting up in the half court. 

Force Turnovers - Boasting a steal percentage of 10% they force bad decisions on offences with their pressure and ability to take away passing lanes, and even when they don’t force the turnover with a steal, the effect is palpable, forcing turnovers on 17% of opponent possessions. Play that kind of defence and they will be able to find easy buckets in transition and force teams to play catch up in the half court. 

Key Stat - 31.6 three pointers attempted per game at 32.2% 

X-Factor: Michael Harris - The second leading scorer in the league (22.9 PPG) isn’t normally much of an X, but he has only topped 36% shooting once in his last four games and when his shot isn’t falling it takes heaps of pressure off defenders rotational duties. If he gets hot and stays that way over the weekend it will be a tough task to match the Nugs firepower.  

Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams  

Coming into the finals on a three-game winning streak and boasting great depth will give the Rams confidence coming into Finals Week. Tevin Brown has been torrid at times, using his speed to keep defenders off balance while creating space with his jump shot and ability to cut off the ball. He scores in bunches, often taking over games for a quarter leaving defenses bewildered. When the offence flows away from him transition opportunities can be created with the speed and athleticism of Troy Baxter Jr breaking defences for highlight reel material.

Max Darling offers a powerful weapon in the halfcourt and his physicality and power transfer to the defensive end with ease. Taylor Britt has found double figures in nine straight games and has been more aggressive from deep of late, bending defences to a greater extent while applying great ball pressure on opponents point guards. Walter Brown has been a fixture on the wing, matching up with opponents top weapons while taking advantage of scoring opportunities as they come without forcing his way into the action. They have excellent size up front, with Tom Webley and Galin Smith forming a thunder and lightning duo (or thunder and thunder) that can afford to play with a great level of physicality. And that still leaves Corey Webster who hasn’t found his best form, but still offers a proven post season scoring threat off the bench that no other team can match.   

Keys to Victory  

Grind the Glass - With their size and strength second chance points should become a first class weapon, but in their last loss (104-81 to the Tuatara) they only found five rebounds on the offensive end. If the offences falters they should clean up their own mess and rebounding numbers on offence are an excellent barometer for this team's work rate. 

Pop off the bench - Some teams head to the bench and understand there will be a bit of a drop in play. The Rams pick the intensity up, bringing imports Baxter Jr and Smith along with C Web to attack fatigued d’s and dominate second units. When the bench unit comes in they need to lift the pressure and force teams to extend themselves for longer periods, allowing the depth of the Rams to shine through. 

Key Stat - 11.8 offensive rebounds per game 

X-Factor: Troy Baxter Jr - At his best he is a double-double threat who plays above the rim and behind the arc, using his athleticism to dominate his defensive matchup. But he has floated in and out of games, and when he lacks pop the Rams often fail to fire (7pt, 4rb average in the teams two most recent losses).  If he can come off the bench and lift his team he will most likely lift them straight to victory. 

Franklin Bulls  

The Bulls may be the best drilled team in the finals and look like a team that understands their individual roles and how they contribute to victory. They have struggled against the cream of the crop over the course of the regular season, finding just one victory against their fellow top four teams, and that was a 2nd half comeback from a 24-point deficit to the Tuatara. This will be cause for concern, but if they play their brand of stout defence they can limit the effectiveness of any opponents attack who shoot just 44% against the Bulls while making less than 10 threes a game.

This physicality can have a cost, with teams averaging over 21 free throws a game to keep the scoreboard ticking over. With two defenders nominated for DPOY, Jamaal Brantley and Rickey McGill, this is a risk the Bulls don’t mind taking. Their positional versatility on the defensive end is spearheaded by Brantley, who can guard every position well and has imposed his will on multiple opponents. Dan Fotu has been steadily improving all season long, finding greater levels of efficiency to find his 17.5 PPG while out muscling smalls and out quicking bigger opponents. Jared Wilson-Frame and Issac Davidson have offered pop from the perimeter to keep defences stretched and Matt Freeman has been a versatile tool despite not finding a consistent level of efficiency from deep. With the expected return of Tyrell Harrison they become a complete unit, with size and shot blocking on the back line defensively to counter the pressure put on the perimeter.  

Blending in Harrison may take more time then the Bulls have on hand, with his presence shifting the balance of the court to a degree that hasn’t been experienced without him for the majority of the season. Ifi they run into a team splashing it from deep it will be tough to keep up as they shoot the least amount of threes in the league (22.4pg) and 4 less than the next closest team above them (Hawks 26pg) leading to a discrepancy in volume that even with great efficiency from inside the arc will be tough to make up. If they are off from the field their 10orb per game average will give them a second life when everything lines up correctly. 

Keys to victory

Forcing Turnovers - Only Nuggets opponents have more turnovers, but the Bulls collect more steals than any other team at 9.1 per game with the ball pressure of McGill and a collection of pressure set up behind him. To win games they must win the possession count. 

Maintain their pace - Only Auckland averages less shots per game and when teams find freedom in transition the Bulls lose some of their advantage in the half court, so keeping teams from pushing the pace and creating extra chances is key to finding postseason form.

Key stat - 20.4 fouls per game 

X-Factor: Rickey McGill - The top swiper in the league can single handedly change the flow of the game by picking pockets and controlling passing lanes, but when he combines his defensive prowess with mid-range mastery the Bulls find a different level of play. 

Wellington Saints 

At their best the Saints are a powerful offence that can dominate teams in transition or the halfcourt with seven players on the roster averaging double figures over the season. With Kyle Adnam steering the ship and finding activity in the lanes they put extreme pressure on defences, attempting and making more free throws than any other team in the league (17.0 FTM from 23.6 FTA). This lifts an efficient offence (54% EFG, 116 ORTG) to heights that few teams can match when they are at their best.

Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa’s defence will be key on the perimeter to make up for Adnam’s deficiencies and he looks to have found his form from deep with 8 threes from 15 attempts over the Saints two wins to close the season. They have excellent defensive versatility on the wing to slow down opposing offences with Isaiah Mucius and Kenneth Tuffin when the game goes into the halfcourt. They also offer perhaps the most versatile front line in the Finals, with Tohi Smith-Milner, Elijah Thomas, Tom Vodanovich and Taane Samuel offering the ability to match any style of play they come up against.

The scoring will have to be high as no team gives up more points per game then the 94.9 averaged against them. They have had particular issues in transition, succumbing to teams that scored triple digits in 6 of their 9 losses this year. They have the tools physically to be stout at the point of attack while offering shot blocking and rebounding from the interior, but a lack of communication has seen the d flounder aimlessly while trying to outscore teams to win. 

Keys to victory 

Free throws - Getting to the line is key, as it puts the defense in foul trouble and allows a tepid transition defence to get set up early while keeping the score ticking over. A lack of attempts at the line will be indicative of a passive offensive mindset, which would all but take away their championship chances. 

Balanced offence - They get up over 30 threes a game, more than enough to keep pace with any team's 3-point shooting attack, but I prefer them when they find a more balanced attack on the interior before looking to fling it from deep. Activity in the post or off of penetration is key to keep defences honest for a team that should be able to outscore any opponent on its best day. 

Key Stat - 97.5 points per game 

X-Factor: Taane Samuel - At his best he offers a powerful level of physicality combined with a skill set befitting a man much smaller in stature. He can also ride his emotions to a higher level of play that dominates stretches of play. But when he gets too caught up in the game within the game it can come at the expense of higher levels of execution leading to foul trouble and forced decisions. If he finds his best few teams have a defender versatile enough to match his mix of perimeter and interior skills.

Hawke’s Bay Hawks 

A late season flurry of home wins has the Hawks riding high following a season that looked lost at the midway point. Defence and pace have proven key, as they have collected only two wins when opponents reach more than 90 points. This can be a problem when they are careless with the ball, which is more often than they would like as they average the most TO’s in the league at 15.1 per game. But a three-game win streak to finish the season showed they may have finally figured out who they are.

Ira Lee has been a double-double machine, offering a powerful presence that has been tough for the opposition to handle on both ends of the court. Hyrum Harris remains a swiss army knife of a player, with his multifaceted skill set matched only by his work rate. Jordan Ngatai helped clinch a postseason berth with perhaps the best game of his career, a 47-point burst that showed how effective the squad can be when they take advantage of his mismatches in the post or on the perimeter. Derone Raukawa has been electric off the bench, and at his best penetrating defences late in games to find space in the midrange.

They can excel in transition with Ethan Rusbach running the wing while Jordan Hunt rim runs teams to exhaustion. They will enter the postseason playing with house money as the midseason swoon made a postseason run seem extremely unlikely. But an unlikely chance is better than no chance and a chance is all any team can hope for at his time of year. 

Keys to Victory  

Limit Turnovers - The third most efficient offense (55% efg) can be derailed with careless passes, and their 15% turnover percentage will have to be bettered if they want to make a run at a ring. 

Find a way to the line - The Hawks have the lowest free throw rate of any team in the finals, with just 24% of possessions ending at the stripe. When things are grinding to a halt in the postseason they will need to find a way to draw contact and their effectiveness from mid range can at times be detrimental to getting whistles. 

Key Stat - 15.1 turnovers per game  

X-Factor: Jordan Ngatai - His 47-point outburst showed him at his best, finding contact early to put the opposition into foul trouble, taking smalls to the block and taking bigs to the wing while taking advantage at both. If the offence runs through him the team will be better off for it. 

Predictions (That I refuse to be held to account for and was 100% wrong on last year) 

Prelim Final 1 -  Rams vs. Hawks 
Prelim Final 2 - Bulls vs. Saints 
Semi Final 1 - Tuatara vs. Hawks  
Semi Final 2 - Nuggets vs. Bulls  
Grand Final -  Tuatara vs. Nuggets  

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