Casey’s Corner: Final 6 Preview

The regular season has come to its conclusion, with teams fighting down to the last second to secure finals berths and following a couple of final week overtime thrillers (the first two of the season) the Final 6 is set with a bevy of teams that will rightfully see paths to pulling down the title. The Taranaki Airs and Wellington Saints come into the finals in impressive fashion and as the favorites, but even a slight wobble from the odds on favourites will open the door for upsets. All six teams are capable of pulling off a postseason win streak and grabbing the title but all teams can also quickly lose control of games if not at their best. Each game and opponent will present its own challenge with the teams that are able to problem solve on the fly giving themselves the best chance to win.

The Airs have done what was neigh unthinkable in the preseason and won their first league title since 1992. With a trio of imports carving it up on both sides of the ball with local talent supporting (and leading when needed) they are perhaps the most dangerous team in the league on the change of possession with their combination of speed and strength in the open court. Welcoming back Tai Wynyard and Richie Rodger from Commonwealth games duties will increase their depth and (with Wynyard) ability to defend the paint while securing the boards. The quality of the team in their absence speaks to their quality, but make no mistake they are better defensively with Wynyard patrolling the paint and imposing himself on opposition bigs and meeting drives at the rim.  

The absence of two starters for an extended period may turn out to be the biggest blessing of the season, as it enabled Marcel Jones to gain extended minutes to find his rhythm offensively while adjusting to being a secondary option. His improved perimeter shooting of late opens space for driving lanes and post up opportunities while his competency on the glass increases the overall speed of the transition game. Interestingly the Airs have an effective field goal percentage of 52% as a team, which isn’t bad, but that bumps up to 65% against the Saints, one of the few teams with the horses to compete with them positionally. 

Keys to a Title Run

  • Value the basketball: The Airs' most glaring weakness is a proclivity for loose play with unforced turnovers often keeping games closer than expected which when combined with some slow starts has made comebacks necessary. If these areas can be cleaned up it will bring the Airs that much closer to their championship dream.
  • Sending Auntie out with a chip: Aaron Bailey-Nowell has been a Taranaki staple since 2004 (minus a stint with the Jets) and his being part of the best franchise run in a generation will be a boost to the fuel tanks of the Airs squad and any traveling fans. Any factor to find a bit of extra motivation can be a deciding factor.
  • X-Factor-Factor Shaun Willett: Javonte Douglas and Anthony Hilliard have deservedly received much of the credit for the teams resurgence, but the club truly took off with the arrival of Shaun Willett whose combination of strength and athleticism has been a matchup nightmare. In the full court his speed and power on the wing draws defensive focus opening up opportunities for trail threes or second chance points. 

Nelson were the most deliberate team in the Sal’s NBL this season, a product of their slower pace where their patience allowed for quality offense on one end and for the defense to set on the other. When set in the halfcourt their defense had been pesky, forcing turnovers at a higher rate than any other team in the league (17% forced turnover rate) with defensive player of the year Jarrod West and Alex Mcnaught harassing opposition guards while Trey Mourning, Sam Thompson and Most Improved Player Sam Dempster applying the physical backbone. To win the title they will need to find a greater level of offensive efficiency while squeezing extra production out of a thin bench. Coach of the year Mike Fitchett will have kept from emptying the deck in the Giants matchups in the last week of the season against the Saints and Airs, but they will have to be some very big hole cards to win the title.

Keys to a Title Run

  • Hitting Threes: When the ball goes in from deep space is created for Mourning and Thomposn inside while also opening up offensive rebounding opportunities, when they don’t drop defenses pack in the paint and leak out in transition for easy opportunities of their own
  • Forcing Turnovers: With the the lowest effective field goal percentage of any team in the finals (48.3%) they rely on their feisty defence to create easy baskets, if they can cause and convert off live ball turnovers they will give their offense a tremendous boost
  • Take care of the ball: The Giants rely on limiting opponents easy chances and allowing a stout half court d to set up. If they give away possession all other aspects of their game suffer.
  • X-Factor Sam Dempster threes: Defences have often chosen to let him fire away to concentrate on the drives of West and post ups of Mourning. When he’s hitting above his season average of 41.9% the Giants become a powerhouse offensively, if not they become mortal once again.

The Nuggets used an epic overtime victory in front of a vocal Edgar Centre crowd to propel themselves to the third seed despite being down key imports Todd Withers and Keith Williams. An impressive feat for a team who has found it difficult to win when not at full strength, which unfortunately, has been the case more often than not. While a full roster isn't definite for the quarterfinals there has been development, as some of the unheralded depth stepped up to make an impact on winning. If Keith Williams can recover from illness and Todd Withers is able to overcome a nagging injury that needs more recovery than is available, they can be any teams equal. If not they will need to have Tray Boyd and Sam Timmins carry the load while overcoming the full weight of opponents scouting report focus. Nikau McCullough will need to find Timmins will need to find synchronicity with teammates and revised roles in a short amount of time, but both have shown an ability to do just that. They have played some of their better offensive basketball against the Hawks (52%efg) and will have the confidence of a 2-0 record against their opponents during the regular season, but confidence will only get them so far.

Keys to a Title Run

  • Crashing the glass: If the shooting from deep continues to be tepid, a strong influence on the offensive glass would make up for some lack of pop and aid the transition defence efforts at the same time.
  • Pop off the bench: Even at full health a few buckets off the bench wouldn’t go astray, but for a team that has found consistency in scoring threats difficult outside its starting five difficult to maintain a bonus in this department would go a long way.
  • Pound the paint: The worst 3-point shooting team at 29.6% will need to eschew looks of poor quality from deep and work the paint, either off the drive or through the post, to get full value out of their offensive looks. 
  • X-Factor - Sam Timmins: He has been ascendant at times but with long stretches away with the Tall Blacks it has been difficult for him to find his flow offensively, but to move forward he’ll need to be his dominant best.

The Saints have been a high wire act for half the season and have been able to keep their balance with every step despite the pressure. With MVP Xavier Cooks leading the charge of an offence that has weapons at every level they have been an offensive juggernaut while finding another level defensively. Reggie Upshaw Jr. offers rebounding force and deep threat (41% 3pfg) and most importantly, allowed the rest of the starting lineup to slide down a position defensively and find more natural coverages to turn the screws defensively. Taane Samuel and Tom Vodanovich often have a mismatch to exploit and Jordan Ngatai has looked his healthiest and most comfortable in recent weeks. 

Michael Smith has adapted well to his new role off the bench, and inserting his burst of speed can put added pressure on defences that are often at breaking point when he comes into the game. Their shot selection is textbook, either on the rim or from three, forcing teams to fully commit to defending both zones further stretching them to breaking point. A Vodanovich ejection in the last game out shows the feistiness of the side, which would perhaps be better shelved with the smallest margins of error being responsible for sending teams home, but even that didn’t seem to slow them down. And if that can’t, what will?

Keys to a Title Run

  • Staying out of Foul Trouble: As talented as they are, depth can be an issue. Kenneth Tuffin provides most of the guard cover for Smith, and the multi-positional skill sets of the starting five can make up for shortcomings in other areas, but if the whistles get tight they may need to dig deeper into the bench then comfortable
  • Pace: The Saints look unstoppable in the open court and when they push the pace they are able to find advantage in one on one situations with ease, few teams have teams athletes at every that are able to match them in the open court and they would love to spend as much time there as possible
  • Don’t get stuck hunting the mismatch: With physical advantages at multiple positions the Saints can get myopic in their offensive views, but taking advantage of the mismatch should come in moderation, not as the main focus of the offence.
  • X-Factor - Xavier Cooks (and not just cause it starts with an X): Not exactly breaking news but MVP Xavier Cooks is everything to this squad. When he is at his best he can carry the squad through slow stretches and dominate on both ends of the ball. If he is forced off his game for even a quarter the Saints will have real issues making up for the loss in production.

Auckland were two distinct teams this season, the team with Chris Johnson and the team that was wishing he would come back. With CJ back in the lineup they are once again the best version of themselves, controlling the paint behind the rim protection and rebounding of Rob Loe and Johnson then leaking out for easy buckets in transition behind the speed of Siler, Dontae Russo-Nance and Taki Fahrensohn. With Russo-Nance out for at least the quarterfinal, Braydon Iuli will need to fill his role to the best of his ability, but even if successful the youngest bench in the finals (I haven’t actually looked this up but these dudes look young) will need to step up into the spotlight should any rotation player find foul trouble.

Schneider was uber-efficient (7-9 from the field) in the last matchup with the Saints but he will most likely need to trade in some of that efficiency for volume to find enough points to keep pace with the Saints. At their early season best they looked like the best team in the competition and to walk away with the hardware they will need to rediscover that early season form.  

Keys to a Title Run

  • Loe and CJ dominance: These two literally tower over the opposition, and they will need to be at their imposing best in the paint at both ends of the court for the Tuatara to be a chance. This officially counts as keys as they will have to do it on offence and defence.
  • Schneider with more volume: His efficiency is great, but a little less discretion would lead to more shots created and even with a few more misses the extra points created will be of value to keep touch with the top offences in the postseason 
  • X- Factor - Braydon Iuli: He’s made big strides and as the season has come along so has his responsibilities. If he is able to find transition success and some space on the perimeter it would make operating in the post that much easier for the big fellas

The Hawks didn’t enjoy their full roster playing together until their final match of the season, despite that they were able to find enough rhythm to eke out the first overtime win of the year and punch their postseason ticket. The continuing of the do or die atmosphere in the finals should help the Hawks keep their focus and continue to get the two-way best out of the squad. Hyrum Harris will offer two-way work rate, providing tough scoring around the basket and in transition, enough shooting to force teams to defend him and tough physical defence. He has the ability to guard all positions, which gives coach Mick Downer the ability to go with big lineups. Two out of Jack Salt, Tajuan Agee and Jordan Hunt have worked quite well together in limited minutes and when playing together, but the shooting of Hunt may allow a super big lineup to be played if required. They are unlikely to go that way with the quality of perimeter players.

Jarrod Kenny is a more steady hand at the PG spot then Derone Raukawa but doesn’t offer the same level of shooting from three or off the dribble threat in the halfcourt or transition. With Raukawa still (at least from my eyes) recovering from injury, the offence is struggling to find its best form, but his soft touch will be on offer even if he is slightly diminished physically. Their offence finds another gear when Ethan Rusbatch finds his stroke from deep, who has shot 40 more threes than any of his teammates, despite shooting the worst percentage on the team of anyone with more than five attempts. If he is able to get hot the Hawks would look very different in the half court, with the tools to convert baskets from all levels and a physical defence setting the tone, they in spurts have looked like they could beat anyone when they take care of the ball. But despite all the ball handling on offer they were second worst in the league for turnover rate while playing at a mid-tier pace.

They come into the finals winning 3-of-4 which was needed after a four-game losing streak put them in a bit of a hole, but finishing sixth in the 4-way mini ladder has worked out well for them, with as favorable a matchup as they could ask for against the Nuggets on offer. They have a pathway to win the title if they are able to tap into their offensive skills to the best of their ability while playing while controlling the paint, but they will have to find a level of cohesion that has eluded them up to this point, but no time like the present.

Keys to a Title Run

  • Shoot the three with efficiency: If they are able to move from the low 30’s to the high 30’s in 3-point shooting the balance of the court will open up options for them in the half court, with more room to operate on the post and for wing drives. Some of the best looks they have created this year from three have come in transition, if they aren’t able to convert these at a higher level the offence will be left wanting.
  • Play physically without fouling: The Hawks average the second most fouls of the teams in the finals, and their physical play makes it difficult to finish at the rim when playing their best. But their best formula offensively depends on utilizing their team speed in transition, which can’t happen when sending opponents to the free throw line.
  • Force turnovers: Next to last in the Sal’s NBL in steals the Hawks haven’t forced enough live ball turnovers to give their offence extra juice when things in the half court get difficult. They have the defensive ability to get in the lanes and to force steals with active hands but haven’t done so with consistency. If they could steal some easy buckets off change of possession the pressure to execute in the half court would ease somewhat.
  • X- Factor - Jordan Hunt: His time away with the Tall Blacks was devastating to the Hawks transition attack, as removing the best rim runner in the league took away easy opportunities that don’t come often to the Hawks. His 21 made threes were also third on the team despite missing four games. When he is at his best he is a matchup nightmare, and with Jack Salt manning the middle he has a lesser load to carry on the defensive end giving him the opportunity to lift a bit more on the O.  

Predictions (that I will refuse to be held to account for)

  • Play-In 1: Nuggets v Hawks
  • Play-In 2: Saints v Tuatara
  • Semi-final 1 Airs v Hawks
  • Semi-final 2 Giants v Saints
  • Grand Final Airs v Saints

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