With just three rounds left to play the Sal’s NBL has offered compelling matchups and highlight reel material week after week but the ultimate highlight for every team would of course be to walk away with the title. Excitingly, we still have eight teams vying for the top six spots and a chance to book a table at the big dance and walk away with the hardware.
The only team with their ticket booked for the postseason is the Nelson Giants, who withstood a spirited Manawatu Jets performance behind the scoring of Trey Mourning and Samuel Thompson to sneak out of Palmerston North with a win and a little separation from the pack in the closest game of the week.
The Taranaki Airs are the only team still able to challenge for the top seed (and the preferred rest and matchups that come with it) and showed in a victory over the Canterbury Rams that they are able to grind out victories with physicality and defence if the offensce doesn’t reach the heights it’s capable of. With the loss, the Rams are on the outside looking in.
The Wellington Saints have no room to falter, but with a more than convincing win against the Hawke’s Bay Hawks they showed they have the highest offensive floor in the league with the addition of Reggie Upshaw Jr. allowing for personnel to settle in their preferred positions enabling more consistent defensive performances.
Following that loss in the collapse against the Saints, the Hawks knuckled down defensively and, save the first five minutes of each half, beat the Bulls at their own game. Grinding them down at both ends behind the gritty big man performances of Tajuan Agee in the first half and Jack Salt in the second, for a 10-point win in a low scoring affair.
While the top of the table only has room for two teams, the Jets and Southland Sharks are sitting at a table for three awaiting one more RSVP to the dinner party nobody wanted to join at table 8. I’m calling it table 8 as any team that ends up with 8 wins or less is unlikely to be invited past the velvet rope of the postseason. The Sharks finally looked like the team they hoped to be this season, and surprised the league with a victory over the Auckland Tuatara despite complete performances from the Dontae Russo-Nance/Siler Schneider backcourt. Unlike the Sharks, the Jets were unable to pull off an upset against a sharpshooting import trio that shot 50% from the 3-point line for the game. But, much like Southland, the Jets will still be able to greatly affect the final playoff participants with some upsets down the stretch and both teams will need to savor playing spoiler with the finals out of reach.
Sitting at table 9 sounds better, and may just get you entry past the velvet rope, but getting number 9 isn't a guarantee, more like a raffle ticket for a fundraiser where you may get something you want, like the meat raffle (at least that's the one I got my eye on), or you may end up with one free hour of banjo lessons (apologies to any banjo teachers out there I’m sure it’s awesome). Ten is the rung that gets you in and is the number all the teams have circled.
Locked In (Control their own destiny for the top seed)
One win and in, two losses rolling the dice
Win two and in, one win or less and they’re rolling the dice
Three wins and in, any less and they’re rolling the dice
Out but can pull others with them on their way out the door
Hawke's Bay Hawks vs. Wellington Saints | Thursday, 22 July @ 7:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)
The Hawks came off their worst performance of the year and found a way to overcome a tough shooting night to dominate the glass, holding the Bulls to 32% shooting while getting 32.5% of their own offence from the 3-point line. It was the gritty defensive performance that was missing against the Saints, who they allowed to shoot 52% and 47% from three. If the Saints shoot that well again and score 67 over the middle two quarters they will win going away for the second week in a row.
But if the Hawks are able to slow down Xavier Cooks and the most potent offence in the league around the paint while finding a way to hold back a resurgent Mike Smith, they will need to take advantage of transition opportunities while still controlling the pace. They will need to replace the rim running of Jordan Hunt until he rejoins the team, this will produce opportunities in the paint and on the wing for shooters, which the Saints have struggled to stop with any consistency this season. While the Saints are still in must win territory, with any slip costing them the postseason, the Hawks have a small margin for error where two wins out of their remaining three games will get them entry into the postseason. But if they are able to completely turnaround last week's performance they have an outside shot at a top 2 spot, which will be all important for any team trying to achieve a championship this season.
Southland Sharks vs. Taranaki Airs | Friday, 22 July @ 7:30pm
The Airs are playing the best basketball in the league, winning five straight and eight of their last 10. The low scoring first half totaled 63 points between both teams in the win over the Rams, but Anthony Hilliard was still able to score 19 while Javonte Douglas enjoyed the performance of the week with 18 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals and 4 blocks! His ability to find a mismatch on both sides of the court coupled with the physical dominance of Shaun Willett and Tai Wynyard make the Airs a powerful matchup nightmare even on off shooting nights.
At their best the Sharks can run with Taranaki and in their win against the Tuatara showed that if the triple is dropping there is more space to be found on the court for drives and interior passes. Leading the league in 3-point percentage (36%) ensures the Airs will have to defend the arc, but if those shots don’t drop with regularity the third worst offensive rebounding team (25.1% offensive rebounding percentage) will find second chances difficult to come by against a stout defensive rebounding team. Southland will enjoy opportunities to run the lane if they can clean up the glass but it will be their ability to slow transition opportunities that will decide if the Sharks can pull off an upset for the second week in a row.
Manawatu Jets vs. Wellington Saints | Saturday, 23 July @ 3:00pm
Robert Crawford and Zane Najdawi led from the front in the near and not so near losses of the previous round while the wider Jets squad fought valiantly, but they were outmatched in two games without John Bohannon. In his absence there were plenty of highlights delivered by the likes of Nathaniel Salmon and Tu Kaha Cooper, but control of the glass was the main difference in the final scores of their two losses to Nelson and Otago.
If the Jets are able to keep the Saints from getting second chance opportunities while controlling the pace and limiting transition opportunities they will find themselves in position to claim another scalp. Even at full strength this would be a tough task, with the versatile Saints lineup finding its feet and playing with more confidence it becomes a Herculean effort, but this Jets squad has surprised over and over again this year and they look like they still have something left in their bag of tricks.
Canterbury Rams vs. Nelson Giants | Saturday, 23 July @ 7:30pm
The Rams have done just enough to hold the fort with multiple starters away with the Tall Blacks and find themselves in position to book a postseason ticket with wins down the stretch. The home tilt against the Giants features the two of three slowest paces in the league meaning the half court defence and how you operate against it will be of the utmost importance. With the Rams worst effective field goal (48.3%) and second worst true shooting (51.7%) percentages this will be a difficult task if second chance and transition points aren’t created. As the Giants still carry the league best turnover percentage (11%) forcing miscues will be tough, but with the third best offensive rebounding percentage (29%) there is an opportunity to create a possession advantage on the glass if they can stay out of foul trouble and force contested jump shots.
But even when contested the Giants have found a way to create enough offence this year, and they should expect a bounce back from one of their worst shooting nights from deep this year (6-of-20 3PT vs. Jets). If the Rams are successful in making this a slog the Giants boast higher quality shot creation with the Thompson on the wing and Mourning in the post, but if all else fails Jarrod West has found ways to create for himself and teammates all season long even when shooting poorly (as evidenced by a 2-of-11 shooting night with 15 assists vs. Manawatu). Expect a grindy game as the Rams have found success of late in slowing it down, but the team that is able to create more efficient chances will walk away with the win.
Otago Nuggets vs. Taranaki Airs | Saturday, 24 July @ 3:00pm
Led by Todd Withers (25 PTS, 10 REB, 3 BLK, 7-of-13 3PT) the Nuggets produced one of their best shooting performances of the year while also controlling the pace against an overmatched Jets squad.
They’ll be hoping the shooting stroke has returned for good as their two game winning streak has put them in prime position to grab one of the top 6 spots with a strong finish. At their best they have the pace to run with the Airs, with Naki carrying the third worst turnover percentage (15%) and the Nugs with the second best steal percentage (11.9%) there will be opportunity created for easy chances in transition.
Their import trio will be expected to take on the brunt of the scoring once again, but it will be the level of support from the rest of the squad that will decide if they can find consecutive wins on their home court (3-3 at home) for just the second time this season. This isn’t quite must win territory for Otago, but if they can pull off the upset against the hottest team in the league, who will be playing their second game in as many days, they will all but guarantee a postseason trip.
To counter attack the pressure at the point of attack the Airs will need to continue their dominance of the defensive glass with Wynyard, Douglas and Willett (first in the league with a 76.7% defensive rebounding rate) will ignite their transition game allowing for easy buckets, but they need to be wary of the 3-point line, where opponents have shot nearly 38% of their shots from deep. This will play right into the Nuggets' plans and will require an active scrambling defence to limit their effectiveness from there. If the Airs are able to pull two wins from their deep south double they will be in prime position to take the top seed in the postseason and the rest that comes with it, but if they falter just slightly they may get pulled right back into the pack and have to fight for their playoff lives.
Franklin Bulls vs. Auckland Tuatara | Saturday, 24 July @ 5:00pm (Game of the Week)
The Bulls offence all but abandoned them as they scored just 70 points, and this game continued a trend where this season they have only been able to secure a single win when scoring less than 75 (1-6 on the season). With that number in mind, Franklin will be looking to secure opportunities outside of Corey Webster to ensure the offence can tick along, as no other starter found double digits against the Hawks. Even with his facilitation as good as it has ever been (he leads the league in assist rate at 41%) this can be tough with Webster’s 35% usage rate (effectively second in the league) and will require constant movement off the ball to create advantage and keep defenders occupied. It would also help if the team could find a better balance when the deep shots aren’t falling (20% last game from three). This could be created with penetration and on the offensive glass where the Bulls (behind Leon Henry) have found success often. But the key will be staying out of foul trouble as a team which hasn’t been an impossible task for Franklin this year (leading the league with 20.1 fouls per game), and if Anzac Rissetto and company can’t defend without fouling the Tuatara will have a keen advantage.
For the Tuatara a win in the Battle of the Big Smoke would seal a postseason berth and allow the team to breathe a sigh of relief, as pressure has been mounting with just two wins from their last 8 games. But limping into the finals is better than missing them completely. To get the win they will need a bounceback performance from Rob Loe while grinding out a bit more efficiency from the Russo-Nance/Schneider backcourt while keeping the active Bulls off the glass. The lizards will want more freedom of space and will be eyeing transition opportunities, but they cannot come at the expense of a presence on the defensive glass, as second chances for the Bulls will demolish the chances for the win. This game may very well decide which team from the big city gets to represent in the finals, looking for the more desperate team to win.