If one thing is getting proven every season in leagues across the world it's that winning on the road solidifies finals chances and separates the wheat from the chaff. Round 10 of the Sal’s NBL offered more evidence of this with a defensively dominant doubleheader allowing the Auckland Tuatara to shake off a 4-game skid and scuttle to the top of the table once again.
Stifling defence of the 3-point arc and and a massive rebound advantage all but ended the postseason hopes for the Southland Sharks in leg one (who shot 28% from three and lost 49-32 on the glass), and a even more one-sided affair followed the same script against the Otago Nuggets (who shot 26% from three and lost 54-36 on the boards) thrusting the Lizards back to the top of the table behind teamwide effort led by Siler Schneider (24.5 PTS, 8.5 REB, 5.5 AST 1.5 STL averaged over the wins) and Dontae Russo-Nance (18 PTS, 7.5 REB, 7.5 AST, 2.5 STL in the two games) in the backcourt and Rob Loe (13.5 PTS, 13 REB, 2.5 BLK average over the weekend) up front.
A more efficient offence led to early leads and the dominant rebounding never let games get close down the stretch, where they had been faltering during the losing streak, setting up a home stretch where they could claim a top-2 seed for the finals which they will be hosting.
Not to be outdone as road performers were a full-strength Taranaki Airs team who entered two of the historically more imposing strongholds in NZ and joined the rarified air of the top-4 behind impressive (and physical) two-way performances (did I mention physical?). The physical was provided by Shaun Willett (19 PTS, 9.5 REB in the wins), Javonte Douglas (14 PTS, 11.5 REB, 6.5 AST) and Tai Wynyard (affecting the game beyond his stats of 6.5 PTS and 5 REB) over the two tightly contested victories over the Nelson Giants and Wellington Saints. But the performance of the week for the Naki (and the league) was provided by Anthony Hilliard with 41 points to go with seven rebounds. This potent import combo is getting great support from an improving local core and are beginning to look like title contenders as they enter the rare air of the leagues upper echelon.
But these teams aren’t alone in finding success on the road with the top-8 teams in the comp enjoying better records on the road than their home courts. Teams have gotten so comfortable on the road that just two teams have a winning record in their own friendly confines (the aforementioned Airs at and Canterbury Rams both at 4-3). That script was of course ignored in the other action of the week where the Manawatu Jets, behind Robert Crawford's 25-point performance, just took down an understrength Hawke’s Bay, and the Franklin Bulls balanced starting lineup held serve against the Rams despite both teams without the services of key personnel.
Is there something to these haunted home hallows or is it just an aberration that will sort itself out down the stretch? Round 11 will be an excellent litmus test as the teams in the top-4 will all be playing host, allowing a new tribe of road warriors to step up.
Taranaki Airs vs. Franklin Bulls | Wednesday, July 6 @ 7:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)
The Airs played impressive basketball on both ends of the court and were much more efficient on offense at full strength (as a 52.9 effective field goal percentage attests), with the best pace in the league they are constantly putting pressure on teams in transitions. This speed will be a severe test for a Bulls squad with four questionable designations for illness as well as Jayden Bezzant and Issac Davidson away with the TB’s and 3x3 squads. Assuming the Bulls' entire starting lineup doesn’t miss the game they will need to control possession in the halfcourt to slow the pace and keep the league's second best offensive rebounding unit in check. If the Bulls come in with multiple starters unavailable it becomes more difficult.
Manawatu Jets vs. Franklin Bulls | Thursday, July 7 @ 7:30pm
The Jets are coming off another win, this time against an undermanned Hawks squad where they held off a furious comeback down the stretch. The recipe for their success is based on teamwork, exhibited by leading the league in assist percentage at 60.7%, and smashing the glass to win the possession game, highlighted by their 30.9% offensive rebound percentage. When it goes right it looks like their wins (like versus the Hawks) - the boards get controlled by Zane Najdawi and John Bohannon, with Shane Temera and Robert Crawford with the bulk of the scoring and Bohannon acting as a facilitator.
The physicality of the Bulls will do their best to crumple up that game plan and start anew. At their best with all their weapons they took control of the interior with Henry and Rissetto controlling the glass while Webster and Potts were orchestrating the offence. But it has been the defence of late that has gotten it done in the wins, and with the second best defensive rating in the league (@ 102.5 pts per 100 possessions) they have the ability to beat you even when the shots are not falling. If the Bulls are at close to full strength the Jets will find it difficult to slow down the perimeter attack and while matching the depth of the frontcourt, but if the Bulls are weakened the Jets have shown the ability to pounce on that weakness time and time again this season.
Nelson Giants vs. Southland Sharks | Friday, July 8 @ 7:30pm
The Giants will hope to bounce back after a tough home loss to the Airs where they were unable to control the glass or find space on the perimeter (outrebounded 54-41 while being held to 25% from the arc). The game was there for the taking down the stretch but the poor shooting night finally came home to roost. Outside of Sam Thompson’s 11-for-20 night for 25 points the rest of the starters struggled at 14-of-52 from the field. Nelson will be hoping the off shooting was an aberration and look for the 3-point shooting to make a comeback from a 25% night.
The Sharks can’t have this game come soon enough after a disjointed effort where a second quarter malaise saw them surrender an 18-point lead that kept them from ever seriously challenging the rest of the way. For a team that tops the lead in 3-point rate (at 41.2%) they will hope the poor shooting form can recover and come more in line with their league leading 35% from deep. Of more concern would be the rebounding discrepancy that gives attention to the third worst defensive and offensive rebounding rates in the league (71.3% and 24.6%) respectively. The game plan for both teams should have a couple of similarities along the lines of controlling the glass, limiting open perimeter opportunities for the opposition while creating quality three point opportunities for themselves. Little secret, it's easier than it sounds.
Wellington Saints vs. Otago Nuggets | Sunday, July 10 @ 3pm (I’ve got my eye on)
The bad news for the Saints is that what little margin for error they had is essentially gone after a hard fought loss to the Airs where they were able to score 105 points with huge performances from Xavier Cooks (32 PTS, 9 REB) and Mike Smith (27 PTS and 9 AST). However, the problem with the Saints this season has never been the offence (who own the top offensive rating in the league at 113.7) as the defence was once again sieve-like, allowing 111 points and 60% shooting from three (58% overall) which is further evidenced by the league worst defensive rating of 119.4. Their pace and skill are undeniable but despite creating 16 more shots than the Airs they still ended up wearing the ‘L’. With six games remaining the finals are still (barely) in reach, but one more loss and that reach will exceed their grasp.
Coming to the capital will be the formerly hot Nuggets coming off their worst effort of the year, where they simply could find no rhythm offensively and were left gasping for oxygen due to the efforts of the Tuatara. There were few bright spots in a game where they shot 38% from the field and struggled from three for a second game in a row while getting smashed on the glass. The hope would be a full week of training with a full squad will solve some of the conditioning issues and a game against the Saints porous defence will allow some freedom offensively, but if they come in with the same defensive mindset that allowed the Tuatara to shoot 41% from three things could get difficult.
Auckland Tuatara vs. Canterbury Rams | Sunday, July 10 @ 5pm
Fresh off a double header where they ground down their opponents defensively by limiting their opponents to 15-of-54 from three (28%) while out rebounding them by a combined 35 boards the Tuatara find themselves in top spot once again and on a mini winning streak. The lockdown defence has created extra opportunities in the transition game and allowed Auckland to play with greater freedom allowing greater efficiency on the offensive end, almost matching their offensive prowess from when Chris Johnson was in the lineup. It won’t always be as easy as when they notched three 20-point scorers against the Nuggets (Schneider 21, Russo-Nance 21, Fahrensohn 25) but if they can stay intact (both from injury and TB selection) this will be a formidable offence game in and game out.
Coming to Tamaki Makaurau this week will be a Rams squad that has been through considerable turmoil while also seeing churn in the lineup all season long. Despite the turmoil and being short handed they played admirably in Franklin with Taylor Britt and Mike Karena playing some of their best offensive basketball of the season, but were eventually done in by poor shooting from three (3-17 at 17%) and the Resene free throw stripe (17-28 at 60%). They continue to play tough defence and on any night they can grind down a team’s best options to a halt. If both teams come in playing their best and at full strength it will be a toss up, but if either team is off it’s best the opposition will be quick to pounce.
Hawke's Bay Hawks vs. Otago Nuggets | Monday, July 11 @ 7:30pm
Hawke's Bay come off a disappointing loss, where despite being down two starters (Hyrum Harris and Ethan Rusbatch with the Tall Blacks) they found themselves in the game with a chance to win down the stretch. Even suffering the loss the team will move forward with confidence in the offence. But there is room for improvement as they are currently next to last in the league in turnover margin (-3.24pg) and steals (6.25pg), refinement in these areas could ease pressure on the defence while creating better shot opportunities for a team that is surprisingly ninth in 3-point shooting (31%). But the pressure they apply on both ends of the court is undeniable and the relentless two-way attack shows no signs of waning anytime soon.
As such the Nuggets will have to refresh themselves quickly with a doubleheader on back-to-back days. When rested and playing well Otago would have no issues keeping up the pace applied by the Hawks, but the problem being that neither of those things have been true of late.. On the plus side, their issues with defending the 3-point line should be tempered by a Hawks team that hasn’t hit its stride in that area. Transition defence will be the key, if they can control the defensive glass and limit turnovers they will be in good stead, but that isn’t an easy proposition for a team sixth in defensive rebounding percentage and averaging 14 turnovers per game.
Nelson Giants vs. Manawatu Jets | Wednesday, July 13 @ 5pm
Nelson will play host again with the second of their doubleheader, albeit one with four days in-between games. This time the resurgent Jets come knocking for their second game of the round, but with both teams fully rested fatigue is unlikely to be a factor. What will be a factor is a Nelson defence currently third in steal percentage (at 12.2%) facing a Jets squad currently last in turnover percentage (at 15%). Normally when a strength of a team meets a weakness in another it means trouble for the latter. So what can the Jets do other than take care of the ball? Crash the glass for a start to take advantage of their league best offensive rebounding rate (30.9%) while packing the defence in the paint to force a team that doesn’t beat itself to take more chances than normal. If everything goes to plan for the Manawatu this round they could find themselves with a .500 record and the inside track to the first finals appearance in a decade, a possibility few thought (including myself) could be a reality at the start of the season.
Note: All advanced stats are courtesy of spatialjam.com.