Casey’s Corner: Road wins rule the day

Round 6 was shaping up as a huge weekend coming in and it didn’t disappoint, highlighted by a traveling Mike Pero Nelson Giants squad who have looked more at home on the road with three straight wins including the just completed “Deep South Double” which vaulted them into second place. While spearheaded by the play of Jarrod West (averaging 21.5 PTS, 8.0 AST, 3.0 STL over the two games) it has been a cumulative effort highlighted by intelligent mistake-free play (league best 10.43 turnovers per game) from a roster that understands their roles but are still being able to step up when required that has seen the Giants start strongly.  

In a clash between table toppers, the Auckland Tuatara used a suffocating Chris Johnson defensive performance (7 blocks) and an improved overall contribution on offence to stifle the Hawks in a contest where the fourth quarter proved to be the difference in their league leading seventh win. The Hawks will look back regretfully on the final quarter and need to find a greater level of comfort in their home nest (0-2) after an extended 6-game road trip to start the season.

Not to be forgotten in the big win department, the Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams completed a season sweep of the Wellington Saints with a huge fourth quarter from Taylor Britt (28 PTS, 5 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL) and two-way effort from Sunday Dech (28 PTS, 3 STL) to overcome a triple-double from Xavier Cooks (22 PTS, 12 REB, 11 AST, 3 BLK, 2 STL!!) in his first game off the plane (yes, he is as good as advertised). A huge effort for a squad down multiple contributors that will almost certainly have finals implications for both teams. It wasn’t all bad for the Saints as they bounced back on the road to hold off a spirited Steelformers Taranaki Airs squad behind a brilliant second quarter where we finally got to see the best of Mike Smith (30 PTS, 4 AST, 4 REB, 4 STL). Despite feeling disappointment in not securing the win behind the support of a full house, the Airs should be able solidify their position in the Top-6 behind an improved offensive attack highlighted by the leagues leading scorer Anthony Hilliard (36 PTS, 6-of-13 from three). 

Following their second consecutive loss and the unexpected departure of Tahjere McCall (in pursuit of the NBA dream) the Nuggets will have a bit of concern, but a talented unit should be able to hold the fort until a replacement is found, but with a bye on the cards this round they shouldn’t be rushed into a decision.

Elsewhere, something stronger than concern will be mounting for the Southland Sharks and Franklin Bulls as early season high hopes come to terms with the current state of affairs as both teams will need to find the win column quickly to make any postseason dreams a bit more realistic.

But let us celebrate a huge win by the Manawatu Jets to close the week, who overcame a fourth quarter deficit on the road to finally reach the winners circle. Even with a difficult defeat to the Lizards less than 24 hours later, the Jets should focus on positive vibes only following a difficult stretch to start the season with a partially complete team. With a full squad the play of the Jets continues to improve promising a few more celebratory moments to come.

Worth a Mention

  • While the play of the import trio of Trey Mourning (23.7 PTS, 9.8 REB), Jarrod West (18.7 PTS, 6.4 AST) and Samuel Thompson (14.7 PTS, 7.7 REB) have provided the Giants foundation it was always going to be the timely contributions of the rest of the roster that would be key to victories. Whether it's Sam Dempster offensive rebounds, Nic Trathen timely triples or a Riley Bensemman scoring flurry all links in the chain have proved up to the early season challenge. The Nelson region is rallying behind the Mike Fitchett coached squad, as a ball hawking defence (1st in steals 9.9 SPG) has fueled a patient offense (1st in the league in turnover margin +5.86 per game) that rallied twice in the second half in Round 6 to secure the elusive road double.
  • You could be forgiven for worrying about the Canterbury Rams who were down multiple contributors while playing host to a Xavier Cooks-led Wellington Saints team who looked thirsty for win number two. While Cooks was decadent in debut with a stat-stuffing triple-double it was the gritty two-way play of Sunday Dech and Taylor Britt (both recording 28 PTS with 3 STL) that fueled a fourth quarter comeback just as the Saints looked to be cruising to victory. Down nine with nine minutes to play, Britt’s shotmaking was integral as he scored nine of the next 13 points to give the Rams a chance to pull out the victory and keep pace with the top of the table. 
  • It was a tale of two games for Mike Smith and the Saints as a poor shooting performance against the Rams (1-of-8 3PT, 7 PTS) opened the door for a fourth quarter comeback from the opposition on the first of a road double. Feeling similar pressure from Taranaki in Game 2 as the Saints surrendered an 11-point deficit entering the second quarter, Mike Smith caught fire scoring 16 points to grab a lead that wouldn’t be relinquished (not to mention possibly saving the season). If Smith can come close to the final line (30 PTS, 4 STL, 4 AST) defences will have to play a bit tighter up top opening up space for the bevy of wing creators adding balance to Saints offence as they chase the Top-6 in earnest
  • After recording 11 blocks in two games over the weekend, Chris Johnson will now be known as Eclipse, because when he’s in the air not even sunlight can get through..

Round 7

Hawke’s Bay Hawks vs. Southland Sharks | Thursday, 9th June @ 7:30pm

The Hawks are still trying to secure home win number one after a frustrating loss as the Tuatara dominated possession with their overall size and pulled away in the fourth quarter. Their balanced attack was hampered by a tough shooting night where outside of Jordan Hunt (3-of-5 3PT) and Derone Raukawa (5-of-8 3PT) the team struggled mightily from deep (2-of-19 3PT). The shooting should come back but size could be a problem again this week as the Sharks swim to town. The frontline featuring Dom Kelman-Poto, Winston Shepard III and Romaro Gill can cause similar havoc but they need to start playing with a desperation that they have yet to find. If the Sharks can defend the 3-point line and get active on the glass they will be in the game. If not, the transition offence of the Hawks will be on full display.

Taranaki Airs vs. Auckland Tuatara | Friday, 10th June @ 7:30pm

The import duo of league leading scorer Anthony Hilliard (31 PTS) and Javonte Douglas (20 PTS, 9 REB) has provided the scoring punch on the wing that was sorely missing. Despite this the Airs couldn’t capitalise on an 11-point first quarter lead over the Saints to secure their third straight as foul trouble and an inability to hold the ball (16 turnovers) allowed the visiting Saints to rally. It doesn’t get any easier as the Tuatara come to town with their 14 feet of multi-talented frontcourt in Chris Johnson (20.7 PTS, 12.9 REB, 3 BLK) and Rob Loe (17.6 PTS, 11.4 REB, 4.9 AST). If the Airs' frontcourt can stay out of foul trouble and control the boards while using the transition game to keep the Tuatara from setting up defensively in the halfcourt consistently, they have the firepower to make things difficult for one of the league's best defences. But if the Tuatara dominate the glass and create extra possessions for an ever improving group of wings they will maintain the distance between themselves and the rest of the field.

Nelson Giants vs. Franklin Bulls | Saturday, 11th June @ 5:30pm 

Despite a bounceback Jayden Bezzant performance, the Bulls failed to fire offensively as they dropped their fourth consecutive loss. A Corey Webster return would buoy the offence, but a young team needs to develop across the board will need to play with an urgency that has eluded them during the losing streak. Improved shot selection would help the offence and greater mindfulness on the defensive end would keep a young talented core on the court and out of foul trouble. Conversely the Giants continue to build following two spirited second half comebacks on the road with contributions from across the roster. Led by a consistent import trio an offence that doesn’t beat itself will be looking to feast on any Bulls miscues. Franklin will need to control the glass and score with greater efficiency if they hope to split the season series with the Giants. 

Wellington Saints vs. Southland Sharks | Saturday, 11th June @ 7:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)

The Saints are coming off their best performance of the season where their Top-6 players all found double figures on the scoring sheet while also hitting from deep. This offensive versatility will need to maintain momentum as the Sharks come to town. Southland smacked a supremely understrength “Baby Saints” squad in the opening game of the year but it will take a massive effort in this battle of styles. Will the wing versatility of the Saints be too tough to contain off the dribble and in transition? Or will the Sharks use their size advantage on the front line to dominate the offensive glass and give their eagle eyed perimeter shooters extra chances?  Mojave King and Dom Kelman-Poto will need to be at their best to counter Xavier Cooks and the resurgent perimeter attack of the Saints. With both teams currently looking in from the outside of the Top-6, the winner will have cemented themselves in the finals chase, while the loser may look back on this contest as the game that kept them out of the postseason. 

Manawatu Jets vs. Auckland Tuatara | Sunday, 12th June @ 3pm

So, coming into the week the Tuatara are first in: team offence (89.9 PPG), team defence (74.6 PPG), scoring margin (+15.46), rebounding margin (+9.57), team field goal percentage (47%), assists (19.57), defensive rebounds (34.9) - all this means is Manawatu has their hands full. In their second game against the Tuatara in as many weeks, the Jets will hope to muck things up on the defensive end and slow Auckland down in the same way as game 1 where Auckland had 34 points at halftime. The problem being the Jets were only able to muster 23 points up to that point. If The Jets can slow down the Lizards they will still need to find a way to improve the efficiency of the offence that shot 33 percent while turning it over 13 times against minimal pressure.

This could be a tough one…

Canterbury Rams vs. Franklin Bulls | Sunday, 12th June @ 5pm 

Enjoying a relatively extended break following a furious fourth quarter comeback despite being short-handed should see the Rams enter this game with plenty of confidence. Sunday Dech and Talyor Britt are coming off monster two-way performances that kept the team in the mix for the second spot on the ladder. Combined with the steadily improving play of Max Darling and physicality of Mike Karena on the interior they can weather the storm as they await the return of their wounded brethren. The Bulls will be hoping to give the offence a kick and find a way to improve their league worst scoring offense (71.2 PPG) over the weekend but to accomplish this they will need to improve on a league worst 48 percent from the free throw line and do a better job of controlling the glass (-7 rebounding margin) to maintain possession. No matter the outcome this will be a bruising physical encounter and the team that wins will have proven their physical mettle.


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