Photo credit: Richard Spranger
A bevy of surprising results in Round 10 brought a bit of turbulence to the ladder, but despite all the bumpy ride just just two teams landed the plane in shifted position, with the Auckland Tuatara claiming top spot to push the Canterbury Rams to second position. While the unpredictable results didn’t change the ladder too much, it has solidified the league into two groups, those for whom the postseason is likely if not nearly sealed (teams with eight wins or more, aka the top 4) and those who are now in a weekly battle for their postseason lives (teams with six wins or less, aka teams 5-10).
The Taranaki Airs, Manawatū Jets and Nelson Giants have, for the most part this season, been looking from the outside of the finals bubble and are still doing so now despite big wins on the weekend. But fighting for your own playoff life is better than being regulated to a spoiler and all three teams have the talent to find a hot streak and extend their seasons. The Giants made a bold move rarely seen in Nelson, releasing Kavion Pippen to give Callum McRae his first chance as a pro, and he delivered with 26 points on 11-of-14 from the field, in a game where all five starters scored in double figures displaying the inside outside balance that has evaded them for the most part this season.
The Jets' import trio delivered 72 points, led by Danny Pippen’s 31, but they too have benefited from their own late season addition, with Marcel Jones coming up big late to help seal a win that keeps them only one win out of the top 6. The Taranaki Airs also look a different team with Kendrick Ray (32 PTS) providing pressure with the ball in hand and Carlin Davison (7 STL) showing a newly developed affinity for defending passing lanes that lifts the ceiling on what the Airs can accomplish. Hawkes Bay, Southland and Wellington all have the inside track, but their inconsistency of play has kept them from finding separation on the ladder leaving a group where one bad weekend may leave the squad on the outside permanently.
Weeks & Loe - The soon to be retired duo continue to show how much they have left in the tank, last week combining for 53 points, 21 rebounds, 12 assists and 6 stocks (steals and blocks combined) to keep the Tuatara machine rolling. With plenty left in the tank, but choosing to start the next chapters of their professional stories, this season has provided an opportunity to showcase how they have aged like fine wine playing the most efficient and impactful basketball on their Sal’s NBL careers in their swansongs.
Marcel Jones - Another vet featured one of my favorite performances of the week, as the mid-season procurement of Jones enabled the Jets to secure the ‘W’ with five straight points late against the Nugs. Playing a different role than upon his debut for the Jets in 2009, he's rewarded the Jets' confidence in him with timely contributions and valuable versatility for a team that lacks vets. The emotion was visible as he helped secure a victory for a team that is desperate to return to the postseason.
Jeremy Kendle - While the league's season-high came in defeat, Kendle’s 45 was still mightily impressive, going 17-of-24 from the field to highlight the efficiency he has played with all season. His all-around game (7 REB, 7 AST in the loss) continues to drive the Sharks as they search for a higher level of consistency as a group on both ends of the court. That search won’t get any easier as they head to the 09 for a doubleheader, which may see JK pull out a few more tricks in his bag.
Dom Kelman-Poto - Perfect from the field (11-of-11!) and the game winner isn’t bad for a man who hadn’t planned on playing this season. The injury to Tyrell Harrison has morphed his role into a more prominent one then expected, and an early injury brought him back to earth the very next day, but a perfect day lives forever.
Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (8-4) vs. Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (8-4)- Thursday, 7pm
The Nuggets worked their way out of a 4-game losing streak thanks in part to timely shooting by Michael Harris and Todd Withers but a bigger part comes from enforcing their pace on the game while controlling the defensive glass to limit the Saints' easy chances. With the return date of JaQuori Mclaughlin getting hazier by the day this controlling of the pace and possession is paramount until Tai Webster arrives to bolster the backcourt. While Darcy Knox has been admirable in the interim, coming off consecutive games with career highs in points then assists, the return of Nikau McCullough expands the depth and talent to the level needed to repeat last season’s championship run.
In this week's game versus the Rams the post play will be key, with Sam Timmins looking to exploit the interior in ways similar to the Nelson Giants strategy that knocked the Rams off top spot of the ladder. The Rams will be looking to improve upon the previous ound's three quarter performance as they eye a two-game series against the Nugs. If reinforcements don’t arrive for Otago prior to game time, the Rams will have the upper hand in the talent department, but that advantage didn’t help in the fourth quarter of their loss, indicating the squad is still looking for 40 minutes of consistent play.
The highs are near unguardable, with the defence flying around creating easy looks and feasting in transition. But work still needs to be done when the game grinds down, and what is grinder then a 2-game series against a top 4 team and southern rival. The team that limits opponents efficiency from three while keeping the upper hand on the defensive glass will walk away with the win in this one.
Matchup to Watch: Michael Harris vs. Tevin Brown
NBS Nelson Giants (4-8) vs. Hawke’s Bay Hawks (5-8) - Friday, 7pm
The Giants will be looking to replicate the efficiency and defensive efforts of their fourth quarter victory against the Rams where they were able to withstand a subpar shooting game from three and still walk out victorious for the first time this year. Efficiency from deep was key in the win against the Hawks earlier this year, where Avery Woodson’s 7-of-11 from deep spearheaded 16 makes from downtown to hand the Giants victory. Woodson is always key to the Giants gameplan, but at their best a more even level of contribution can be counted on from across the roster. Callum McRae looks an excellent fit, with his screening ability as important for the offence as his soft touch around the basket. Recruiting McRae looks to have bolstered the rebounding efforts, and continued wins in the possession game will enable the efficiency of the Giants from deep to create advantage as the season comes down the stretch.
With Mika Vukona being honoured with the retirement of his number it will be an emotional night in Nelson, but the Hawks have at times ridden their emotions to greater heights, but their reserves may be drained after another confidence breaking loss at home. The good news is they return to the road, where they have enjoyed all five of their victories and seem to feed off opposition crowds. Ira Lee is coming off his best game of the season (32 PTS, 12 REB) and he combined with Derone Raukawa (31 PTS) to contribute nearly two thirds of the team's offence, but contributions were limited across the remainder of the roster, with just Ethan Rusbatch joining them in double figures. At their best when the offence finds energy with movement and enthusiasm they will need to find an equilibrium between aggression and execution to imprint their will on the game. Defending the 3-point line will be key to both squads chances as a loss for either team will make a postseason appearance a little less likely.
Matchup to Watch: Callum McRae vs. Ira Lee
Manawatū Jets (4-8) vs. Steelformers Taranaki Airs (3-8) - Saturday, 5pm
The Jets broke a 5-game losing streak behind the combined weight of their import trio (72 points combined) with Danny Pippen II’s 31 leading the way. Late game execution was finally in their favour allowing the Jets to stay within touch distance of the sixth spot on the ladder. Their core formula remains the same, 70 plus points from Pippen, Javion Blake and Mustapha Heron providing the chance to win, but production from the wider roster needed down the stretch to secure victory, as shown with the huge impact of Marcel Jones’ late in the most recent win.
The first matchup between these two turned when Heron picked up some early foul trouble, limiting his effect as Pippen and Blake combined for 66 and enabling an Airs victory. A revamped Airs squad presents a new challenge, with Taranaki’s latest victory showing improved effort in the passing lanes and on the defensive glass that will make them a tougher test down the stretch. The return of Armon Fletcher promises a greater level of depth then the Airs have seen all year, making them a real threat to not only spoil the postseason hopes of other teams but to create a real chance of their own. Kendrick Ray looks to be a more consistent threat offensively from the perimeter, offering the offense the opportunity to balance the floor with multiple perimeter options.
This game is likely to come down to 3-point efficiency as the Jets top of the league 3-point rate (50.1%) will create nearly double the chances from deep than the Airs (29.3%) ensuring defending the arc will be the key factor.
Matchup to Watch: Javion Blake vs. Kendrick Ray
Auckland Tuatara (9-3) vs. Southland Sharks (5-7) - Saturday, 7pm
The Tuatara have been solidifying their case for the best team in the league, with a top three offense (116.2 ORTG) and defence 106.4 DRTG) spearheaded by the Rob Loe/Jarrad Weeks two-man game. Able to create quality looks in transition at times, they have also displayed the patience to play in the half court with Reuben Te Rangi providing a versatile third option in the half court. Hosting the Sharks will offer the opportunity for some measure of getback as their previous matchup was the most lopsided loss of Auckland’s season, but that game was played without the services of Rob Loe which allowed the Sharks to dominate the glass (51-29 rebound count).
The possession game will still be key, but more dependent on Tuatara decision making as their choices have been as responsible for turnovers as the level of pressure from opponents. Defensively they will be aware of Jeremy Kendle, but their main concern should be keeping the supporting crew down as the Sharks have been at their best when the ball is able to move around and bend defences with a balanced attack. Only Josh Cunningham joined Kendle in double figure scoring last week, lowering the ceiling of what they can accomplish and making the team easier to guard in the half court.
Defensively the size of Alex Pledger should limit the effectiveness of Loe when matched up, but limited minutes for the 7-footer will also limit the effectiveness of the strategy. This will be the first of a double header for the Sharks, two losses would see them fall to the bottom of the table in that category, making the securing of one win vital to staying in the postseason hunt. If Grant Anticevich and Alonzo Burton can find space and score with efficiency they will give themselves a chance to stay in the top 6 and separated from the pack.
Matchup to Watch: Jarrad Weeks vs. Jeremy Kendle
Wellington Saints (6-6) vs. Steelformers Taranaki Airs (3-8) - Sunday, 4pm
The Saints' 3-game winning streak came to an end last round, as did their nine game run of scoring 88 points or more as the Nuggets defence was able to keep the Saints from finding accuracy from deep (5-of-24 3PT). The looks that were good, but the inability to convert allowed an out-talented squad to take another away win in the capital. The loss of Tohi Smith-Milner to suspension exacerbates issues on both ends but will most concerningly open up space on defence where gaps were already struggling to be filled. They can counter by picking up the pace and letting loose in transition, an area of the game they dominated in their first matchup against Taranaki, a 19-point Saints victory built on a dominant final 15 minutes.
But this revamped and refreshed Airs squad will provide new issues to deal with. The athleticism of Carlin Davison brings the Naki to level ground with the Saints wings, while Ray will make defending penetration more difficult. If Anzac Rissetto and Quintin Bailey are able to take advantage of a smaller frontline without Smith-Milner to win the possession game on the glass, the Airs will be able to kick off the transition game to take advantage of the Saints most glaring weakness this year. If not, look for a still gelling Kyle Adnam/Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa backcourt to find form and put pressure on the Airs in the full and half court.
Matchup to Watch: Isaiah Mucius vs. Carlin Davison
Franklin Bulls (8-4) vs. Southland Sharks (5-7) - Sunday, 6pm
For most of the season the Bulls have been at their best when grinding opponents down, but as they have reshaped the roster so too have they reshaped their style of play, finding more pace and greater efficiency from the perimeter. This has allowed their undersized frontline (with the continued absence of Tyrell Harrison) to find more freedom of movement and put pressure on the rim where they create the majority of their offence. The Sharks will be hard pressed to find a counter if Alex Pledger doesn’t find a minutes increase, with the size of Cunningham and Anticevich not providing the same advantages.
Rickey McGill will unleash his pressure defence on Jeremy Kendle, which will be compounded playing the Sharks second game in 24 hours, making his effect defensively more palpable, especially with rotational options in Jared Wilson-Frame and Jayden Bezzant at the ready. This level of attention on Kendle will require the wider group to stand up, but consistency of contribution continues to be an issue as the squad has been unable to find consecutive wins this season and losers in three of their last four (surrendering 100 points or more in each loss).
Taking away the Bulls' easy looks in transition and off the offence glass will make things easier, but that is a tough task for a team that has lost 6-of-8 with a defensive rebounding percentage of less than 80% and is facing the league leader in steals. Staying tight on the scoresheet early is key, with an early double digit lead making this the Bulls game to lose.
Matchup to Watch: Rickey McGill vs. Jeremy Kendle
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