Photo credit: Joe Allison
Just four rounds remain but we are yet to lock in any team’s position in or out of the Final 6, leaving a turbulent final few weeks to make that determination. The Franklin Bulls have made the biggest push of late, winning 6-of-7 with a foundation of tough defence that has been lifted by an offence that has become more dangerous of late with an inflection of transition pace and added weapons from deep. The lift in offence is key, recording at least 94 points in their last four games after topping that mark just once in their first nine games, offering a potent combination for opponents to deal with.
That offence becomes more difficult to keep pace with when you factor in a defence that holds opponents to a league best 43.4% shooting from the field. It should come as no surprise that the other teams holding opponents under 44% are the two teams above them, the Auckland Tuatara at 43.4% and Canterbury Rams at 43.7%. Auckland will be looking to use that defence to keep a fast improving Nelson Giants squad at bay and sealing a spot in the Finals with a win, while Canterbury look to sweep back-to-back games against the Nuggets to virtually do the same. This game will take on special significance with the return of the Webster brothers, with Tai joining the Nugs to finally alleviate the pressure felt from JaQuori McLaughlin’s injury and Corey Webster injecting a perimeter scoring punch and playmaking to the Rams.
Outside the four the Wellington Saints look fully in control of their offensive repertoire while scoring 96.8 points per game (tops in the comp) but hopeful of a still to be revealed recruits ability to shore up a defence giving up nearly as many as they score (95.5 last in the comp). Outside the six, Manawatū and Taranaki are looking more like spoilers then bolters at this point while Hawke’s Bay have their postseason hopes in critical condition, but dependent on stringing together wins on their home court, a hurdle yet to be leaped. Southland joins the Hawks in the ICU, but a road trip to the suddenly threatening Giants looms large on their prognosis. A flurry of late season moves have improved the fortunes of many.
Rob Loe - His retirement tour continued in a game where his length overwhelmed the Sharks to the tune of 32 points on 14-of-18 shooting to go with 19 rebounds. The Tuatara’s multi-faceted offence allows Loe to take advantage of switches on the interior and players slower of foot on the pick and pop but it is his defence that steadies the ship when Auckland needs it most, evidenced by a league leading 7.1 defensive win shares powering his two-way MVP campaign.
Taane Samuel - A 19-point first half set the tone for the interior play for a shorthanded Saints squad without Tohi Smith-Milner as the Saints won to climb to fifth place. Samuel’s best game of the year (21 PTS, 11 REB in 26 minutes) powered the Saints early as he displayed his unique combination of power and skill. An import big is soon to join the team which will add to the fearsomeness of this frontline.
Troy Baxter Jr - A 25-point, 8-rebound performance was punctuated by Baxter Jr’s 5-of-7 shooting night from 3-point range as his shooting lifted the Rams to a huge road victory. The shooting kept the score ticking while his shot blocking prowess offered enough rim protection to dissuade Otago drives. His athleticism is always on display but never more so than when throwing down a big dunk in transition his elevation to the starting lineup elevated the Rams to a huge win. A repeat performance in the rematch this week will put the Rams in great stead to claim an all important top two spot in the Final 6.
Matur Maker -
Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (9-4) vs. Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (8-5) - Thursday, 7pm
The Rams have been uneven since the departure of Tai Wynyard, splitting their last six games for a 3-3 record (after a 6-1 start) behind a strong defence (league best 103.8 DRTG) and balanced attack offensively. That balance will find greater weight with the addition of Corey Webster, whose 3-point stroke should bolster the Rams' 33.4% shooting from deep, while his underrated passing skills will add to the league's second most potent passing attack. What he won’t do is add to a front line that has struggled with size at times, but that wasn’t the case against the Nuggets a week ago as they dominated the glass to the tune of a 15-rebound advantage (54-38) with a group effort on the glass led by Max Darling (10 boards off the bench).
To respond the Nuggets will finally welcome Tai Webster, who should pair with Nikau McCullough to form a potent defensive backcourt that has the ability to pressure ball handlers full court. But it will be the group's effort on the glass that is key to limiting the Rams prowess on second chance opportunities to hold down efficiency that will be key. Michael Harris and Todd Withers will continue to let it fly from deep to stretch D’s, but they won’t stretch very far if their combined 4-of-17 from three isn’t improved upon. An uptick in percentages from the free throw line would be key as well, as an 8-of-18 (1-of-8 from Sam Timmins who will miss this game) performance kept the Nugs from realising the benefit of the Rams 22 personal fouls.
Matchup to Watch: Tevin Brown vs. Tai Webster
Franklin Bulls (9-4) vs. Wellington Saints (7-6) - Friday, 7pm
The Franklin Bulls have developed a fearsome two-way attack that has the ability to grind you down with physicality all over the court or blow you away with speed and skill when needed. Jared Wilson-Frame comes off his best performance of the season as he doubled his season average to score 32 points with 6-of-9 from the 3-point line. His efficiency was matched by backcourt mate Rickey McGill who dropped 19 on 9-of-11 shooting even as his ball hawking defence secured three steals, more than his league leading 2.4 steals per game average. Without Tyrell Harrison (who is closing in on a return) the defence has become switchy with the versatility of Jamaal Brantley and Dan Fotu key to the strategy.
The Saints highly efficient (116.6 ORTG) lead leading scoring offence (96.8 PPG) will try to counter that switchy-ness with their own offensive versatility. Kyle Adnam (17.5 PTS, 9,2 AST) continues to steer the ship with a steady hand while the return of Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'Afa offers another pilot as well as a lift in defensive pressure at the point of attack. Tohi Smith-Milner returns from suspension to join Taane Samuel who is coming off his best game of the year, but it is the yet to be revealed import replacing the departed Marlon Taylor who will hopefully bolster the defence and offer rim protection for a team sitting in the middle of the pack in rim protection (7.3% BLK percentage). If the team can find a greater level of connectedness on the defensive end (especially in transition) they will find themselves in familiar territory near the top of the table.
Matchup to Watch: Rickey McGill vs. Kyle Adnam
Auckland Tuatara (10-3) vs. NBS Nelson Giants (5-8) - Saturday, 5pm
Auckland didn’t find its feet until there was 4:55 left in the game against Southland, ripping off 18 straight points to put a flattering tint on a less than optimal performance. All five starters found double figures as the ball moved to the tune of 21 assists on 38 buckets displaying the cohesion this squad has created. With improved depth offered by the additions of Kruz Perrott-Hunt and Joe Lawson III they will be more able to wear down opponents and offer more variation in their offensive attack when the bench enters the game. Dominance on the offensive glass (led by Rob Loe with 8 OREB) allowed for second chance opportunities that wore down a Sharks squad that tried to hold on for as long as it possibly could. But that advantage may be negated by the recently bolstered front line for the Giants who have found another gear with the addition of Callum McRae.
Of equal importance is the form of Matur Maker, who is starting to play with the kind freedom of movement displayed prior to his injury as he becomes more confident and comfortable with his body and its limitations in his first season back. Avery Woodson continues to light it up from deep and may find greater space on the perimeter as the McRae/Maker duo pulls more defenders to the paint. Sam Dempster has enjoyed a return to last season’s career best form, with his 3-point shooting often providing a barometer for the Giants chances. A win here and the Giants will find a more probable path to the Final 6 with three out of their final four games at home.
Matchup to Watch: Rob Loe vs. Callum McRae
Hawke’s Bay Hawks (5-9) vs. Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (8-5) - Saturday, 7pm
The Hawks worked to the bitter end in last week's defeat, but an inability to temper the size advantage of the Giants combined with another sub-par effort from deep (7-of-25) to allow Mika Vukona night patrons to fully enjoy the evening. Their third consecutive loss leaves them outside the Final 6 and with a slim margin of error moving forward, even with a 4-game home stand to finish the season. Although still winless in the nest their offensive prowess will give them confidence with Ira Lee (18.3 PTS, 9 REB) pressuring the interior along with Hyrum Harris, they should feel confident matching up against what is expected to be a Sam Timmins-less side.
If the Hawks can control the glass and find transition opportunities that will take pressure off the half court offence against what is sure to be a ball hawking half court defence with Harris, Webster and McCullough pressuring ball handlers. Without Timmins, Todd Withers' rim protection will be key, as the Hawks find great efficiency when shooting at the rim (1.3 points per shot at 63% shooting). If the Nugs can keep the Hawks from finding the rim with too much ease while finding some form from deep they could walk away with a win on the road, if not they may find themselves outside the Top-4 for the first time this season.
Matchup to Watch: Hyrum Harris vs. Todd Withers
Manawatū Jets (4-9) vs. Wellington Saints (7-6) - Sunday, 4pm
The Hangar will host the penultimate Jets home game of the season with their postseason hopes still breathing, if just barely. Coming off a game in which they had put themselves in position to win by dominating the glass and possession game to create 13 more shots then the visiting Airs, but a 6-of-15 made free throw advantage to the visitor ended up being enough to let some big shot making late take away the chance for victory.
With a high powered Saints lineup coming to town the formula for victory remains the same: have Danny Pippen II, Mustapha Heron and Javion Blake score a combined 80 points at a reasonable efficiency and control possession and pace. Pace will be a problem with the Saints coming to town, even if they are on the second leg of a back-to-back. The Saints interior/perimeter combo continues to be a problem and a victory here will put them on the precipice of a Final 6 berth. With the season hopes on the line for both teams the always entertaining Jets crowd should expect a spirited game with plenty of action.
Matchup to Watch: Mustapha Heron vs. Isaiah Mucius
Steelformers Taranaki Airs (4-9) vs. Southland Sharks (5-9) - Sunday, 6pm
Taranaki should return home with buoyed hopes despite a losing to the Saints on the road in a game where they were down by as many as 19 in the second half. Improved offensive form was unable to overcome 18 turnovers and the conversion of 12 offensive rebounds into just seven second chance points. The return of Armon Fletcher to full form (evidenced by his 22 PTS in 20 minutes on 8-of-9 shooting and 4-of-4 from deep) finally gives the Airs a full repertoire of players to choose from, making the finals run a possibility, if a less than likely one. But a chance is still a chance and a game against a previously beaten foe in the Sharks will provide more confidence than usual.
Jeremy Kendle (24.1 PTS, 8.9 AST) continues to give Southland a chance in every game with his combination of scoring and creation for teammates, and addition of Josh Cunningham (16.3 PTS, 7.3 REB) has created greater balance for the offence while allowing Grant Anticevich (14.9 PTS, 8.6 REB) to find a more natural fit positionally at the four spot. Adding complexity to the task at hand the Sharks will need to find a way to reverse the result of 10 without the services of their coach Guy Molloy as he is away with Tall Fern Asia Cup duties. With less games remaining than any club outside the Hawks they can’t afford to slip up without putting a damper on their postseason chances.
Matchup to Watch: Kendrick Ray vs. Jeremy Kendle
Note: All advanced stats provided by www.spatialjam.com