Photo credit: Gameface NZ
Every single team is playing for a chance at the postseason after 12 rounds of basketball! Half of the Final 6 field has been confirmed with the Auckland Tuatara, Otago Nuggets and Franklin Bulls all punching their postseason tickets by winning ten games or more. Auckland and Franklin rolled, looking in command during comfortable victories on their home courts. The Nugs had to get it done on the road, by keeping Hawke’s Bay winless in their nest for the year, but not until after winning in come from behind fashion in the season debut of Corey and Tai Webster. The Nugs were very impressive for a team without its high-caliber starting centre (outside of giving up a 17-1 lead to start the week) with Tai Webster giving them the dynamic ball-handler they have been missing since the injury to JaQuori Mclaughlin. Todd Withers and Michael Harris enjoyed big performances as has become expected as the Nuggets look in fine form after a series of mid-season hiccups.
After that home loss, the Rams are still a win away from joining the top three teams in the Final 6, but for now the Rams are on the outside looking in with six other teams. Not every team controls its own destiny but every team requires wins to get where they want to go. While the top of the table jockeys for position, the Manawatū Jets and Taranaki Airs had the victories of the week, with the Jets thriller against the Saints breaking a skid to their geographic rivals dating back to 2014, while the Airs completed the Sunday double miracle, coming back from seven down with 1:12 to to win in overtime in front of an impassioned crowd. The Finals picture will get clearer after this rounds' action where teams will have to play with the most intensity of the season to ensure those postseason hopes stay realistic.
Webster Inc - Great to see two of New Zealand’s top stars debut just in time to qualify for postseason rosters by finishing the season. Fresh off the couch, C-Web displayed his knack for offensive creation as a scorer and passer (18 PTS, 8 AST) but it was Tai who got the victory with 28 pts (6-of-10 from deep) with five assists. The first game between the brothers may not be the last, but for now I’m just happy to have them back cause they make things more fun!
Quintin Bailey - The stat sheet doesn’t always tell the whole story, as Q’s four points and five rebounds in 18 minutes during Taranaki’s season saving game don’t impress at first glance. But four steals were crucial, especially two in the final minute which allowed for Anthony Hillard's heroic shot to be taken. The crowd went wild and the season lives on, but it may take a couple more unexpected performances to keep the dream going.
Dan Fotu - His career-best scoring performance (31 PTS on 12-of-14 FG) as his team won for the sixth time in seven games to clinch a postseason berth is evidence of his growing comfort level as a main scoring threat in the post and off the bounce. Most comfortable (and dangerous) in transition this was meant to be a year where he tested himself more on the perimeter, but circumstance has sent him to the interior where he has blossomed on both ends of the court.
Steelformers Taranaki Airs (5-9) v Auckland Tuatara (11-3) - Thursday, 7pm
An improbable come from behind win has kept the Airs in the postseason hunt, but with a very slim margin for error as they currently carry the most unfavourable points differential in the league (-127 overall). To keep the postseason fire burning they will need to continue to improve upon their league worst effective field goal percentage (EFG 48.2%) and second worst defensive rebound percentage (DRB 71.4%). The rebounding looks better with a full squad of talent, as shown by a 56-46 rebounding edge vs. the Sharks (including 20 offensive) but the shooting will depend on finding some efficiency and volume from deep (2nd lowest 3-point rate 31.9% at a league worst 28.7%) most likely behind Anthony Hilliard regaining his stroke during a down year (23.5% from 3PT).
The Airs have the size, speed and skill to challenge the Tuatara, who will look to keep the pace of the Airs in check as they attempt to lock down the top seed in the Final 6. The Dino’s have the second most efficient offense (57.1% EFG) combined with a top-3 defence (105.6 defensive rating) and the MVP favourite in Rob Loe (21.9 PTS, 11.5 REB) supported by a team with multiple options on both ends of the court. Kruz Perrot-Hunt and Joe Lawson have bolstered the bench making them even more difficult heading down the stretch, as they have won eight straight.
Matchup to Watch: Armon Fletcher vs. Reuben Te Rangi
Southland Sharks (5-10) v Franklin Bulls (10-4) - Friday, 7pm
A 7-point lead with 62 seconds left wasn’t enough as late turnovers put the Sharks in the difficult position of having to win every game (and have results go their way) to make the Final 6. The late loss wasn’t due to a lack of effort as Jeremy Kendle (28 PTS, 11 AST), Josh Cunningham (20 PTS, 8 REB) and Grant Anticevich (7 PTS, 22 REB) put the Sharks in position to win the game, but late turnovers and a leaky rebounding (giving up 20 offensive boards) allowed the Airs to stay close enough to make a miracle happen. Their offence is still highly efficient (58% EFG for 1st in league, 116 ORTG for 2nd in league) with Kendle in command but the leakiest D in the league (119.7 DRTG) makes realising that offensive efficiency difficult.
The Bulls come to town having clinched a Finals spot, but eyeing a top two seed and the easier path to the championship that it offers. Defence is their foundation, with a league best effort (104.3 DRTG) powering them to six wins in their last seven games. Combined with a top in the comp rebounding effort (76.8% DRB) they have been choking the life out of opponents attacks with regularity. A lack of pop from the perimeter could be a concern (7-of-26 from three vs. the Saints) but up to this point their effort has overcome the lack of range. The Sharks will have to control the boards to keep this one close, otherwise their postseason flame will finally be dashed.
Matchup to Watch: Josh Cunningham vs. Dan Fotu
NBS Nelson Giants (5-9) v Manawatū Jets (5-9) - Saturday, 5pm
The Giants are coming off a disappointing effort where they were never able to find their footing after a 7-point opening quarter that saw them down 20 to the table topping Tuatara. But there is no time to lick their wounds with four games remaining and control of their own destiny in their hands. But to reach that destiny they will need to rediscover their shooting stroke after a dreadful 4-of-22 performance from deep, uncharacteristic for a team that has shot 36% as a squad on the season from behind the arc. Avery Woodson and Sam Dempster are sure to find equilibrium after combining to go 0-of-10 from the arc, but that won’t be easy against the Jets and their second best defence against shots from behind the arc (opponents shooting 31.3% on 25.1 attempts per game). If the shots are not dropping they will have the size advantage with the length of Callum McRae and Matur Maker around the rim to try and hit the o glass, but that too is easier said than done for the team that averages less on the o boards than anyone else (7.5 ORB PG).
The Jets will be coming to Nelson riding a wave of confidence after the first win over the Saints in an age (9 years!). But to make their postseason hope a reality, improved efficiency will need to be realised (8th in EFG at 50.4%) against a Giants team that doesn’t beat itself. But the Jets have the confidence of a win in hand (84-74) on their home court that was of course driven by the talented import trio with Mustapha Heron (20 PTS) Javion Blake (17 PTS) and Danny Pippen II (16 PTS) combining for 53 points, 32 rebounds and 12 assists in the first matchup. But it was Pafe Momoisea’s season high of 15 that combined with Liam Judd’s 12 to secure the win earlier in the season. If the supporting crew can combine with the stars (while maintaining possession) a road victory could be at hand. But with both teams playing for their finals lives this won’t be an easy fight.
Matchup to Watch: Matur Maker vs. Danny Pippen II
Hawke’s Bay Hawks (5-10) v Wellington Saints (7-8) - Saturday, 7pm
The home court advantage that isn’t struck the Hawks again in Round 12, as a 4-point lead with just over two minutes to play wasn’t enough to stop the Nuggies from charging home for the road victory. Hawke’s Bay will hope the law of averages finally comes around against a Saints squad, who has stumbled with consecutive losses on the road. The key for the Hawks will be ball control, as their league worst turnover percentage (17%) has made closing games difficult, especially when combined with a league worst defensive rebounding rate (71.1%). With just three games remaining any loss will shut the door on a season that began with so much promise.
The Saints come to town with a few questions themselves, but at this point they still control their own destiny, with three wins from their remaining three games guaranteeing a postseason spot, and when combined with the best points margin of the teams outside the top four they may even be able to withstand a loss. At their best the offence hums (to the tune of a 3rd best 115.8 ORTG) and puts pressure on transition defences while executing both inside and out in the half court. But a leaky transition defence has allowed teams to find buckets with ease making the offences attack less formidable to keep up with. New recruit Elijah Thomas will offer greater depth in the front court and a true rim deterrent if able to stay out of foul trouble and the backcourt of Izayah Le'Afa and Kyle Adnam has yet to find its best form, still working out the kinks of a new partnership.
Matchup to Watch: Hyrum Harris vs. Tom Vodanovich
Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (10-5) v Franklin Bulls (10-4) - Sunday, 4pm
What a difference a guard makes, as the insertion of Tai Webster allowed the Nugs lineup to find balance, even though they were without the services of Sam Timmins. In his absence the trio of Todd Withers, Michael Harris and Webster combined to average 70.5 points despite a lack of familiarity. With a Finals spot locked down and Timmins returning, they will have their eyes set squarely on beating the Bulls to give themselves the inside track on a top two spot. They will need to be wary of a stout ball hawking defense, but a league best 13% turnover percentage shows they have the ability to withstand pressure. If they are able to keep the ball, their ability to get to the free throw line (2nd best 31.2% free throw rate) will test the ability of the Bulls to defend without fouling, a task not made any easier on the second leg of the deep south double header.
The Bulls will look to their defence to flummox the Nugs, with a strong switchy lineup looking to cause problems against a team that has options all over the court. The earlier matchup between the two found Franklin still getting used to losing the presence of Tyrell Harrison (hopeful to return), and they have found their identity as a collective with balanced activity on both ends having become their calling card. This game may be the deciding factor in a top two seed for both teams, ensuring a quality game that isn’t to be missed.
Matchup to Watch: Tai Webster vs. Rickey McGill
Auckland Tuatara (11-3) vs. Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (9-5) - Sunday, 6pm
Sunday’s second game brings us another top four matchup, with the Tuatara hosting the Rams as they look to sweep the season series and move closer to the all important top seed. The Rams will struggle to contain the influence of Rob Loe, who narrowly missed a triple-double in the first match up (one rebound short) as he dominated a freshly Tai Wynyard-less team. Defence was the foundation for that win, holding the Rams to 72 points on 40% shooting while forcing 19 turnovers to cruise to a victory.
The Rams lineup has significantly more pop in its arsenal this time around, with Corey Webster and Galin Smith proving to be a lethal combination in the pick and roll in the first example of their partnership last round. But despite the influx of talent the Rams are still looking for 40 minutes of consistency, as they watched another big lead evaporate (18 points over the Nugs) after a patchy middle saw them give up 67 points across the second and third quarter. Just a win away from locking down the postseason you would expect a well rested team to come in with their best effort to knock off the table toppers, setting up what could be the match of the round.
Matchup to Watch: Jarrad Weeks vs. Corey Webster
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