Photo credit: Stepney Sport Photography
The penultimate round of the season is upon us and two thirds of the Final 6 field is set, with the Rams limping into qualification with a 3-5 record over their last eight. But they are in with a chance, which is all any team wants when it comes down to the pointy end of the season. This year is extremely pointy with two spots remaining unclaimed and six teams still with a mathematical chance to play in the postseason.
The results of Round 13 for the most part kept to the status quo with only minimal movement on the table, as Auckland and Otago consolidated their positions at the top of the table with big Sunday afternoon wins over their fellow residents in the top four. The first home win of the season for Hawke’s Bay kept them in the finals hunt while Nelson rode Avery Woodson’s hot hand to an inside track for a Final 6 spot. The home court wasn’t as kind to the Airs or the Sharks, who now must hope for a bit of assistance to find a backdoor into the postseason.
Now with two rounds and at least two games to play for every team the margin for error has shrunk and the time to realise potential is nearly gone. Here’s a look at where every team in the league sits, but please note in ties between three or more teams results between all teams on the mini-ladder are tallied to determine tie-breakers:
Locked in and playing for seeding
Auckland Tuatara (13-3) - Highest finish 1st, Lowest finish 2nd, 2 games to play
Otago Nuggets (11-5) - Highest finish 1st, Lowest finish 4th, 2 games to play
Franklin Bulls (11-5) - Highest finish 1st, Lowest finish 4th, 2 games to play
Canterbury Rams (9-6) - Highest finish 2nd, Lowest finish 4th, 3 games to play
In control of their finals destiny
Wellington Saints (7-9) - Highest finish 5th, Lowest finish 9th, 2 games to play
Nelson Giants (6-9) - Highest finish 5th, Lowest finish 10th, 3 games to play
Need wins and some (or a lot) help to make it
Hawke’s Bay Hawks (6-10) - Highest finish 5th, Lowest finish 10th, 2 games to play
Manawatū Jets (5-10) - Highest finish 5th, Lowest finish 10th, 3 games to play
Southland Sharks (5-11) - Highest finish 6th, Lowest finish 10th, 2 games to play
Taranaki Airs (5-10) - Highest finish 5th, Lowest finish 10th, 3 games to play
Avery Woodson - A bounce back was on the cards after a subpar outing the previous round, but what a bounce it was, scoring 36 points while shooting 50% from deep and 72% from inside the arc, including a go-ahead bucket with 4:56 remaining to find a lead that the Giants never relinquished. This was after a 12-point third quarter powered the Giants to erase an 8-point halftime deficit. His efficiency (60% EFG) has carried Nelson to the precipice of the finals, but a repeat performance (or two) will need to be found for a chance at postseason glory.
Hawks - Finally a home win! Were you to tell coach Everard Bartlett that they would be 1-6 on their home court going into Round 14 he would have been skeptical of his teams postseason chances. But a collective effort led by Hyrum Harris (19 PTS, 9 REB) and Ira Lee (15 PTS, 14 REB) gave the Hawks just enough to hang on down the stretch against a fluttering Saints squad. That form on the home court will need to find another level to hit the postseason, with wins against the table topping Tuatara and dangerous Jets left on the agenda.
Nuggets finding form - After an early season firebombing of the league during a 7-0 start the Nugs experienced a mid-season malaise, with injuries, player unavailability and midseason additions to the roster all contributing to the swoon. But a return to form has led to three straight wins to follow the 1-4 purple patch and a chance at the top seed coming down the stretch.
When the threes are dropping they become tough to beat, as evidenced by a dominant 86-72 win over the Franklin Bulls where Michael Harris (35 PTS) and Todd Withers (20 PTS) combined for all nine of the teams’ 3-pointers on 19 attempts. But the defensive potential is what is most intriguing, with Nikau McCullough, Tai Webster and Sam Timmins offering a 5-man unit that pressures the ball, defends the rim and harasses passing lanes. Much like a season ago, the Nuggets seem to be finding their best form at just the right time.
Southland Sharks (5-11) vs. Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (9-6) - Thursday, 7pm
The Sharks come into their final home game having lost five in a row and not tasting victory since a June 5th game against the Nuggets, which coincided with the third least amount of points given up this season. The good news is that there is still hope with a chance to reach the Final 6 still there if the Sharks can take care of business while getting some help. But it needs to start with an improved effort defensively, in particular defending without fouling (coming off a game where there was a gigantic free throw discrepancy (Sharks 3-of-5 FTs, Bulls 20-of-25)) and taking care of the ball (23 TO vs. Bulls). If they are able to take away easy buckets while winning the possession game they will give their highly efficient offense (1st in league 57.5% EFG) a chance to finish their home schedule with a win.
The Rams are looking for consistency of their own having not won consecutive games since May 14th, when they won their fifth straight to go 6-1. The 3-5 record since that date has been marred by 20 minute performances in 40 minute games, highlighted by last rounds 2-point lead turning into a 23-point loss on the road. Slowing penetration at the point of attack would lower the efficiency of opponents and make things easier on the back line of defence, providing help for a team that was -10 in free throw makes while three players sat on four fouls their last match out. Their size and power will be difficult for the Sharks to contend with so look for early attacks on the interior and a concerted effort on the offensive glass to try to kick the Rams offence into gear.
Matchup to Watch: Grant Anticevich vs. Max Darling
NBS Nelson Giants (6-9) vs. Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (11-5) - Friday, 7pm
The Giants bounced back in a big way following a disappointing loss on the road to score a comeback victory on their home court that keeps their postseason hopes alive. Avery Woodson was tremendous with 36 points at 61% as his perimeter prowess was again on display. But Woodson and the Giants will face a different level of pressure against the Nuggets, and will have to improve off a 21 turnover performance in the teams first meeting. The possession game was also impacted by a lack of rebounding as the Nugs burned them with 17 offensive boards and a +11 on the rebound total (40-29). The presence of Callum McCrae will offer more resistance on the glass, but it will take a collective effort to reverse those outcomes this time around and could help the Giants close what was a smaller then you might remember 7-point gap between the two.
But the task will be difficult as the Nugs have rediscovered their early season form on both ends of the court. With Michael Harris and Todd Withers stretching defences. driving lanes will continue to open for Tai Webster and Nikau McCullough while Sam Timmins soaks up caroms under the rim. The defence is particularly imposing, coming off a game where they held the previously on-fire Bulls to 39% shooting while forcing 19 turnovers. The perimeter shooting is still streaky (with Harris and Withers combining to go 9-of-19 while the rest of the squad went 0-of-9) but with the opportunities that the defence creates these streaks are able to be waited out. With a chance at the one seed still on the cards expect the best efforts of a squad that seems to be finding its best form of the season at the right time of year once again.
Matchup to Watch: Avery Woodson vs. Tai Webster
Wellington Saints (7-9) vs. Manawatū Jets (5-10) - Saturday, 5pm
The Saints will play in front of a sold out crowd for the final home game of the season as they hope to avenge a loss to the Jets just two weeks ago. Currently on a 3-game skid the Saints still control their own destiny, with wins in their final two games guaranteeing a postseason appearance. But guarantees are hard to find for a squad that has struggled to perform at its highest level due to a lack of consistency on the offensive end and a porous defence that struggles to contain transition opportunities.
The Jets hung 111 points on the Saints last time around and that was with Danny Pippen being held in check by foul trouble. The Saints' size on the interior is a big advantage with a strong interior attack resulting in high efficiency looks or defensive rotations that can be beaten with quick ball movement. If they can combine that efficiency while taking care of the ball they should put themselves into an excellent position to grab their final’s spot in the last round of the season.
But the Jets will come in buoyed by their playoff chances still existing, despite letting an opportunity slip through their fingers in Nelson a week ago, bolstered even further with perhaps the most difficult import trio to keep up with in Pippen, Mustapha Heron and Javion Blake. You can pencil those three in for 70 points, but their support on the scoresheet has been more difficult to predict. Liam Judd and Marcel Jones have been the most consistent performers outside their big three and a repeat performance in the rematch will make things very tough for the home side.
Matchup to Watch: Isaiah Mucius vs. Mustapha Heron
Franklin Bulls (11-5) vs. Steelformers Taranaki Airs (5-10) - Saturday, 7pm
The Bulls still have a shot at a top two spot, but without possession of the tie breakers with their fellow table toppers any setbacks will make that a more difficult task. The defence continues to be their foundation, with Rickey McGill pressuring the ball while flanked by physicality making any kind of penetration difficult, teams have struggled to find their stride against the Bulls (2nd best points against at 84.3) and despite a couple of hiccups in their last three efforts the offence is finding a higher level, averaging over 90 points in the last six weeks. Dan Fotu has become a focal point in transition and on the block, opening up more space for perimeter shooting. The return of Tyrell Harrison will bolster both these areas, with his size and efficiency making a tough matchup on both ends of the court.
Despite sitting at the bottom of the table the Airs have their own postseason to play for, and with three wins in their last five games the form is trending in the right direction. The offence is starting to hum, having topped 90 points in their last six outings, but the Bulls will test the Airs ability to reach that level of efficiency. With a combination of size, athleticism and shooting they provide a challenge to even the best defences, but a lack of consistent 3-point shooting has kept them from finding their highest level, and this is unlikely to get better against the Bulls who hold opponents to the second lowest 3-point percentage in the comp (33.3%).
Matchup to Watch: Rickey McGill vs. Kendrick Ray
Hawke’s Bay Hawks (6-10) vs. Auckland Tuatara (13-3) - Sunday, 4pm
The streak is over! Finally a home win for the Hawks as they were able to hold on (just!) against a fast finishing Saints squad to keep their season alive while finally giving the home crowd a reason to head home with a smile. But it doesn’t get any easier as the Tuatara and their 10-game winning streak come flying into the nest. A lack of defensive fortitude cost the Hawks in their earlier match, where they allowed 106 points scored at 54% from the field including 17-of-30 from deep in a game where Jarrad Weeks, Rob Loe and Reuben Te Rangi combined for 73 points.
Slowing those three down will be key, but a tougher task then at any point this season, as Joe Lawson and Kruz Perrott-Hunt have given the Dinos more capable depth on the offensive end. But the Tuatara defence might pose a bigger issue, as their physicality and length makes penetration difficult, while still contesting shots to limit perimeter efficiency. The offence will need to flow, most particularly down the stretch, as late game situations have led to less ball movement allowing defences to settle in and deter drives and second chance opportunities. If the Tuatara are allowed to play with freedom of movement this will be a long day for the home team.
Matchup to Watch: Ira Lee vs. Rob Loe
Manawatū Jets (5-10) vs. Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (9-6) - Sunday, 6pm
The Jets will return for their final home game of the season in the midst of a back-to-back being kicked off in Wellington the night before. Never an easy task, it will be made slightly more palatable as the visiting Rams will be on the second leg of their weekend double header, albeit with two extra days of rest. But there is no rest in the hunt for the Finals, and one of the more vibrant home crowds in the league will be waiting to lend support. The Jets will need to use their speed to counter the size and strength of the Rams, looking for easy opportunities in transition and off the passing lanes created by penetration. The key will be to keep the Rams defence moving, as they find a higher level of resistance when allowed to settle in the half court.
The Rams should be the better rested squad, enabling a higher rate of pace to take advantage of a team that played the night before. When able to get out and run on the break the Rams are at their best. They also have the personnel to grind you down in the front court, with Galin Smith and Max Darling offering the thunder to Troy Baxter Jr’s lightning. If the Rams are able to whip the ball around the perimeter they should find greater lanes of penetration allowing them to take advantage of a greater depth of talent.
Matchup to Watch: Danny Pippen II vs. Troy Baxter Jr.
Note: All advanced stats provided by www.spatialjam.com