Photo credit: Roshysportfolio
The final round of the season is upon us and not a single seed has been locked down for the Final 6 while two teams have one last week to prove deserving of a finals shot. The Hawke’s Bay Hawks and Nelson Giants are two unlikely teams to still be playing for a chance at the postseason following tough stretches throughout the season. The Giants went 0-5 to start the year while the Hawks lost their first six home games. Both have stayed the course and worked their way out of what seemed like insurmountable odds to give themselves a chance to chase a championship. Only the Giants control their own destiny, and will be hoping the return of Avery Woodson from injury will give them the boost needed to sweep a final round double header while the Hawks need to take care of their business for a third consecutive week at home and hope for a wee bit of help.
But they aren’t the only teams with something to play for as the Auckland Tuatara have the inside track on 1st seed and the advantage that goes with it. The Otago Nuggets will be hoping for a Tuatara loss and Franklin Bulls win to sneak into pole position, but have to win to guarantee an all important top 2 seed. The Franklin Bulls and Canterbury Rams clash with higher seeding on the line, and a chance for the Bulls to prove their mettle against the the cream of the Sal’s NBL crop, a space where they currently own just a 1-4 record (vs Tuatara, Nuggets and Rams) with the sole win taking place in a 24-point comeback victory. For those teams on the outside looking in the championship dream may have been extinguished, but the opportunity arises to play spoiler and end seasons that came up short of expectations on a high note with the satisfaction that comes with a victory in the final week of a season.
Derone Raukawa - A week after playing limited minutes in the Hawks' first home victory of the season, Derone helped end the Tuatara’s 10-game winning streak playing at the peak of his powers. Going 11-of-16 from the field while hammering in several nails into the coffin late ensuring the Hawks victory in their second straight at home to keep their playoff hopes alive despite being down Ethan Rusbatch. With a talented Jets team coming to town a repeat performance may be needed to keep that Finals flame alive
Jeremy Kendle - In terms of wins and losses this year has been a tough one for Southland Sharks fans, but the season long excellence of Kendle has been a sight to behold. Despite tacking up another loss a 16-of-20 performance from the field helped JK reach 38 points, the 15th time he’s led the team in scoring and the ninth time he’s topped 26. Aging like a fine wine and showing just how much he has left in the barrel has been a pleasure to watch, even if the results didn’t always match the effort.
Tai Webster - The loss of JaQuori McLaughlin would be a death blow to most teams, but with the insertion of T Web, the Nugs have gone from strength-to-strength. A dominant performance down the stretch (both on the court and with the courtside chatter) allowed the Nugs to overcome a hoe-hum performance against an understrength but motivated Giants squad. Stuffing his box score with 22 PTS, 13 REB, 8 AST, 3 STL and 1 BLK shows the depth of his talent and the difficulty in overcoming the Nugs even when they struggle to find their best form.
Auckland Tuatara (13-3 record) Highest finish 1st, Lowest finish 2nd
Otago Nuggets (12-5) Highest finish 1st, Lowest finish 3rd
Franklin Bulls (12-5) Highest finish 1st, Lowest finish 4th, 2 games to play
Canterbury Rams (11-6) Highest finish 2nd, Lowest finish 4th
Wellington Saints (8-9) Highest finish 5th, lowest finish 6th
Hawke’s Bay Hawks (7-10) Highest finish 5th, Lowest finish 10th, 2 games to play
Nelson Giants (6-10) Highest finish - 6th
Manawatū Jets (5-12) Out of finals but can play spoiler
Southland Sharks (5-12) Out of finals but can play spoiler
Taranaki Airs (5-11) Out of finals but can play spoiler
Steelformers Taranaki Airs (5-11) vs. NBS Nelson Giants (6-10) - Thursday, 7pm
The Airs have found a higher level of form since fielding a full squad but were not able to parlay that into a winning streak of enough length to find their way to the Final 6. With the Giants coming to town they can look to extract a bit of vengeance for the earlier 117-83 loss while pushing the Final 6 to the extreme of the Giants reach. The Giants will find a vastly different team then they bested in the initial encounter, and will be sweating on the health of Matur Maker and Avery Woodson, both of whom are integral to the team finding its best form. Woodson and Kendrick Ray should make for an electric matchup with scoring ability flowing out of the both of them. Rebounding will be a key concern for the Airs, as their 9th ranked 72% defensive rebounding percentage will be tested by the interior strength of Calum McRae who continues to impress on the offensive end. His defensive technique needs work, and the Airs are sure to test his footspeed by pulling him out in on ball action to force long recoveries. A loss here will take control of their Final 6 destiny out of the hands of the Giants, making this a great game to kick off the final round of action.
Matchup to Watch: Anzac Rissetto vs. Callum McRae
Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (11-6) vs. Franklin Bulls (12-5) - Friday, 7pm
While inconsistency remains a concern for the Rams they continue to improve in their collective play as a unit since completing their roster late in the season. With perhaps the best depth in the league they have multiple avenues to victory depending on the opponent and the strategy they encounter. Tevin Brown showed his skill in the third quarter against the Jets last round, dominating from deep, off the dribble and with movement off the ball, taking instant advantage of a defense that drops its guard. Thomas Wembley and Galin Smith have proved a powerful partnership while finding ways to affect the game on post catches and in screen and roll action. That size could be extremely valuable depending on the availability of Tyrell Harrison, who missed last round after returning to the lineup from injury. Without Harrison the Bulls are slightly off their best effort, and have given up advantage on the interior when outsized or out muscled. With just 1 win in 5 chances against their fellow top 4 teams, round 15 is an excellent chance to prove their defensive mettle against top tier competition. Defensive player of the year nominees Jamall Brantley and Rickey McGill continue to enforce their will against the opposition, but it will be the form of the offense that determines their finals seeding in what is sure to be an explosive clash in Christchurch.
Matchup to Watch: Max Darling vs. Dan Fotu
Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (12-5) vs. Steelformers Taranaki Airs (5-11) - Saturday, 5pm
The Nuggets survived a subpar showing to find victory and keep itself in the hunt for top seed by overcoming an understrength Giants squad on their homecourt. They return to the Edgar Centre looking to fine tune their form in their final hitout while securing an all important top 2 seed and the advantage that comes with it. Webster, Nikau McCullough and Michael Harris combine to form as pesky a perimeter defense as can be found in the league with Sam Timmins providing rim protections and Defensive Player of the Year nominee Todd Withers providing all of the above and then some they can get away with sup-par shooting performances against the strongest of opponents. When the efficiency on the offensive end finds its highest levels they become as good a team as there is in the competition. This is the challenge presented to an Airs squad that will look to finish on a high without finals hopes to play for. The chance to play spoiler twice will drive the Naki across a weekend double while the speed of Ray, Anthony Hilliard, Armon Fletcher and Carlin Davison look to take advantage of the Nugs in transition, one of the few areas that can be of great effect against them.
Matchup to Watch: Michael Harris vs. Armon Fletcher
Hawke’s Bay Hawks (7-10) vs. Manawatū Jets (5-12) - Saturday, 7:30pm
One last chance to defend the nest and save a season that looked like a difficult salvage operation just a few weeks ago. A stellar defensive effort held the Tuatara to 83 points, 11 beneath their average while the offense closed the door behind big Raukawa shots down the stretch. In their first matchup against the Jets, Ira Lee was still getting his feet wet in just his first game of the year, combining with foul trouble to limit his effectiveness. That hasn’t been a problem of late as he has become a double-double machine to pair with his defensive efforts on the low block. They will play host to Jets squad sure to still feel the disappointment of two losses in round 14 that closed the door on their postseason aspirations. Always difficult to defend, they will once again look to the import trio of Javion Blake, Mustapha Heron and Danny Pippen to carry them to victory. They find greater effectiveness when playing off each other, but are an easier task to conquer when the ball movement fades and focus on isolation opportunities. Their defense was able to force 22 turnovers by the Hawks in the initial matchup, if that stats repeats itself a victory will be well within reach.
Matchup to Watch: Ira Lee vs. Danny Pippen II
NBS Nelson Giants (6-10) vs. Southland Sharks (5-12) - Sunday, 4pm
If the Giants are able to find a victory in their initial hitout of the weekend, a chance to come back to their home court and clinch a spot in the postseason awaits. The initial matchup between the two was only the Giants second victory of the season, and gave a peek into what their best effort could provide on the season as they shot 40% from three and 59% from inside the arc as 7 different players found the range from three. Calum McRae will create a bigger advantage on the interior this time around, forcing the Sharks D to give up even more space on the interior. The Giants will play host to a Sharks squad that will be driven by the talents of Jeremy Kendle, whose prodigious efforts have failed to halt a 6 game losing streak. The final game of Alex Pledger's career will be a of the night regardless of the result, but a win always makes for a much sweeter ride into the sunset
Matchup to Watch: Avery Woodson vs. Jeremy Kendle
Auckland Tuatara (13-4) vs. Wellington Saints (8-9) - Sunday, 6pm
A surprising halt to a 10 game winning streak never feels good, but it feels a lot better during the regular season then if it were to happen in the playoffs. An end of regular season loss can be a speed bump that pushes a team back to its top speed in the pursuit of the title. The Hawks took advantage of a slight edge in possession on the glass and with the ball in hand to create a 12 shot advantage on Auckland while limiting them to just 14 attempts from the line which was just enough for an efficient half court offense to close down the stretch. Rob Loe is coming off his least impactful game of the season despite achieving another double double. Wellington will be hard pressed to contain the Dinos in a similar fashion despite their bounce back win to close out the season. With a bevy of options they do have the strength inside to provide resistance to Loe’s season long dominance on the interior, with Tohi Smith-Milner, Elijah,Taane Samuel and Tom Vodanavich all able to provide a unique challenge to him defensively. Kyle Adnam and Jarrad Weeks have both settled into larger playmaking roles in recent weeks, but still have the ability to dominate by putting the ball through the net. The previous matchup saw a dominant 2nd quarter take the game away from the Saints. A vastly different lineup will be presented this time and the Saints may even be more familiar with the Pulman Arena gym than the home team, having played the Bulls there earlier this season.
Matchup to Watch: Jarrod Kenny vs. Kyle Adnam
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