Photo credit: Monica Toretto
The Otago Nuggets are top of the table and still undefeated after a road double to the big smoke where they once again smothered the offence of the opposition. Even a hot starting Tuatara outfit (32 PTS in the Q1) featuring a blinder of a performance from Jarrad Weeks (35 PTS, 5 AST, 5 REB) eventually succumbed to the lack of airspace allowed by the Nuggs on the defensive end.
How are they doing it? The foundation is great D (95.2 defensive rating [1st], 10.8% steal rate [2nd]), taking are of the ball (12.0 turnover percentage [1st]), while playing unselfishly (63.6% assist rate [1st]) and controlling the glass (77.8 defensive rebounding %). Four of the starting five are providing the bulk of the offence but the entire team is contributing on both ends of the court in a grindy physical style.
The Rams are hot on the tracks of the top spot with just the one loss, and have been playing an improving brand of basketball, but will have to weather the departure of Tai Wynyard, who may be the most important player in their lineup. But while the top of the table attempts to break away, just two wins separate third spot from 10th, a display of parity enabling every team in the league to look at the remaining schedule and feel confident of their chances to track down a spot in the Final 6.
Kyle Adnam - On the second leg of a double header with the pressure of a loss in the first game mounting on the Saints after a forgettable effort against the Rams, Adnam was surgical with his passing precision in a victory in the deep south. Drawing defenders with paint penetrations then making the right decision led to a season-high 18 assists(!) to go with 19 points of his own as part of a spirited pace filled win against the Sharks. Tohi Smith-Milner was a main target (25 PTS on 11-of-12 shooting) but the options were plentiful for a Saints squad that will be fighting to keep pace with the growing middle of the pack.
Mustapha Heron- While you could really take your pick of any of the Jets top scoring imports from week-to-week it was Heron’s penetrating drives that pressured the Hawks defence that kept the Jets coming back after a slow start. The drives led to a 33-point, 8-rebound performance while drawing 11 fouls, but the play that decided the game was his lone 3-pointer on six attempts, thwarting the Hawks comeback while thrusting the Jets into the top four. Indicating once again that this team will be in the thick of it all season long as they hunt a return to the Final 6.
Michael Harris - A slow start seems to be in the rearview mirror after a huge road double where Harris found his stroke, shooting 9-of-22 from deep en-route to back-to-back 20-point performances. His hot start against the Bulls snuffed out the hopes of the home team in the first quarter but it was a pressure filled late three that sealed the game late against the Tuatara in the first win of the round. An improving efficiency from deep will open valuable space for the drives of JaQuori McLaughlin and Withers as well as post space for Timmins, ensuring the Nuggs move from strength-to-strength as the season moves into its middle stages.
Alex Pledger - While there were amazing performances all across the league in the round, the story of the week was a comeback in the deep south, with Alex Pledger announcing a return to the hardwood for the first time since a colorectal cancer diagnosis two years ago. Expected to join the team before the end of the month it is truly inspiring to see the reaction of fans across Southland, and the nation, react to the news of the return of ‘Chief’ and how that reaction has lifted the spirits of one of New Zealand's most recognisable names in basketball over the last decade.
Steelformers Taranaki Airs (2-4) vs. Hawke’s Bay Hawks (2-4) - Thursday, 7pm
The desperation should be palpable on both teams in the opening game of the round as they both need to find an improved level of performance. For the Hawks inconsistency of permanence from quarter-to-quarter has been an issue, with a great opening quarter once again unable to be capitalised upon. Carelessness with the ball has been an issue (leading the league in turnover percentage at 17%) while a low assist percentage (2nd worst in the league at 50.5%) has forced more one-on-one basketball then is ideal. When combined with the worst defensive rebounding percentage in the comp (66.7%) the possession game becomes a problem and fatigue sets in making the late game swoons a reality.
The Airs have their own identity problems, with an understrength and underwhelming performance against the Giants highlighting the lack of consistency. Having the lowest effective field goal percentage in the league (46.9%) has allowed teams to lay off the perimeter and clog the paint, making it difficult to take advantage of the natural skill set of the roster. The return of Anthony Hilliard should solve much of the spacing conundrum as the walking bucket will stretch defences to their breaking point, but it is unlikely to solve the inconsistency of effort from game-to-game. This battle between four loss teams may have early implications for the Final 6 chase.
Matchup to Watch: Anthony Hilliard vs. Ethan Rusbatch
Southland Sharks (3-3) vs. NBS Nelson Giants (1-5) - Friday, 7pm
Despite solid effort for 40 minutes the Sharks weren’t able to reach the top gear of their opponent as the Saints posted a wire-to-wire victory. League leading scorer and assist man Jeremy Kendle (25.7 PPG, 8.0 APG) continues to prove his worth as the most efficient shooting team in the league (57.7% EFG) battles night-to-night but a lack of pressure on the rim has kept teams from racking up fouls and offering easy points at the free throw stripe (last in free throw rate at 19%). Teams have also been able to manipulate their defensive efforts, warping the rotations while allowing opponents the highest assist percentage in the league (64.5% of opponents possessions end in an assist).
The Giants will come to town for the first leg of their doubleheader, and for the first time this year will have a good performance to build off of. But was the big win a product of improved effort and execution on the part of Nelson, or a lack thereof from their opponent? A game against the Sharks will provide the opportunity to find that level again, but they will have to find a way to generate possession despite the league worst offensive rebounding rate (19%) and steal percentage (6.4%). Coming off their best offensive effort of the year should provide confidence of execution, but finishes at the rim will be tougher against a Sharks unit that leads the league in block percentage (11%).
Matchup to Watch: Grant Anticevich vs. Matur Maker
Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (6-0) vs. Wellington Saints (2-4) - Saturday, 5pm
The Nuggs will look to continue their winning ways and strengthen their hold on the top of the table with ball hawking defence (opponents have league worst 19% turnover percentage) that doesn’t give away easy points (opponents with the lowest free throw rate in the comp 20.9%). The import trio and Timmins lead the way on both sides of the ball with timely 3-point shooting and staunch paint defence. But an improving Saints squad will rightly feel their offence (league best pace) will be able to put pressure on the Nuggets' ability to defend the transition game. With Adnam finding his feet as a the offences orchestrator, Wellington is starting to round into shape with the second best effective field goal percentage in the league (55.8%) but will need to find a way to better protect the rim (3rd lowest block percentage at 5.9%) against a team that constantly applies pressure in the paint.
The team that is able to defend the point of attack without being forced into rotational help will find success in the half court putting extreme pressure on individual defence, giving a slight advantage to the team with the best defender in the league in Todd Withers. When the Saints are able to find their peak offensively they are a handful, but that will be a difficult task to complete on the defending champions home floor regardless the level of their play.
Matchup to Watch: Sam Timmins vs. Tohi Smith-Milner
Auckland Tuatara (3-3) vs. Hawke’s Bay Hawks (2-4) - Saturday, 7pm
This matchup features two teams licking their wounds following consecutive losses (two for Auckland and four for the Hawks) in games that very easily could have turned into wins. The similarities are striking, two top heavy teams that get off to quick starts, but eventually struggle with the lack of depth available to them. For the Hawks, help has arrived in the form of Ira Lee, who in limited minutes hampered by foul trouble displayed a soft touch while offering an improved ability to be a low post presence. Depth could become an issue despite his addition with this being the second game of a road double but the most important issue to address is finding a full 40 minute performance that capitalises on the speed with which the Hawks have been starting games.
Space will be difficult to find on the interior with the splendid defensive play of Rob Loe (18 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 3.6 BLK, 2.8 STL) that has served as an anchor for the back line of the Tuatara defence. His presence has ignited the transition game, especially for Jarrad Weeks (22.8 PPG, 5.8 APG) who has pushed the offence to greater heights in transition. The big news for the Tuatara is the addition of Kruz Perrott-Hunt, whose skill set will blend nicely with the squad while offering depth to a core that could use it.
Matchup to Watch: Reuben Te Rangi vs. Hyrum Harris
Manawatū Jets (3-3) vs. Franklin Bulls (3-3) - Sunday, 4pm
The Jets are flying high while boasting three of the top four scorers in the league in the import trio (Danny Pippen II 24.5, Mustapha Heron 23.8, Javion Blake 23.0) and they will continue to sit atop every scouting report on the squad. If they are slowed it will be tough to find other answers on the roster, which featured only five scorers in the victory over the Hawks with just two points off the bench. But if it ain't broke don't fix it, and until a team is able to force the ball out of the the top scoring trio in the league a backup plan will not need to be implemented, but certainly worth monitoring. Defensively the Jets continue to control the -3point line, where opponents shoot just 23% (tops in the comp) due to the swarming pressure being applied.
The Bulls won’t be overly concerned with that aspect given their 27.5% 3-point rate (2nd lowest in the league) and their focus on interior scoring and crashing the glass. This interior based strategy will put pressure on the Jets to defend without fouling, but the main focus will need to be on the glass as control of the possession game will force the Jets to defend multiple efforts on each possession while creating quality shots for an offence featuring the third worst effective field goal percentage this season (47.9%).
Matchup to Watch: Danny Pippen II vs. Dan Fotu
Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (5-1) vs. NBS Nelson Giants (1-5) - Sunday, 6pm
The Rams continue to move from strength-to-strength (at least until Tai Wynyard’s departure) as they become more familiar with each other as a squad. Tevin Brown is coming off his most commanding performance and his ability to inject pace and quickness can turn games in an instant. Troy Baxter Jr. continues to improve and look more comfortable, and his elite athleticism puts even more pressure on teams in transition and on the defensive glass. With Walter Brown and Max Darling offering consistent support that at times can turn games on its own. Even when things aren’t running smoothly the second best offensive rebounding team (32.4% offensive rebounding percentage) can create something out of nothing when needed. All of which makes for a tough task for the visiting Giants coming to town off their first win.
The boys from Nelson finally found some flow and pace offensively, but the question lingers if it was of their own making or the product of a lackluster effort from their opponent. The signs were promising, Makur Maker coming off his best performance while the wider squad finally offered some offensive support to Avery Woodson (20.8 PPG), who continued to find the measure from deep consistently. Despite inconsistent offensive showings they are still taking care of the rock (league best 13% turnover percentage) but that is tempered by the lack of chance taking (evidenced by a league worst 45% assist percentage and 6.4% steal percentage). To win this one on the road they will need to dig deep and take more chances then normal, otherwise the Final 6 hopes of the Giants will become even fainter.
Matchup to Watch: Tai Wynyard vs. Kavion Pippen
*All advanced stats courtesy of spatialjam.com