Casey’s Corner – Round 7

Photo credit: Game Face NZ

As we come to Round 8 we have basically hit the halfway point of the season with all teams having played at least eight games, and we can see the earliest signs of separation in the pack. The Auckland Tuatara were the big movers of the week after skittering down the South Island and picking up two wins in strong, if not dominant fashion. Rob Loe (17.8 PTS, 10.4 REB, 4.4 AST, 3.0 BLK, 2.5 STL) has his fingerprints over everything, showing off his multi-dimensional game and ability to affect the game on both sides of the court in a way only he (and Todd Withers) can. Jarrad Weeks (22.8 PTS, 6.7 REB, 5.6 AST) is responsible for pushing the pace and finding easy baskets making questions about depth fade away as a deep run in the postseason looks more and more likely by the week.  The Otago Nuggets and Canterbury Rams are both still in strong position despite the collective setbacks to the Lizards (Dino’s?) but do come out of the weekend with more questions than they would like. The Rams in particular will be anxious to find a replacement for Tai Wynyard and his bruising game to complement the speedy length that permeates their roster.

While the Rams have more questions, the Franklin Bulls are finding answers adding Jared Wilson-Frame a week ago and Matt Freeman this week, the perimeter attack has been bolstered and two wins on the trot (albeit in less than convincing fashion) sees the Bulls finding the smallest amount of breathing space in the top four, and a chance to steady the ship until the return of Tyrell Harrison. While the top 4 tries its best to consolidate the teams from 5th-to-10th have now formed a group of their own, with all six teams still a real chance at the post-season, but the clock is ticking.

The Nelson Giants and Wellington Saints are playing the strongest basketball of the group, with early season questions starting to get answered with the play of dazzling guards (Avery Woodson and Kyle Adnam respectively) finding some support on the defensive end. The Sharks would still fancy their chances but the release of Romaro Gill shows that the mix isn’t quite where it needs to be. But the time is now or never for the Manawatū Jets, Hawkes Bay Hawks and Taranaki Airs. Inconsistent play is giving way consistency, but not of the quality a top 6 team needs. All three teams have proven that their best is good enough to compete and win, but the best has been tough to produce with any consistency. The Hawks in particular need to look at this weekend as a possible last best chance to find a level of play that comes close to their preseason expectations. With the end of the season looming, time is short and potential is fleeting but there is enough time to realise it, but only if acted upon with immediate effect.

Worth a Mention Mid-Season Awards

All Star 5 - Jeremy Kendle, Jarrad Weeks, Todd Withers, Rob Loe, Sam Timmins
Defensive Player of the 1st Half - Todd Withers
Youth Player of the 1st Half - Walter Brown
Coach of the First Half - Brent Matehaere
MVP - Rob Loe

Round 8

Steelformers Taranaki Airs (2-6) vs. Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (6-2) - Thursday, 7pm

The Airs were playing well enough to win, despite not having Armon Fletcher available, and even with the ejection of Anthony Hilliard (19 PTS in 21 minutes) were in position to take the game down the stretch, but an inability to play transition D combined with a lack of scoring prowess to let fourth quarter lead slip through their hands. The lowest scoring team in the league finds itself in the bottom half of most statistical categories, but it is a lack of ability to win the possession battle (8th in turnover margin, 9th in o-boards per game) that makes it most difficult to find a rhythm.

Can they find that rhythm against a Rams squad that finds itself in search of an identity with the loss of the big fella in the middle? A high scoring fourth quarter made the loss to Auckland look better on the scoresheet then it did on the court where 5-of-19 shooting from three for the starters made it difficult to create needed space in the halfcourt. A less potent defence awaits them on the opener of the weekend doubleheader and following two subpar performances on the offensive end a lil get right juice is exactly what is needed. But the question lingers, can the talent they have hold court until the reinforcements arrive?

Matchup to Watch: Anthony Hilliard vs. Tevin Brown

Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (7-1) vs. Hawke’s Bay Hawks (3-6) - Friday, 7pm

The Nuggies tasted defeat for the first time this season, and despite a flattering final scoreline, it will leave a bitter taste after being down 20 to start the fourth quarter. An inability to get the frontcourt involved allowed for only JaQuori McLaughin and Michael Harris found double figure scoring on a combined 41 shots at 51%. McLaughin’s standout performance (39 PTS, 6 AST) was dampened by the duo of Withers and Timmins only managing 16 points combined, less than half their season average. But in the end the offence was good enough to earn a win, but allowing Auckland to hit 48% from three ensured victory remained out of reach.

Welcoming the Hawks to town could be a balm to the wound, as the Hawks' league worst turnover percentage (16%) will test their ability to handle the ball pressure applied by the Nuggets.  Withers and Harris have feasted on indecisiveness and of late the Hawks have looked like a team who were searching for answers offensively (last in the league in turnover margin @ -3.78, 9th in 3pfg%). For the Hawks to win this game they will need to find a way to keep the difference in 3-pointers made relatively close but the sheer volume with which the Nugs shoot will make that difficult. If they are able to limit the chances from deep their second ranked FG% inside the arc will test Otago at the rim and in the midrange with the abilities of Hyrum Harris and Derone Raukawa. But it will take more of a collective effort on both ends of the court to reverse the 1-6 form of their past seven outings.

Matchup to Watch: Michael Harris vs. Ethan Rusbatch

Wellington Saints (3-5) vs. Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (6-2) - Saturday, 5pm

The Saints continue to impress at their best with league leader in assists Kyle Adnam finding great balance between looking for his own shot and creating opportunities for his teammates. His options are plentiful with options inside and out. Tom Vodanavich is coming off the performance of the season and he and Isaiah Mucius did damage from deep with 11 threes made between them. The offence hasn’t been a problem this year, but the defence has been an issue, attested by the second worst FG% defence in the comp and league worst scoring defence. Some of that can be attributed to pace which will be exasperated with a quick and nimble Rams squad coming to town. Even without Taylor Britt unavailable (out with concussion) the speed on the perimeter is potent.

At his best Tevin Brown exists only as a blur, using his quickness to exploit defenses in transition and with penetration. But as with the Saints consistency has been an issue, as even during the winning streak the Rams would often lose focus and see their offensive efficiency drop below their status as a top tier team. They will need to find a way to slow down the interior presence of the Saints without Wynyard, while Thomas Webley provides the size but will need help to contain the mobility of the Wellington frontcourt. Time will tell if the Rams are able to keep up the league best offensive rebounding rate for the rest of the season.but inroads there would slow the transition attack of the Saints while providing easy opportunities in the halfcourt.

Matchup to Watch: Marlon Taylor vs. Troy Baxter Jr.

Southland Sharks (4-5) vs. Hawke’s Bay Hawks (3-6) - Saturday, 7pm

The Sharks return to the tank after achieving the split on the lower North Island double with an impressive offensive performance against the Jets and a less impressive performance versus the Saints. Jeremy Kendle (23.9 PTS, 8.8 AST) will once again be counted on to direct traffic while filling it up and Grant Anticevich (16.2 PTS, 8.3 REB) continued his season long upswing with a 28-point, 12-rebound performance in defeat. Defensively they will need to find a way to slow down the Hawks' second best 2-point FG% without the services of Dru-Leo Leusogi-Ape on the wing (injury) and Romaro Gill at the rim (released). Gill’s rim protection will be missed but the hope will be that an upswing in mobility can make up for it until Alex Pledger is available to contribute.

The last time these teams met the Hawks gave up a 19-point lead due to the lights out fourth quarter play of Kendle and company (but mostly Kendle) as part of a 7-game swoon that they are yet to recover from. They can look to the defence of the Saints for inspiration, as hard shows and pressure defence limited Kendle’s effectiveness for most of their game last round. The Hawks have the mobile bigs in Harris, Jordan Hunt and Ira Lee to implement that game plan, but execution on the day has been their biggest issue. Their league worst turnover percentage (16%) needs to be addressed but averaging 10.3 offensive rebounds per game will help even that out over the long run. The Hawks enjoy the road, finding both of their victories away from the nest, but the second of a doubleheader in the deep south is always a tough task.

Matchup to Watch: Grant Anticevich vs. Hyrum Harris

Manawatū Jets (3-5) vs. Auckland Tuatara (6-3) - Sunday, 4pm

The Jets  let a massive opportunity to move up the ladder slip through their grasp with a lack of effort and commitment on the defensive end allowing 105 points on 75% shooting from two and 48% from three. This comes in stark contrast to their 29% given up from three on the year, which had been the foundation of their defensive identity. The porous defence was compounded by Danny Pippen II's worst performance of the year (2 PTS on 1-of-14 shooting) which would always make victory difficult.

The Jets import trio provides over 70% of the offence making them tough to stop, but also vulnerable to an off night. But even on an off night their 51.7% 3-point rate (1st in league) provides the opportunity to make up for the variance with sheer volume. But with the Tuatara coming to town, will that be enough? Loe and Weeks lead the way, but Cam Gliddon and Reuben Te Rangi have enjoyed explosive performances when needed and a youngsters Charlie Dalton and Tom Beattie continue to contribute with regularity (as does Nick Barrow but he’s not so young). The Tuatara are coming off their best week of the year, sweeping a southern double in impressive fashion, but it was only a season ago where a less talented Jets squad upset them on their home floor making this a game to keep an eye on.

Matchup to Watch: Mustapha Heron vs. Reuben Te Rangi

Franklin Bulls (5-3) vs. NBS Nelson Giants (3-6) - Sunday, 6pm

Winners in three of their last four the Bulls have been improving on both ends of the court as the season moves along but still saw fit to add depth and talent on the perimeter with Jared Wilson-Frame last week and Matt Freeman this week. Their shooting will stretch defences on the perimeter while opening up driving lanes for Rickey McGill and rebounding opportunities for Jamaal Brantley, Dom Kelman-Poto and Dan Fotu on the offensive glass and in the post. The Bulls have been controlling the glass (1st in defensive rebound percentage at 78.2%, 3rd in offensive rebounding percentage at 27.9%) and creating turnovers (1st in steal rate at 11.5%) all of which prove their commitment to physical play while playing one of the slower paces in the league.

Despite that commitment they have only managed one win on their home floor in four attempts, and that was a come from behind effort that saw them overcome a huge second half deficit. They will be hoping to continue the improved results on their home floor with the Giants coming to town, who have themselves been on the up after a rocky (bouldery?) start. Over their last four games (3-1) they have completely reversed early season defensive fortunes, not allowing an opponent to score over 83 points after not holding a single opponent under 84 points during their five loss streak over the start of the year. Avery Woodson (21.8 PPG) continues to light it up from deep, coming off a 7-of-11 performance from deep and against the Hawks in Round 7 he had some company at the party in Sam Dempster (18 PTS, 4-of-6 from deep). This prowess from deep opened things up for a quickly improving Kavion Pippen, whose ultra efficient 28 points on 11-of-14 shooting kept the Hawks from making a run down the stretch. If he and Matur Maker can hold the fort inside and slow the Bulls interior play we’ll be in for a perimeter battle, and with the explosive shooters available fireworks may just ensue.

Matchup to Watch: Rickey McGill vs. Avery Woodson


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