Photo credit: Andy Macdonald
The Hawks found their happy place - apparently double headers on the road - and shot up the ladder to reclaim a spot in the top-6 and ease the pressure that had been building up on a talented roster. With two wins in the deep south the Hawks were led by Ira Lee and Jordan Ngatai respectively in the two games, but also displayed a greater balance on offence with both games featuring six double figures. It's debatable if dropping a JaQuori McLaughlin-less Otago Nuggets squad or hitting 17-of-35 from three against the Southland Sharks is the turning point of the season, but combined a newly confident Hawks squad will look to take their prowess away from the Bay and bring that level of execution to the home court with five 0f their last seven taking place in the nest.
The big weekend brought them to the precipice of a quickly solidifying top-4, with the Franklin Bulls using a grind you down defence to hold the Nelson Giants to 34% staking their claim to the upper echelon of the league. Rickey McGill’s speed is palpable on both ends of the court, but it is his quick hands that will have offences keenly aware of his presence as his five steals and constant pressure attested to. As impressive as the D is for the Bulls, the quickly developing offence may turn out to be of greater import, with the shooting ability of Jared Wilson-Frame and Matthew Freeman stretching the geometry of the court and allowing a determined front line freedom of movement to pound the offensive glass. With Tyrell Harrison still to return from injury this is a team yet to hit its stride, making its current standing all the more impressive.
But they are still on the chase for the top of the table as the Canterbury Rams, Auckland Tuatara and Otago all sit on seven wins. The Nugs are reeling slightly with two consecutive losses on the homecourt, but the return to health of McLaughlin (and the arrival of the long rumored Tai Webster) will see them steady the ship, but a reliance on the starters to produce the bulk of the offence with volume shooting from three will leave room for untimely shooting slumps to affect the outcome of games. Despite the effectiveness of Troy Baxter Jr. and Tevin brown, the Rams have found unsteady ground on the top rungs since the departure of Tai Wynyard, but the arrival of an import big will hopefully steady the interior and allow the team to regain its rebounding presence against other topflight interior talent.
But it is the Tuatara that look to be going from strength-to-strength with four wins on the trot, including two on the road against their fellow top end teams in Christchurch and Dunedin. With six of their final eight games to come on their home court and a new import, they will set their sights on an upcoming 4-game homestand to grab top seed in the Final 6.
Rickey McGill: Jumping to the top of the steals leaderboard (2.7 per game) highlights the quick hands, but just as impressive is the pressure put on ball handlers that doesn’t lead to turnovers but wreaks havoc on offence's ability set up with efficiency. His 4.6 assists per game and 5.6 rebounds contribute to the Bulls' winning formula. An uptick in shooting efficiency (41% effective field goal percentage) should come with the recently added weapons, helping the Bulls' grip on the top four strengthen.
Ira Lee: Coming off back-to-back double-doubles and a game-winner in Otago, Lee is starting to solidify the interior for the Hawks as he finds his feet in the lineup. Light of foot with the ability to use either hand in the post, his presence in the paint for the Hawks is climbing along with his rebound average (8.7). If he can man the post and allow Hyrum Harris and Jordan Ngatai more space to operate, the Hawks' offence will finally find their expected level.
Isaiah Mucius: The addition of Mucius has crystallized the strengths of the Saints. His efficient offence (17.3 PPG on 54% EFG) offers the Saints offensive balance on the wing, but his ability to defend lead guards is lifting the defensive ceiling for the Saints. The skill to do a little bit of everything (pressure the ball, contest at the rim, switchability to the post) has allowed Wellington to use him as a plaster on any matchup and kick off transition opportunities by inhibiting offences quality of looks. With a high octane offence, the slightest uptick on the defensive end will put the Saints squarely in the championship hunt.
Troy Baxter Jr: His elite athleticism is intimidating coming down the lane for above the rim finishes or from the weak side for thunderous blocked shots but it is his status as a top sixth man in the league that offers the Rams flexibility to adjust to the opposition's strengths. His rim protection (3rd in blocks at 2.1 per game, 6.2% block rate) is elite while his skill in getting to the line (45% free throw rate) keeps the scoreboard ticking over during dry patches. When he can slide back to his more comfortable power forward spot, the Rams' offence should find a higher level
NBS Nelson Giants (3-7) v Wellington Saints (4-5) - Friday, 7pm
The Giants return to Trafalgar for what may be the most important game of the season. Just one win out of the top 6, but sitting on seven losses has left little room for error for a squad that continues to improve on both ends, but has struggled to find consistently high levels of execution on the offensive end. Avery Woodson (and his stellar 48% from 3!) drives the perimeter focused engine while Kavion Pippen and Matur Maker offer the interior balance, but with only Sam Dempster joining the trio in double figures, the time to fine tune has run out.
The Giants will need to make the Saints pull back from their pressure defence to find space on the offensive end with a continued effort to share the ball around, but the Saints' top level athleticism has grown since an earlier 112-91 defeat on their home court. Kyle Adnam continues to lead the way on offence and the Marlon Taylor/Isaiah Mucius perimeter defence will give Woodson trouble in the halfcourt.
Transition will be key for both teams as the Saints will push the pace as the Giants look for ways to take away easy looks from Welly on the break. That will be a tough task as the rebounding fortitude of Tom Vodanovich, Tohi Smith-Milner and Taane Samuel ignites the fastbreak fuse with regularity. If the Saints' frontcourt is able to dominate the glass on both ends, the Giants postseason chances will be left on life support.
Matchup to Watch: Matur Maker vs. Tom Vodanovich
Motor Company Canterbury Rams (7-3) vs. Hawke’s Bay Hawks (5-6) - Saturday, 5pm
A triple overtime thriller resulted in a hard fought Rams victory in the initial matchup left both teams exhausted and the Hawks reeling, but with changes to the lineups of both teams this game could have a very different look where the Hawks fourth highest scoring team in the league will meet the third stingiest points defence in the Rams.
The Rams now boast the best defensive rating in the league (101.9), showing their abilities even when down a player. Adding Galin Smith (6’9”) will give the option for a different look from Tom Webley and allow for a fleeter look on both ends of the court. Consistency is the key for the Rams as the ability to reach their top gear isn’t an issue, but staying there for four quarters has been. While the Rams have been able to stay atop the comp while shuffling things around, the Hawks have just recently been able to find form for the first time since the early season. The big issue has been turnovers (worst in the league 17% turnover rate) which takes away golden opportunities for one of the most efficient offenses in the league (3rd with a 54.5% EFG).
With an improved interior attack and coming off their best game of the year from the 3-point line the inside out balance seems to be rectifying itself. The key to the result will be the glass, with two of the top three teams in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, the team that controls the defensive glass will walk away the victor.
Matchup to Watch: Troy Baxter Jr. vs. Hyrum Harris
Auckland Tuatara (7-3) vs. Manawatū Jets (3-6) - Saturday, 7pm
Back-to-back games against the same opponent are never easy, as familiarity can reveal ways to counter what was previously successful, but the Tuatara have been playing with the form that makes winning twice in a row a bit easier. Rob Loe has been tremendous on both ends of the court, with his interior presence erasing mistakes on the defensive end while acting as the hub on offence. Coming off a game where they shot 68% from inside the arc shows their prowess in creating shots, but despite coming into the fourth quarter with a big lead they were unable to keep the Jets at arms length as they fought their way back in the game.
The Jets out worked Auckland on the glass (to the tune of 21 offensive rebounds) while creating extra opportunities for the dynamic wing duo of Mustapha Heron and Javion Blake. If the Jets find a way to create the same freedom on the wing while getting a more efficient performance from Danny Pippen (5-of-18 from the field and 0-of-5 from three a week ago) the game will be ripe for the taking. But that is a more difficult task away from some of the most dedicated fans in the league.
Matchup to Watch: Reuben Te Rangi vs. Javion Blake
Steelformers Taranaki Airs (2-7) vs. Wellington Saints (4-5) - Sunday, 4pm
Taranaki has struggled on defence of late, allowing 3-of-4 opponents to score triple digits in their recent 4-game skid. The return of Carlin Davison and his stretch athleticism will plug some holes there, but it will take a greater commitment to stopping the ball at the point of attack to improve their third worst field goal percentage defenses (47%). The offence should eventually come right, but increased ball movement and better screens to free up Anthony Hilliard will need to be implemented to come closer to their potential on that end. If all the new pieces can gel quickly (make that instantly) they may even be able to make a run at the sixth seed in the finals.
But a quickly returning to form Saints squad will offer difficult matchups across the floor. The Saints have been getting teams out of their comfort zone with a focus on playing a more physical brand of defense on the interior while letting the lengthy wings harass defenders, as evidenced by the last two games being the lowest scores of the year for their opponents. Controlling the glass has become a strength (2nd in defensive rebound rate at 76.2%) and if they can combine low turnovers with defensive glass work they should look to further their 2-game win streak while solidifying their spot in the Final 6.
Matchup to Watch: Anthony Hilliard vs. Marlon Taylor
Franklin Bulls (6-3) vs. Manawatū Jets (3-6) - Sunday, 6pm
The Bulls are a team that makes sure you feel them, rarely letting an opportunity to bump a cutter or set a physical screen pass them by. This effect will only become more palpable with the recently added depth of talent and the soon to return Tyrell Harrison (congrats on the bub!) with the added bonus of greater offensive efficiency, which is key for a team next to the bottom in scoring (83 PPG) and second worst in efficiency (48.8% EFG). The offence will experience a natural uptick with the added shooting but the key will remain a grindy defence that wears opponents down over the course of a 40 minute game. The depth of talent should provide a large advantage as they welcome the Jets for the second leg of their Auckland double.
The Jets have fought gamely up to this point in the season, but dropping 4 out of 5 coming into the weekend puts them in a precarious position. With three wins and six losses it is imperative to grab one of these two games to keep a realistic shot at a postseason run. The formula will depend on the import trio of Blake, Heron and Pippen finding the net with efficiency while avoiding turnovers. With their style of play adverse to giving away possession (best turnover percentage in the league at 12%) but it will be severely tested by the ball hawking defence of the Bulls and league steals leader Rickey McGill. It will most likely come down to efficiency for the Jets, which has been an issue as they sit last in EFG at 49.3%, so upping the volume from three could be an answer for a team that has at times been deadly from deep.
Matchup to Watch: Dan Fotu vs. Danny Pippen II
Southland Sharks (4-6) vs. Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (7-2) - Monday, 5pm
The battle of South is upon us again, with the first matchup dominated in the second half by the Nuggets on their home court thanks to tremendous half court defence. It is unlikely to get any easier for a Southland team that is still trying to find consistency and is in the midst of losing 4 out of 5 by an average of 15 points. Jeremy Kendle (23.3 PPG, 9.5 APG) is still the straw that stirs the drink, but has been hampered of late with double teams forcing his teammates to do the creating, which has proved far less efficient.
The return of Alex Pledger was a boon to the home fans, and heartwarming for all to see but his impact offensively will depend on finding a level of fitness that is a few weeks away yet. But his size will still be impactful defensively, particularly on Sam Timmins, who has dominated smaller opponents throughout the year. The offence hasn’t been a worry for the Sharks, boasting a league best offensive rating of 116.2, less boastful has been the defence, sitting at a league worst 120.4.
Surprisingly, the Nuggets' offence has been sluggish statistically (119.6 ORTG) but the defence (tied for best DRTG 101.9) has created easy opportunities with regularity as Michael Harris and Todd Withers swallow up passing lanes to start fast breaks easing the burden when needed. The signing of Tai Webster is a coup making the defence even more fearsome and creating a powerful backcourt with McLaughlin once he suits up. After losing consecutive games on the home court, a revitalized and healthy Nugs squad will be a difficult task for the Sharks to contend with.
Matchup to Watch: Jeremy Kendle vs. JaQuori McLaughlin
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