Casey’s Corner – Round 9

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The Wellington Saints have found an equilibrium on offence, winning 4 out of 5 including a back-to-back in Round 9 to leap up the standings and sit in fifth spot on the ladder. The offence is untenable, with an offensive rating of 118.5 just eclipsing the Southland Sharks to be crowned the most efficient in the league. While missing Kyle Adnam (17.8 PTS, 9.8 AST) recovered from injury early in the season the Saints found an offence that was gummed up and unable to find rhythm, but since his return has danced most opponents off the floor. His scoring (28.5 PPG over the weekend) has been good but it is his passing (evidenced by a 46% assist percentage) that is keeping the Saints balanced and difficult to defend. But as good as the Saints are playing, the four teams above them (Rams, Tuatara, Nuggets and Bulls) seem to have solid grips on their positions in the top four.

The Franklin Bulls have picked up the offensive efficiency thanks to an influx of shooting, but it is a suffocating, switching defence that has given up more than 90 just once this season (91 in a loss to the Nuggets) that is the foundation for their effectiveness. The Nuggets grip may be the loosest, with three straight losses, but welcoming JaQuori McLaughlin and Tai Webster to the lineup will fix many an ailment, leaving the Canterbury Rams and Auckland Tuatara fighting it out for top spot.  

Led by Jarrad Weeks and early MVP favorite Rob Loe, the Tuatara have been able to rely on a top 6 that has contributed like clockwork while finding success at the rim and from deep. The Rams are perhaps most deserving of flowers, finding consistent wins with a lineup that has seen players come and go with regularity while harnessing an impressive, but still evolving defence that boasts the number two ranked defensive rating (102.6) and league best +11 net rating. Max Darling has featured in some of the most successful lineups in the league, Walter Brown is honing his athleticism to affect games on both ends of the court, Taylor Britt is coming off his best game of the year, Troy Baxter Jr. continues to dominate athletically while Quinn Clinton and Kaia Issac (50% 3PT%) are finding greater levels of contribution off the bench.

However, it is Tevin Brown that is most crucial to the team's success as presently built. His averages are solid (18.5 PTS, 5.3 REB, 3.1 AST, 2.1 STL) but it is his ability to take over games for stretches that has impressed most. His speed with the ball in hand keeps defences focused on his skill set, allowing room for others to operate, while his ball pressure and steal rate (3.2%) has set the tone for an opportunistic defence. A win against the Nelson Giants this week will all but seal a postseason berth, intimidating for a team that has yet to put together their best performance.40 minutes of consistency.  

Worth Mentioning 

Kyle Adnam - Averaging 28.5 points and 11.5 assists over two wins last weekend is more of the same from the talented guard, who continues to bend defences to his will as he manipulates defensive back lines with his blend of scoring and passing.  he 46% assist rate is tops in the league and no guard in the league has a more perfect instrument to play then Adnam’s fit with the personnel around him on the offensive end. 

Dan Fotu - Coming off another double-double (24 PTS, 10 REB), Fotu is starting to play with the efficiency and aggressiveness needed to be a focal point offensively. The early season jitters where he looked unsure of himself seem to be in the rearview, replaced with aggressive one bounce moves to the cup in transition and grind you down effort on the offensive glass. As the perimeter shooting of the Bulls continues to improve, look for Fotu to find more space as the season continues.  

Jarrad Weeks - Tip of the cap to the retiring Weeks, who will be leaving plenty in the tank as he moves onto a coaching career with the Tasmania JackJumpers at the end of the season. Still spry at 33 (two dunks last game!) his energetic play on both ends has acted as a focal point of defensive pressure and a great balance to the play of Rob Loe on the interior. With at least one more piece to add to the arsenal he will look to take the Tuatara offence to greater heights down the stretch.   

Manawatū Jets (3-8) vs. Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (7-3) - Thursday, 7pm 

They still feature as dangerous a trio as exists in the league but, as evidenced by a pair of double-digit losses that got away from them late, the struggle to close out games remains a sore spot. Up three with 5:14 to play against Auckland they managed a solitary point the rest of the way with similar issues against Franklin (four down with six minutes to play) have brought an unforgiving spotlight to the issue. Javion Blake, Mustapha Heron and Danny Pippen II (65.1 points per game combined) obviously stand out statistically, and for the majority of games have their way with opponents, but a drought of creativity down the stretch combines with a lack of scoring punch in the wider group brings focus to the difficulty in closing games. The top end talent can still win games, but winning form needs to be found with immediate effect.

A JaQuori McLaughlin-less Nuggets squad could be just the ailment the Jets need, as the Nuggets come to town after experiencing the eighth worst loss in franchise history. While a drop offensively without one of the most talented offensive players is expected, it was the lack of defensive fortitude that was surprising for a team that had forged a 12-game win streak based on that identity. The defensive rating has dropped by seven points over the last month, indicating this isn’t a one game trend, and a true back to back delivering three games in five days is a brutal stretch of the schedule to try to steady the ship. But smooth sailing has yet to make a skilled sailor and a road double sweep would be just the tonic the Nugs need. 

Matchup to Watch: Mustapha Heron vs. Michael Harris 

Wellington Saints (6-5) vs. Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (7-3) - Friday, 7pm 

The Saints' offence continued to find new heights, averaging 115 per game over two road wins. The depth and versatility continues to stymie defences but a lack of consistent play on defence still being the major concern. This was perhaps most evident this year in the previous matchup with the Nugs, who dropped 103 points shooting 40% from deep while committing only six turnovers. Of particular concern was a lack of communication in transition which made fast breaks (or even slow ones) a source of easy offence for the opposition. Four wins with mostly improved defensive efforts have gotten the Saints back into title contention, but this matchup will determine if a top 4 finish is within their grasp. Controlling the glass will be key, as the Nugs rank second last in total rebounds and second chance opportunities raise their level of efficiency greatly.

With the teams first and second (Otago and Wellington respectively) in turnovers per game, any opportunity for easy buckets will need to be taken advantage of. But the real question is which Nugs squad will show up? A quick turnaround after the Kings Birthday massacre is good for the psyche but bad for prep, especially if they are trying to bring a star guard (or two) into the lineup.  Improved performances from Sam Timmins, Todd Withers (who combined for 29 PTS and 10 REB vs. Southland) and Michael Harris (0-of-8 from 3 vs. Southland) are on the cards, but if McLaughlin isn’t ready to go a greater depth of effort and intensity on the defensive side of the ball will have to be found to keep the Saints engine from running to its full effect. Going into the week this game looks like a barometer for two teams headed in opposite directions, with a win for either solidifying postseason hopes with the business end of the schedule looming. 

Matchup to Watch: Tom Vodanovich vs. Todd Withers  

Southland Sharks (5-6) vs. Steelformers Taranaki Airs (2-8) - Saturday, 5pm 

What does coach Guy Molloy take from a blowout win that featured one way traffic for 35 minutes of play? The offence had already proved to be as potent as any at its best but the addition of Josh Cunningham may offer the positional stability that had been lacking in the first half of the year. With Cunningham and Alex Pledger offering a sturdier presence inside, Grant Anticevich found room in the mid-range while Alonzo Burton torched the 3-point line. The question is, did they find a higher level of two way efficiency, or was this the product of an opposition that Southland has haunted over the years (with 3 of the 8 worst losses the Nuggets have suffered over the years at the teeth of the Sharks)? As well as the offence flowed it seems more a product of the latter than the former, but it should still ignite a flame of confidence as the Sharks head down a home stretch in sole possession of sixth place if they can take care of business against a reloaded Airs squad. 

Despite playing without two starters due to injury (Anzac Rissetto and Armon Fletcher) for 25 minutes the Airs hung tight with a talented Saints squad, before eventually succumbing down the stretch. Kendrick Ray looks an improvement in fit over the departed David Azore but the lack of 3-point efficiency (8-of-25 at 22%), especially when combined with a lack of prowess on the glass (outrebounded 50-to-32). But it was a step in the right direction, and a fully fit Airs squad will be a different beast than has been encountered up to this point of the season. A win on the road in Invercargill will pull the Airs to within two wins of sixth spot and generate a real opportunity to fight for a Final 6 spot down the stretch, but a loss will leave them in the role of spoiler making this a true must win situation. 

Matchup to Watch: Alonzo Burton vs. Anthony Hilliard 

Hawke’s Bay Hawks (5-7) vs. Franklin Bulls (7-3) - Saturday, 7pm 

The Hawks return to the nest in the hopes of not laying another egg for the home crowd, having enjoyed all five victories on the road, including the first of the year against the Bulls. Two vastly different teams will meet on Saturday as the Hawks have found uneven seas of late. High octane offence (37 fourth quarter points against the Rams) is always a threat for the Bay, but so are fits of poor execution and decision making (nine 2nd quarter points vs. Rams). Efficiency and ball control will be key against a stout Bulls defence, but a return to form defensively in their own camp would be just as valuable.

The Hawks have given up at least 95 points in every loss this season, compared to an average of 87.4 in wins, and that thin margin of error (3-4 possessions a game) is still correctable but like all teams outside the six, time to correct those errors is fleeting. Early foul trouble altered the flow of the game in the Hawks last game and they can expect to be tested in a similar manner against an aggressive Bulls team who may still be smarting from the first game of the season where they missed 3-of-5 free throw attempts in the final 13 seconds of regulation before losing in overtime. A collective defence is powered by the pressure of Ricky McGill at the point of attack and Jamaal Brantley as the backline foundation that has held opponents under 86 points in every victory. They are trending in the right direction, and can count on an improved perimeter attack to lift the level of offence from the first meeting.  

Matchup to Watch: Hyrum Harris vs. Dan Fotu 

NBS Nelson Giants (3-8) v Motor Company Canterbury Rams (8-3) - Sunday, 4pm 

The Giants offence has been strong all season, only scoring less than 83 twice, but the defence becomes a bigger concern after giving up 120 to the Saints. Avery Woodson continues to reign terror from deep, with his 47.7% from three second in the league, bending defences to shadow him across the court, but second highest 3-point rate (46.2%) in the league makes that a tough task. Costly turnovers have hurt the effectiveness of their efficiency, with a 14% turnover percentage too high for a team that must win the possession battle to win games. Better work on the boards is part of the equation, and that requires a team effort for the time being.

That effort will need to be supreme against a stout Rams front line that continues to tweak its roster and rotations. Galin Smith proved efficient and physical in his first game, offering another versatile tool to the shed. Tevin Brown pressured the Hawks D at all levels, earning 14 free throws in the process, opening up lanes in transition and on the offensive glass. Their offensive firepower has somewhat overshadowed the second most efficient defence in the league, and that D will most likely force someone other than Avery Woodson to find the bottom of the net. If the Giants have an answer to that question they may very well sneak a home victory, but if not the Final 6 will be all but out of grasp. 

Matchup to Watch: Avery Woodson vs. Tevin Brown 

Auckland Tuatara (8-3) vs. Franklin Bulls (7-3) - Sunday, 6pm 

Only three of the Tuatara’s 11 games have finished farther apart than 12 points, breeding a team that looks comfortable in the clutch and able to call on different weapons when needed. Rob Loe dominates at both ends with newest coaching addition Jarrad Weeks providing the counterbalance on the perimeter. Reuben Te Rangi is humming along at 18.8 PPG at 40% from deep and Cam Gliddon has been healthy behind the stripe at 40.2% for his 14.5 PPG. With newly crowned under 19’s MVP Charlie Dalton and the Tuatara bench contribution continuing to find timely moments to step up they have set themselves up in great position to take advantage of the a Franklin squad, who will be on the second day of a back-to-back.

The Bulls' depth is as well set up as any roster in the league to tackle the challenge. A 24-point Tuatara 2nd half lead evaporated in their first matchup of the season, with the Bulls wearing the Tuatara down late in the game to claim a 5-point overtime victory. This week's Sunday Sesh will decide if Auckland wins the battle of the big smoke to claim its sixth in a row or will Franklin rise up and grab hold of the top rung on the ladder with a pair of road victories. 

Matchup to Watch: Reuben Te Rangi vs. Jamaal Brantley  

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