Teams south of the Cook Strait played the part of welcoming hosts in Round 5 of the Sal’s NBL, which failed to see a single home victory registered on the South Island. The Night 'n Day Otago Nuggets did part of the damage as they won their fifth in a row, pulling away from an improved Southland Sharks effort in the fourth quarter of the Southern derby. But the longest winning streak of the season was halted by the Taranaki Steelformers Airs as they too used a fourth quarter flurry to pull away - impressive performances by Anthony Hilliard and a superb closing quarter by Javonte Douglas helped the Airs start a streak of their own (two, but who’s counting, besides me).
Battling less desirable streaks were the Wellington Saints and the Property Brokers Manawatu Jets, with the Saints finding enough form to hold off a spirited Jets comeback and join the win column. The Jets continue to improve while still shy of a complete 40 minute performance and the Saints will welcome a pressure relieving victory while expecting the final roster piece in Xavier Cooks this week.
The Battle of the 09 saw Franklin stay even with the Tuatara for three out of four quarters behind a throwback Leon Henry performance, but an offensive attack led by Taki Fahrensohn (20 PTS) with help from Siler Schneider (17 PTS) was enough to secure victory in a game that proved to be closer than the final scoreline.
The team that truly enjoyed the aforementioned Southern Hospitality on offer (notching their third consecutive road victory) were the Taylor Hawke’s Bay Hawks, who are proving to thoroughly enjoy time away from the nest as contributions roster wide impact games leading to victories. Consistent high level play from the Kiwi contingent continues but it was the arrival of Tajuan Agee that will have the league talking after a buzzer beating game winning shot right off the plane to down the Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams, followed by a game winning performance (19 PTS, 10 REB) as the Hawks were able to wear down a Mike Pero Nelson Giants side missing Trey Mourning.
The Rams will rue their late execution after handing the game winning opportunity to their opponent to conclude a heated battle and the Nelson faithful should remain confident after succumbing down the stretch without the leading scorer in the league. But it is the Hawks, who after their sixth consecutive road game (sixth!!), have navigated one of the toughest stretches on any team's calendar by climbing to the top of the ladder to equal Auckland and Otago on wins. They finally return to the Bay to host their first game since the opening round, but this home stand will offer little respite as they will welcome the Auckland Tuatara in a table topping clash.
Southland Sharks vs. Nelson Giants | Thursday, June 2 @ 7:30pm
Despite coming off a home loss the Sharks should take heart from an improved performance (despite missing leading scorer Mojave King) where the team responded with improved physicality behind Winston Shepard III (14 PTS, 12 REB, 3 BLK) and Dom Kelman-Poto (19 PTS, 16 REB). But a lack of attention to detail was highlighted by 6-of-18 performance from the free throw line and 24 percent shooting from three. This week the Giants come to town having feasted on opponents' mistakes (leading the league in steals and turnover margin) behind the defensive pressure provided by the Jarrod West/Alex McNaught backcourt. West is becoming more confident offensively as the season continues and with the expected return of Trey Mourning the round will start off with a tightly contested affair that should observe Southland playing with at least the hint of desperation.
Canterbury Rams vs. Wellington Saints | Friday, June 3 @ 7:30pm
The Rams will look to be less gracious hosts in Round 6 after handing a game winning opportunity to the Hawks in the final seconds of their last hit out. Despite the error down the stretch the Cantabrians are moving in the right direction.
Max Darling is coming is playing his best basketball of the season as his efficiency rises with his fitness levels and Sunday Dech has shown growth in his all around game (18.6 PTS, 6 REB, 4.4 AST) to match his defensive prowess while Matur Maker has proven to be an excellent addition whose role will only grow. The Rams will play host to the Saints for their second match of the year hoping to dominate on the interior as was the case previously.
Wellington has improved offensively since their last meeting and will be hoping that the arrival of Xavier Cooks will complete their roster. If not an improved defensive effort will have to be found in the current core as the Saints are last in opponents points per game (97.8 PPG, and yes pace has something to do with it but that is a lot) and field goal percentage defence (opponents shooting 55% from two and 43% from three!). The solution to this lack of defensive fortitude can easily be found with the current roster, but will take a commitment of effort and a cohesion that the team has been lacking up to this point. If the Saints find a higher level of intensity on the defensive end the game could be theirs for the taking, but if not the margin for error for the remainder of the season will all but evaporate.
Hawkes Bay Hawks vs. Auckland Tuatara | Saturday, June 4 @ 5:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)
The Hawks return to the nest as the hottest team in the league and the exact opposite of road weary, having won 5-of-6 and three on the trot. The additions of Jarrod Kenny and Tajuan Agee have seamlessly blended into the lineup adding greater versatility and depth to one of the fastest lineups in the league. Tall Blacks Hyrum Harris and Ethan Rusbatch were expected to power the engine once again but the improved consistency of Jordan Hunt (16.2 PPG, 8.4 REB) and Derone Ruakawa (17.8 PPG, 5.2 AST) on the defensive end has enabled the Hawks to turn the screws when the offence isn’t its high octane best - which is a good thing as the Tuatara come to town boasting the league's biggest and best defence (first in: scoring margin, scoring defence, field goal percentage defence).
The Hawks stole one in the Lizards Lair in their first match up (75-74) despite a gritty fourth quarter comeback from a 13-point deficit whose final result will justifiably give both teams confidence coming into the week. Will the addition of Dan Fotu and some Siler Schneider practice time be enough to hold on to the top spot? Or will the Hawks' defence feast on physicality and ball pressure while igniting the transition game in the return to the Bay? Either way this game has the feeling of a heavyweight fight that regardless of the outcome will have another chapter left to conclude a very entertaining saga.
Otago Nuggets vs. Nelson Giants | Saturday, June 4 @ 7:30pm
The Nuggets were flying high on a 5-game winning streak and eyeing their seat on top of the ladder, but then the Airs pulled the chair out from under them as Otago found little left in the tank to combat the revamped Taranaki offence down the stretch. The game was never out of reach but a team that has become accustomed to finding a higher gear was done in by poor 3-point shooting (6-of-29 at 20%) and a quizzical lack of communication and effort down the stretch. The offence should bounce back, but a lack of confidence in the bench will continue to put pressure to execute down the stretch on a fatigued starting unit.
To bounce back they will have to overcome a similarly motivated Nelson Giants coming off a loss in which they were without the service of the league's leading scoring Trey Mourning. Jarrod West has secured the role as a second scoring option but more punch will be needed versus the multi-faceted talent of Otago. Judicious decision making means the Giants don’t beat themselves, but to come away with the road victory they will need improved effort on the glass while containing the transition game which is easier said than done against the league's most talented starting five.
Franklin Bulls vs. Manawatu Jets | Sunday, June 5 @ 3pm
The Bulls return to the Stockyard hoping to end a 3-game skid but will be buoyed by an improved overall effort and the impending return of Corey Webster. Webster will add scoring punch to an offence desperate for it (last at 70,2 PPG) while also drawing defensive attention away from Jayden Bezzant, who will enjoy more freedom with improved scoring on the wing. If the Bulls are able to increase a league worst offensive output while finding the physical defence from the early season (9th in FG% defense at 45%, and 3pt FG% defense at 36%) a run for the Top-6 will still be at hand.
Hoping to disrupt that strategy will be the Jets who, while winless, have shown a refusal to go down without a fight since completing their roster. The effort has been nice but results are the goal and with Robert Crawford (18 PPG) and Shane Temara (19 PPG) on the wing while Zane Najdawi and John Bohannon bolster the interior the Jets have enough to collect a few scalps, with the only remaining question being who’s the first victim? The team that most imprints their preferred style of play on the game (the grindy physicality of the Bulls, the desire for space and pace of the Jets) will most likely end up the victor.
Taranaki Airs vs. Wellington Saints | Sunday, June 5 @ 5pm (I’ve got my eye on)
The Airs will hope that TSB stadium will continue to act as a fortress as they hunt a third consecutive victory. The impact of the import duo of Douglas and Hilliard has been immediate, forcing defences to change their “pack the paint’ mentality creating opportunities for the entire offence. But it is the physicality of the Airs that has been most important to victory as they have demolished opponents on the glass while laying claim to the league's best offensive rebounding percentage (33%). And this interior strength will challenge the Saints as they come to town on the second leg of their double header. Wellington will hope to find space in transition but will have to improve upon its league worst rebounding differential (-10.6 RPG) to have any success on the break. In this game of contrasting styles the team that imprints its identity on the game will find itself in the winners circle.
Auckland Tuatara vs. Manawatu Jets | Monday, June 6 @ 3pm
As both teams will be enjoying the second leg of a double header fatigue shouldn’t be the determining factor. What will be a factor is the lack of pressure being applied by the Jets who are last in the league in steals at four per game. If the Jets fail to create pressure on the ball the frontline of Chris Johnson, Rob Loe and Dan Fotu will eat up possession on the defensive glass while relentlessly attack the O boards. While Bohannon can have an impact for the Jets in this area it will take a as yet unrealised collective effort from the Jets to find some points against the league's best defence.