You may think that you’ve tuned into Stranger Things as you view the upside down of the Sal’s NBL ladder, but no this isn’t some fantasy. Rather, the new normal of a spirited competition where all teams are weary of whatever opponent comes to town.
Round 8 kicked off as the Auckland Tuatara bid Chris Johnson (23 points, nine rebounds) bon-voyage only to have Tray Boyd III and the Otago Nuggets spoil the party in a game where the benches combined for a total of two points.
The Franklin Bulls and Nelson Giants relied on teamwide contributions and big performances from star guards Corey Webster (28 points, 13 assists, five steals) and Jarrod West (35 points, 10 assists) respectively to protect their home courts in comeback wins over a Wellington Saints team whose season gets more threadbare with each loss, despite the best shooting efforts of Tom Vodanovich (19.6 PPG and 40.6% 3PT). Guy Molloy has now paid the price for the early season swoon, but will this enable the players to find the rhythm needed to chase a place in the finals?
Neither the Canterbury Rams and Southland Sharks were able to defend the home court against the surging Manawatū Jets. Despite struggling to find consistent form, the Rams remain in the hunt and can continue to depend on standout performances from Sunday Dech (30 points, eight steals), but the Sharks may look back on this weekend as the final straw in what is turning into a lost season besieged by issues beyond the teams control. The Jets aren’t concerned with what’s being left in their slipstream, as they rode the high post facilitation of John Bohannon (averaging 16 points, 17 rebounds, six assists in the last two games) and low post play of Zane Najdawi (averaged 14 points and 13 rebounds on the weekend) to their fourth win in five games to boost their confidence in hunting a postseason berth.
The Hawke’s Bay Hawks will also be feeling confident in pulling equal to the top of the table with their seventh win, using a dominant rebounding performance to provide the fuel for their transition game to take advantage of a travel fatigued Tai Wynyard-less Taranaki Airs team. The Airs will look to the addition of Shaun Willett and the return of Wynyard to understand that their best is yet to come while the Hawks have once again showcased their overall talent with five starters scoring in double figures in a game where they dominated the glass and scored 25 assists on 42 buckets. This multifaceted approach continues to give the Hawks options galore.
Otago Nuggets vs. Canterbury Rams | Thursday, June 23 @ 7:30pm
The Nuggets come off a game in which Tray Boyd was seamlessly inserted into the lineup, looking like an improvement on the recently departed Taj McCall. If he can continue to walk the line between scoring threat while keeping his teammates involved (four out of five starters scored in double figures in his first game out), the Nuggies multifaceted 3-level attack will continue to be difficult for the opposition to slow down if they can continue to take care of the rock.
The Rams will be visiting the gold mine to kick off the action this week following a disappointing game where they were unable to defend the 3-point line and were overpowered inside by a team that relies on its starters much the same as the Nuggets. Sunday Dech is coming off another monster game on both ends of the court and leads the league in minutes played but can’t do it alone. The interior combo of Max Darling and Mike Karena will need to swamp Sam Timmins inside while also defending the 3-point prowess of Todd Withers to lay the foundation for a Rams victory, but it will be the defence of Taylor Britt and Dech on Tray Boyd that will determine the outcome for the Rams' first road game of the weekend.
Auckland Tuatara vs. Nelson Giants | Friday, June 24 @ 7:30pm
The Tuatara come into Round 9 a new team that will have to forge an adjusted identity with half of their twin towers departed. Combined with an extended, if not season long, absence for Dan Fotu and one of the deepest frontcourts in the league suddenly isn’t. The rebounding and interior efficiency will take a dip, but the key is where the team turns to find answers.
Siler Schneider played his best ball since arriving in the second half versus the Nuggets, and Dontae Russo-Nance and Taki Fahrensohn have been able when the ball goes through their hands in limited opportunities. Rob Loe will now become the focal point of the offence, but it will be how and where the support comes from that will determine if they stumble down the stretch or glide into the finals.
Nelson will come to town making those adjustments more difficult with their ball hawking defence and balanced offensive attack. Look for Trey Mourning to impact the game with less length to contend with but it will be his and the Sam’s (Dempster and Thompson) rebounding that will be key to the Giants' fortunes. Control the glass and harass the ball handlers with pressure from Jarrod West and Alex McNaught and they will be on their way to victory and evening up the season series, but slip up in any area and the lizards will defend their lair.
Taranaki Airs vs. Manawatu Jets | Saturday, June 25 @ 5:30pm
As they await the return of Tai Wynyard, Taranaki will showcase a slightly different identity that will rely on speed and defensive pressure to create shots from its talented import trio. Shaun Willett looks good for a double-double everytime out and will fit in nicely with the shooting of Anthony Hilliard and the two-way play of Javonte Douglas, but it will be their defensive prowess and ability to block out that will determine wins and losses. They were determined on the ball in their last outing and will have to continue that trend as they welcome the reinvigorated Jets to town following a weekend where they averaged 10 more rebounds than their opponents. If Bohannon and the Jets can continue their patient (and relatively turnover free) play they will be in place to steal a huge one on the road. But if the pace of the Airs allows them to overcome their rebounding malaise (outrebounded by 13 last time out) and control the possession game they will be well on their way to victory.
Southland Sharks vs. Canterbury Rams | Saturday, June 25 @ 7:30pm
The Sharks will be hoping for friendlier bounces in the Shark Tank following a game in which they only mustered 26% shooting from three (8-of-30) while getting outrebounded by 17 which fueled a third quarter run for the visitors. As the season spirals away, Southland will hope that a week of training for guard Daishon Knight will give him enough familiarity with the offence to get things back on track despite another week away for Dom Kelman-Poto. In his absence the squad will have to come together to shore up a rebounding attack with the hope that winning the possession game will help a defence that has been hemorrhaging points (allowing 89.2 PPG) of late. While the Rams will be on the second leg of a road double header, fatigue shouldn’t be a factor with a day off to travel between games leaving no room for excuses. A win will solidify Cantabrian finals position, but a loss will see them on the outside looking in and hand a little gleam of hope to a Southland team that is desperate for it.
Wellington Saints vs. Franklin Bulls | Sunday, June 26 @ 3pm (I've got my eye on)
Guy Molloy has paid the price for a poor start by the Saints, but will a change of coaches help Wellington find a bit of defensive fortitude? After all it wasn’t the coach who allowed opponents to score 94.4 PPG and a -4.30 count in rebounding margin (both worst in the league), but a change to Mr. Saint himself, Troy McLean, may be just the breath of fresh air this team needs to shine. Offensively it would help if the attack was able to find a bit more balance from inside and outside the 3-point arc while making sure all five players on the court are involved. But the real issue is the defence and a lack of ability to keep opposition wings out of the paint. Time to tweak is limited, though, with the rampaging Bulls coming to town with a three-game winning streak where the addition of Corey Webster has exceeded most expectations.
While his prodigious scoring has drawn defensive attention that has failed to slow him down (27.7 PPG) but it has allowed his passing to unlock higher efficiencies in the half court without taking away from a physical defence (allowing 75.8 PPG, best in the comp) that makes scoring on the interior difficult. This rematch from a week ago allows no margin of error for a Saints team that will watch its season go out the door along with a Bulls victory if they can’t protect their home court.
Hawke's Bay Hawks vs. Nelson Giants | Sunday, June 26 @ 5pm (I've got my eye on)
The Hawks finally found some form in the nest, with a buzzer to buzzer performance in which they were never truly threatened. Featuring a balanced attack, where all five starters average double figures, has kept opponents off balance and an improved commitment to the defensive glass has ignited a league best transition attack. The rebounding is a product of tremendous team defence, holding opponents to 42% shooting overall and just 27% from the 3-point line (first in the league), but that defence will be severely tested with the Giants (leading the league in 3-point percentage at 35%) coming to town.
The Giants were held to 36% shooting while getting smashed on the glass by 18 in their home loss to the Hawks, but will be strengthened with the presence of Trey Mourning (out with illness last time). If, on the second leg of a back-to-back, they can overcome fatigue and counter the physical inside play of the Hawks they could be looking at a victory and a position on top of the ladder. If not the Hawks can solidify their hold on the top spot and the home court advantage in the finals that comes with it.