As Round 9 gets underway in the Sal's NBL we have officially entered the final third of the 2021 season, which means the 10 teams have turned the corner for the dash to the Final 4.
Let's take a look at the contenders still in the running to make it all the way to Porirua on July 22/23.
SIT Zero Fees Southland Sharks
Record: 10 wins / 3 losses
Coming Up: Huskies (H), Rams (A), Hawks (H), Nuggets (H), Rams (H).
The Sharks are the competition's in-form team with a current 8-game winning streak, and four of their remaining five games are to be played at the Shark Tank. Interestingly, all remaining games are against teams battling to make the Final 4, making the run home for the Sharks must-watch basketball. The Sharks will make the Final 4, it would take a dramatic fall in form from here so lock them in, but can they keep top spot and carry the valuable top-seeding into the biggest event of the season?
Taylor Hawke's Bay Hawks
Record: 9 wins / 3 losses
Coming Up: Bulls (H), Saints (A), Nuggets (A), Sharks (A), Airs (H), Jets (H).
The Hawks are finally at full-strength and look like a team on a mission. A recent win over the Saints gives them the upper edge (currently) over the 2019 champions, but we'll get another look at that rivalry this weekend. The run home for the Hawks includes the 'Southern Swing' ahead of what should be an easier final two rounds against the Airs and Jets, both of which aren't in contention for the Final 4. All up, hard to see the Hawks missing the big dance based on current form, but games against the Saints, Nuggets and Sharks will be key factors on what shape the top spots take by the completion of the regular season.
Record: 9 wins / 2 losses
Coming Up: Hawks (H), Giants (A), Airs (A), Jets (A), Nuggets (H), Bulls (A), Huskies (A).
The Saints still have seven games remaining, and a shifting schedule due to the recent Covid-19 situation in the nation's capital, however such is the class of this team they could conquere all games from here and still take top spot on the ladder. The game against the Hawks this week is crucial, both from a winning perspective, but also head-to-head with the Hawks currently holding a +6pts advantage. The trip to Nelson is a danger game given the Giants need to keep winning to keep their Final 4 hopes alive, while clashes with the Nuggets and Huskies are also likely to impact on who is heading to Porirua. Key thing for the Saints is they will be at the Final 4.
Go Media Otago Nuggets
Record: 8 wins / 5 losses
Coming Up: Huskies (H), Hawks (H), Sharks (A), Saints (A), Rams (H).
Easily the toughest run home of any Final 4 contender, the Nuggets do have four games at home, but every contest is against a contender. There are no gimmes here. The schedule ahead includes a trip to Southland and to Wellington, in the same round! This week's clash with the Huskies is crucial, for both teams, and could be the start (or end) of an intriguing path to the Final 4 for the Nuggets. The 2020 Showdown Champions have surprised plenty of people this season, but if they can keep Sam Timmins, Isaiah Moss and Geremy McKay on the court they remain a genuine chance to be in Porirua.
Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams
Record: 7 wins / 6 losses
Coming Up: Jets (A), Sharks (H), Giants (H), Sharks (A), Nuggets (A).
Following a win against the Bulls to open R9, the Rams are well and truly in the Final 4 hunt, especially with Jack Salt and Max Darling both in the line-up. The run home for the Rams will be anything but easy, and they can ill-afford to slip at any stage. First up they must get past the Jets, then they face challenging games against the Sharks and Giants, before the finish the regular season with the 'Southern Swing' to play the Sharks and Nuggets. This is a super tough schedule, especially with two games against the Sharks still to come, and battles against two teams in a similar position - Giants, Nuggets. Believe it or not, every game from here will be like a final for the Rams.
Sky Tower Auckland Huskies
Record: 6 wins / 6 losses
Coming Up: Sharks (A), Nuggets (A), Giants (A), Jets (A), Airs (H), Saints (H).
Put simply, the Huskies cannot afford to lose! Still clinging to the hope of making the Final 4, the Huskies face a challenging dash to line with crucial games this weekend against the Sharks and Nuggets. If they do manage to secure two wins on the 'Southern Swing' they could end up being a darkhorse for the finals, but they might still need to get over the line against one or both of the Giants and Saints. It's a tough road for the Huskies.
Mike Pero Nelson Giants
Record: 5 wins / 7 losses
Coming Up: Saints (H), Huskies (H), Bulls (H), Rams (A), Airs (A), Jets (A).
The Giants arguably have a good run to the finals, but they have made it far more difficult given recent losses at home to the Jets and Nuggets. If they do hope to make the trip to Porirua the Giants cannot afford to lose a single game from here, that's what it will take. The delayed clash against the Saints (now being played on Wednesday June 30 at 6:30pm) is easily the most critical and will either set the Giants up or bring them crashing down. All other games are winnable, if the Giants bring their best - which they'll need to do!
EnviroNZ Franklin Bulls
Record: 4 wins / 10 losses
Coming Up: Hawks (A), Airs (H), Giants (A), Saints (H).
It's been a wretched run for the Bulls, both in the wins column and with injuries. Though they have shown some promise in their first full Sal's NBL season, they just havent had the depth to deliver the goods, especially when injuries hit mid-season. The run home looks tough, perhaps punctuated by an opportunity to deliver their rousing home fans with a win against the Airs. But outside of that clash, getting past the Hawks, Giants and Saints (on current form) is a big ask.
Property Brokers Manawatu Jets
Record: 3 wins / 9 losses
Coming Up: Airs (A), Rams (H), Huskies (H), Saints (H), Hawks (A), Giants (H).
It's been a season of missed opportunity for the Jets, but they could prove to be the thorn in the side for a number of Final 4 aspirants. With six games still in hand the Jets play five teams with the dream of making it to Porirua, so their focus right now should be on making life tough for all five. Games against the Rams, Huskies and Giants could all be crucial to make-up of the Final 4. All up a tough season for the Jets given they assembled a good roster with high hopes.
Steelformers Taranaki Airs
Record: 1 win / 11 losses
Coming Up: Jets (H), Saints (H), Bulls (A), Hawks (A), Huskies (A), Giants (H).
While the win/loss record doesn't paint a pretty picture for the Airs, off the court the team has done a resounding job of lifting crowd numbers and a good media presence, both good signs for the future as they push to build around local Kiwi talent. The flipside is they just haven't had the talent or depth to build more wins this season. The one victory came against the Nuggets (minus Sam Timmins), which ultimately might be the loss that leaves the Nuggets short of the Final 4. The run home for the Airs is obviously tough given every team is above them, but there are some winnable games amongst them, including clashes with the Jets and Bulls.
(Photo Credits: PhotosportNZ)