The Taranaki Steelformers Airs have claimed the No. 1 spot on the ladder for the first time since 1992 with a 98-67 win over the Mike Pero Nelson Giants in New Plymouth.
The Airs jumped out to a 21-11 advantage in front of a sold out crowd at TSB Stadium. Sal's NBL leading scorer Anthony Hilliard wasted no time making his mark on the game with 13 points in the first quarter to lead the early burst.
The Giants' shooting woes appeared to have carried over from Tuesday's loss to the Saints, shooting just 4-of-19 from the field and 2-of-7 from three. Four turnovers were also not helping their case.
Taranaki kept that same energy in the second quarter, outscoring the Giants 19-6 over the first six minutes and making their life miserable on the offensive end with an effective zone defence. Like the Saints on Tuesday night, the Airs deployed a zone defence against Nelson and it worked wonders as the Giants just couldn't hit shots. It's something to keep an eye on, as there's no doubt opposing coaches have been paying attention to the Giants' struggles against the zone and it's something we could see a lot of come the Final 6 next week.
The Airs won the quarter 26-17 and held a dominant 47-28 lead at the half. Hilliard hit 7-of-9 shots (2-of-3 3PT) for 18 points in the first half, helped by Marcel Jones with 14 points and five rebounds. Taranaki shot 52% for the half and were 5-of-11 from distance, but it was their defence that was the most impressive aspect of their performance through 20 minutes of action.
Nelson hit 25% of their shots from the field and were 2-of-14 from beyond the arc in a half to forget. American Jarrod West was doing his best to keep the Giants in it, posting 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting and hitting a pair of 3-pointers. Their next top scorer was Trey Mourning with seven points, but he was just 1-of-7 from the field and missed numerous good looks around the rim.
The Airs were not only deploying a solid zone defence but they were playing hard and forcing the Giants into tough looks, even on close attempts they were making life difficult and it's a big reason why the likes of Mourning struggled to get anything going consistently.
The Giants showed some fight in the third quarter and managed to cut into the deficit slightly, trailing 69-53 heading into the fourth. Javonte Douglas was two assists away from a triple-double at this point with 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, while Hilliard was up to 22 points and Marcel Jones had 19.
It was still a struggle to hit shots with any consistency for the Giants, though, but they had outworked the Airs on the offensive glass through three quarters with a 15-8 advantage there.
The Airs shut the door in the fourth quarter but they never really looked like losing this one. They came out hot and didn't cool off, taking it to the Giants on both ends to earn themselves an impressive home win and all the momentum heading into the Final 6.
Marcel Jones was phenomenal for the Airs tonight with a game-high 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and 4-of-8 from downtown. He's played well in the absence of Tall Black Tai Wynyard, and will have a crucial role off the bench when Wynyard rejoins the team for the Final 6. Hilliard dropped 26 points and Douglas finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in another solid effort from two of the top MVP candidates this season.
The Airs shot 53% for the game and dished out 22 assists. They absolutely love to play with pace and there's not a whole lot of teams that can stop them when they're doing so.
The Giants' imports carried the offensive load tonight and they just didn't get enough support from the others around them. Mourning scored 22, West had 17 and Thompson totaled 14 but their next highest scorer was Alex McNaught and Tyler Marsh with four points a piece.
What a tremendous season it has been for the Airs after their 10th place finish in 2021, turning things around to finish at the top with the Final 6 tipping off next week. They'll know there's still work to be done, though, but locking up the No. 1 spot is crucial as it means they miss Wednesday's play-in games and will get an extra day of rest compared to the other teams at the Final 6.
The Giants will head to Auckland with a pair of road losses to their name in recent weeks, but a pair of losses against arguably two of the hottest teams in the league. Head coach Mike Fitchett will have some work to do to get his team ready and prepared for what will be thrown at them come the semi-finals, which they advance straight through to with their second place finish.
SCORE: Airs 98, Giants 67
Airs: Jones 26 PTS, 4-8 3PT | Hilliard 26 PTS | Douglas 21 PTS, 14 REB, 8 AST
Giants: Mourning 22 PTS, 10 REB | West 17 PTS, 8 AST | Thompson 14 PTS
Full box score HERE.
Stuff MVP Votes
Javonte Douglas (Airs) - 10 votes
Anthony Hilliard (Airs) - 8 votes
Marcel Jones (Airs) - 6 votes
Trey Mourning (Giants) - 4 votes
Jarrod West (Giants) - 2 votes
Round 15 Sal's NBL Schedule