Can the Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams do the unthinkable and win the Sal's NBL Showdown from last position on the ladder?
It's not as unthinkable as one might imagine, the opportunity (at least) is there, but it will take an incredible turn of health and durability, a full week of top team basketball, and no doubt a slice of good fortune along the way.
It will also take four wins in five days!
The opportunity exists via the League's Top-7 finals series, a system that is weighted towards favouring the teams that have finished highest on the ladder, but nonetheless all seven teams do have a shot at winning the title and that means the Rams and their fans do have a glimmer of hope.
The Rams started the 2020 season in a blaze of glory, claiming three consecutive wins and ending the opening week on top of the ladder. It was a sharp start, filled with up-tempo hoops and a well-drilled system that every player was in sync with.
Everyone expected the Rams to jump out of the blocks, but with top draft picks Jack Salt and Joe Cook-Green sidelined by injuries they had suffered prior to the competition, more than a few people were now turning their heads at just how slick the Rams looked and were suitably impressed by the young players who had stepped up - such as Toby Gillooly, Sam Smith, Alex Talma, and the already established star Taylor Britt.
All of a sudden people were also talking about Mason Whittaker, Tom Webley, Ben Carlile-Smith, Mac Stodart and Jack Exeter. All of them teenagers and making their top-flight NBL debut.
However, as quickly as the praise was coming, so too did a run of head-colds and a bit of the flu, which quickly pushed the Rams into trying to muster enough healthy bodies to put a team together. On a number of occasions the mad scramble to get a team together had the Rams reducing training hours and workloads, instead having players rest in their rooms in an effort to shake the sniffles.
With the League's very strict health protocols during Covid-19, it also meant daily health checks, and reporting. The Rams seemed to be constantly reporting in to League management about illness more so than they were providing team lists or preparing for a game.
A couple of ankle tweaks along with some bumps and bruises quickly impacted on the team, the young chargers looked the worse for wear and those early run of wins soon became a string of unwanted losses.
Although the outside world wasn't any the wiser, the Rams also had a minor heart-flutter when it emerged four of their players were in an inner-city Auckland supermarket at the same time as a person who had escaped from a nearby hotel whilst undergoing quarantine. The League moved quickly to speak with the health authorities and ensure every protocol was being followed to look after the players and ensure the competition wasn't put in jeopardy.
Again, just another hurdle for the Rams, but one they took in their stride.
So, almost as quickly as they raced to the top of the ladder, the Rams had then sunk to the foot of the table after suffering ten consecutive losses, many coming in agonising fashion as they found themselves overrun late in games by healthier opponents.
Impressively, the Rams took it in their stride, they remained together and battled hard every time they stepped on the court. Quintin Bailey joined the team to replace Joe Cook-Green and quickly settled, being asked to play heavy minutes and promptly delivering. Soon enough more support would arrive in the form of a Tall Black, but he too would suffer from illness (read on for details).
And then, right on cue, almost as if it had been perfectly planned and timed to perfection by coach Mick Downer, the Rams claimed an 85-64 win over the EnviroNZ Franklin Bulls in their last regular season game. It left the Rams with a 4-10 record, still rooted to the foot of the ladder, but now armed with some winning form and confidence ahead of Finals Week.
In the timely win, late-season inclusion Reuben Te Rangi had returned from his own bout of illness and dropped 26pts in 27 minutes, a sign that he is ready to deliver when it most matters. Taylor Britt (16pts) also looked to be back to full health, and Toby Gillooly enjoyed another solid run after missing three weeks with an ankle injury.
While the Rams were winning against the Bulls on the court, the conversations swirling around Trusts Arena off the court centred around whether or not this new-look and healthy Rams outfit could do the unthinkable and go from dead last all the way to claiming the 2020 title?
Some do think they now loom as a more than capable 'danger side' with the ability to cause more than a few headaches, and perhaps some upsets along the way.
The fact is there is certainly a path open to them for that to happen, but it is a very hard path that is both cut-throat in nature and filled with lots of obstacles.
If the Rams were to do the unthinkable and go from zero to hero, it will take four wins in five days, including an unprecedented run of winning three games in three days. No team has faced a stretch with as many games during the 2020 season, let alone had to win every time they step on court in order to remain in the competition.
Can the Rams do it? We're about to find out with Finals Week upon us.
To win the Sal's NBL Showdown, here's what the Rams must do;
Tuesday July 28 - defeat the Mike Pero Nelson Giants
Wednesday July 29 - defeat the Auckland Huskies
Thursday July 30 - defeat either the Fluid Recruitment Otago Nuggets or Property Brokers, See Me Media Manawatu Jets
Win the Grand Final!