The Nelson Giants have become the most unwanted guests in the Sal’s NBL this year, barging into opposition gyms and taking advantage of the hosts to the tune of five victories and zero defeats, with none being bigger then the two just collected against two teams that also were vying for the top of the table. But the summit is now theirs alone after two closely fought road battles where fourth quarter execution and prowess from behind the arc delivered single digit victories on the Auckland/Hawke's Bay road double.
The Hawks will rue the 21 offensive rebounds they surrendered but leave the loss confident they can bounce back with a quick turnaround as they head out onto the road where they have found a bit more comfort this season, even without the services of a couple of Tall Blacks. But following another tight defeat, the Tuatara’s grip on the top of the ladder gets more slippery by the day after suffering their fourth straight loss. As the Giants find themselves with a small amount of wiggle room, the rest of the league continues the chase with no team completely out of the pursuit of the top six just yet, but the time for crossing off names will soon be upon us.
Round 9 sprung to life with the Canterbury Rams continuing their theme park ride of a season with a stout defensive performance where they eliminated the 3-point shot for the Nuggets before losing their coaching staff to a gastro pub (or gastro bug, I didn’t want details and pub is more pleasant) for a one point loss to the Sharks (and this play of the week from Mojave King). In games with wider score lines, but an equal amount of highlights, the Airs overwhelmed the Jets and the Saints hope to have jump started their season with a vengeful victory over the Bulls.
Manawatu Jets vs. Hawke's Bay Hawks | Tuesday, June 28 @ 7:30pm
The Jets came crashing back to earth to end their winning streak as 20 turnovers led to easy baskets and a wave of transition opportunities against the Airs. When they have been at their best they have slowed the pace and controlled the possession game by limiting turnovers and controlling the glass and forcing teams to operate in the half court.
Against a full strength Hawks team that would be a tough task, but with Hyrum Harris and Ethan Rusbatch at Tall Blacks Camp it becomes more achievable. The depth will be tested but a return to form for Jordan Hunt would pick up much of the missing slack. A quick turnaround and a short bench will be difficult to overcome on the road, even for the road tested Hawks (5-1 on the road).
Southland Sharks vs. Auckland Tuatara | Friday, July 1 @ 7:30pm
The Sharks will have been relieved to stop their slide in a close contest at home where the collective stepped up in the absence of Dom Kelman-Poto. Better balance was a feature in a scoring attack led by Mojave King scoring (26 points) and Daishon Knight’s facilitation (10 assists) despite being dominated on the glass (outrebounded 45-36 including 17 offensive).
Despite the expected return of DKP, Auckland will try to make that an issue with Rob Loe (who dominated the glass against the Giants with 19 rebounds) leading the way, but he will need teamwide support in that area. Siler Schneider delivered an efficient and effective performance (27 points, six rebounds and eight assists) but the minutes load on him and the young Dontae Russo-Nance isn’t ideal (as they enjoyed less than 3 minutes off the court between them). The Tuatara can expect a physical response to their young team once the ball is in the air as the Sharks are still fighting for their playoff lives and showed they have plenty of fight left, but the Tuatara will have to be the more desperate team if this suddenly young squad is to stop their four-game skid.
Nelson Giants vs. Taranaki Airs | Saturday, July 2 @ 5:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)
Nelson have returned unblemished from the road once again and are enjoying contributions from across the roster while leaning heavily on the starting five with West, Mourning and Thompson leading from the front game after game while Dempster's heroics will soon become legends etched in stone, or at least mentioned at the Sprig & Fern, but it will be the defensive efforts of the Alex McNaught/Jarrod West backcourt and their ability to slow down starter Anthony Hilliard and super sub Shaun Willett that may ultimately define the parameters for victory.
While Taranaki won't be able to overpower Nelson’s frontcourt as they did against the Jets, their ability to push the pace in transition can test the Giants, but those opportunities will be few and far between as Nelson commits few live ball turnovers from which a fastbreak can ignite. But controlling the possession game will be more difficult with the expected return of Tai Wynyard. Barely holding on to the sixth position, the Airs need the win to keep pace with the teams they are chasing while giving themselves a bit of breathing room.
Franklin Bulls vs. Canterbury Rams | Saturday, July 2 @ 7:30pm
The Franklin Bulls were unable to keep pace with a reinvigorated Saints team who outscored them by 28 over the second and third quarter. The Bulls were unable to find the range from three (8-for-33 for 24%) while being outmuscled on the glass which kept them from having as much input on the pace as they would have liked, when combined with allowing 54% shooting from the field for the opposition. Giddy Potts and Corey Webster carried the offensive load with little input from elsewhere on the roster and to get the win this week a wider spread will be required.
The expected return of Jayden Bezzant will offer a third ball handling threat, but there could be some time required to smoothly blend together, and with the Rams coming to town that time might not be available. The Rams are coming off a 1-1 weekend on the road which could have been different had they not lost their coaching staff to illness or the presence of Max Darling to concussion. The Rams will need to replicate their suffocating defense beyond the arc from their victory against the Nuggets who were held to 3-of-28 from deep while still controlling the paint. A win is vital for both teams with the finals calling, and depending on results a win could catapult either team into the top 4, but a loss at this stage in the season may have more drastic effects as the end of the regular season looms.
Otago Nuggets vs. Auckland Tuatara | Sunday, July 3 @ 3pm
The Nuggets probably would have liked to get on the court a bit sooner than Sunday following their poor shooting performance last time out, but the extra time should allow for a seamless re-integration of Nikau McCullough as he returns from 3x3 Tall Blacks duty, and his 3-point prowess will be appreciated. There will be hope he will help rebalance the shot distribution more evenly, but the real bonus will be the defensive jump the team will make finally back at full strength. Outside of making shots, controlling the glass will be paramount to achieving any objectives and Sam Timmins will be counted on for the yeoman-like work required there as the Tuatara visit the gold mine.
Auckland will be mindful that despite a dominant early season their place in the Top 6 is far from guaranteed, and coming into the second leg of the deep south double fatigue will certainly be a factor for a squad that has been essentially playing six. But despite the current losing streak they are not far off the mark, with the four losses by a combined 12 points, indicating improved execution down in the clutch by a young team would have a real impact on results. Rob Loe has been excellent on the glass but will need to be more prudent with his decisions as the offence turns to him down the stretch of games. With limited depth available, the starting five will have to find a way to keep up the level of intensity for an entire 40 minutes on the road in a cold and hostile environment despite their inexperience (did I mention the cold?).
Wellington Saints vs. Taranaki Airs | Sunday, July 3 @ 5pm (I’ve got my eye on)
The Saints were happy to welcome the Bulls to the waterfront and get a wee bit of payback for a second half collapse a week earlier, and improved shot selection led to 68% from inside the arc coupled with a more balanced attack from deep. This was the Saints at their grab-and-go best with players capable of initiating transition opportunities at every position. Xavier Cooks continues to impress with all around performances while Tom Vodanovich continues to shine with his varied skill set, but the Saints go as Mike Smith goes, with his percentages from three and assist to turnover ratio acting as a barometer for the teams performance.
As such the visiting Airs should be looking to apply pressure to the point guard in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of the outcome from their first meeting (a Saints victory behind a dominant Smith performance). With the second leg of their double occurring on consecutive days fatigue would normally be a problem, but with the return of Wynyard this is a squad that will comfortably go nine deep when called upon. This will be the first time they meet at full strength (with Willett being added to the mix since the last meeting) and on paper this looks like two very evenly matched teams both of whom are desperate for wins to solidify finals chances. The Airs desperation will probably depend on the result from the night before (as 1 out of 2 is required to keep pace), but the Saints have no margin for error and a loss here would all but end the defending champs hopes for another title run.