Just when it looked like the Sal’s NBL was settling into a comfortable rhythm, along came Round 7 and a new normal where teams are able to change addresses from Struggle Street to Postseason Place in the space of a week.
Following Round 8, every team in the league can point to an achievable path to the postseason. Parity is the new normal where the team at the bottom of the ladder can knock off the table toppers less than a week after going down by 30! But with the business end of the season approaching, consistency of performance will be key and those able to maintain top level play will be the lucky ones.
No team found stability quicker then the Franklin Bulls, who snapped a 4-game losing streak by snatching two from two on a South Island double that was highlighted by the debut of Corey Webster (averaged 27.5 PPG and 7.5 APG in the round) and bruising performances by Leon Henry (where does he hide his time machine?).
Despite improved road performances, the Southland Sharks were unable to make a similar leap up the standings as commanding second half performances by the Hawks (led by Jordan Hunt with 32 points) and Saints (led by Mike Smith 30 points and Xavier Cooks 24 points, 24 rebounds!) kept them on the outside looking in. Both victors will be glad to have taken care of business on their home courts on a weekend when the unexpected was routine.
And nothing is more surprising then the Auckland Tuatara coming out of the weekend with two losses despite going in as overwhelming favorites. The first of two nail biting finishes was supplied by the Taranaki Airs and Anthony Hilliard (brilliant and efficient with 34 points on 8-of-13 from three) who paced the Airs from beginning to game winner.
An all around Javonte Douglas performance (16 PTS, 16 REB, 8 AST) helped keep Taranaki on track despite double figures from 4-of-5 Tuatara starters. But in the loooongest of shots the Manawatu Jets fought for 40 minutes and snatched revenge for a 28-point defeat just six days earlier. Huge second halves from Zane Najdawi (31 points) and Shane Temera (23 points) were facilitated by an impressive John Bohannon performance (nine points, 17 boards, 12 dimes) in which he also hit the game winner!
The closing of Round 7 marks the halfway point of the 15-round regular season and we find the league tighter than it has been in memory where no team is more than two wins outside of the playoff picture and three losses off the top of the table, reminding all teams that it's how you finish that will matter this year.
Auckland Tuatara vs. Otago Nuggets | Thursday, June 16 @ 7:30pm
A disappointing weekend has turned more ominous with the news that the prodigious talents of Chris Johnson (18.9 PPG, 12.9 RPG) will be departing our shores, making his final appearance all the more important to secure.
Trying to send him off without a victory party will be the well rested Nuggets coming off a bye where they were searching for their own solutions to a departed player key to its defensive integrity. How they replace Tahjere McCall on both ends will be key for a team that was top three in the league in field goal percentage offence and defence with him guiding things. While the performance of Todd Withers and Sam Timmins will be key in countering the pairing of Rob Loe and Chris Johnson, it will be the ability of a revamped backcourt to apply pressure on their counterparts that will be the deciding factor in the opening match of the round.
Nelson Giants vs. Wellington Saints | Friday, June 17 @ 7:30pm
Homecourt turned out to be an unforgiving landing spot for the Nelson Giants following a 3-game road winning streak as the offence failed to fire with the efficiency needed (33% FG, 6-of-27 3PT) to overcome a gritty Franklin defence despite taking relative care of the basketball. Their ability to keep the opposition off the glass will be severely tested (highlighted by the Vodanovich/Cooks combo sweeping 41 rebounds with 11 on the offensive end). If the Giants are able to value possession and convert at an efficient rate they will slow down an increasingly dangerous offence, underscored by Mike Smith’s consecutive 30-point performances.
Canterbury Rams vs. Manawatu Jets | Saturday, June 18 @ 5:30pm
The Rams would have felt like things were finally going their way when they cut the lead to five (39-44) in the third period before a 15-5 run where four out of five Bulls starters scored and took control of the game for good. The Rams’ poor shooting night was exacerbated by a lack of punch off the bench (four points total) as the team awaits the returns of Joe Cook-Green they will need to figure things out on the fly. Normally a visit from the Manawatu Jets would be just what the doctor ordered, but with the Jets winners of two out of three there will be a nervous reception awaiting them.
The Jets will be encouraged by their victory over the Tuatara where they were able to take care of the ball (only 10 turnovers) while smashing the glass to the tune of 20 offensive rebounds and a 9-rebound count advantage for the best rebounding team in the league. While the numbers may be tough to replicate, the game plan isn’t and the Jets should have a little pep in their step for the first time this year.
Hawke's Bay Hawks vs. Taranaki Airs | Saturday, June 18 @ 7:30pm
The Hawks were the only team in the top-5 to secure a victory in Round 7, placing themselves all alone in second and a single victory out of the top spot. Their multifaceted attack featuring five players averaging double figures has been tough for opponents to stop and has combined with a defence that can be swarming at times but has done a particularly good job at defending the 3-point line holding opponents to 27% shooting (first in the league). That will come in handy as the Airs bring in the comp’s leading scorer in Anthony Hilliard, who’s averaging 31.7 points while shooting over 51% from the 3-point line. If looks from deep are hard to come by, the Airs will need to find a way for the collective to make up for the two round departure of Wynyard (3x3 Tall Blacks), who has been a vital physical presence on the interior.
Franklin Bulls vs. Wellington Saints | Sunday, June 19 @ 3pm
The Bulls left South Auckland one game off the bottom of the table and returned following the cashing in of a South Island double in finals contention after the near seamless injection of Corey Webster’s all around offensive game. And that bounce was more than enough for a defence that only allowed an average of 68 points by holding opponents to 11-of-47 from the 3-point line over the two road wins, indicating the defence will still offer it’s rugged resistance. But a different task is at hand after the recent burly battles down low with the elastic Saints coming to town to play the second half of their road double. It will be a contrast in styles as the half court oriented Bulls try to control the possession game and dominate the glass to secure the win, but it will be a more difficult task with Mike Smith firing and drawing bodies off of boxing out assignments and into passing lanes. And those little advantages are all that Taane Samuel and the forward brigade need to get their hands on the ball and ignite a high powered offence.
Southland Sharks vs. Manawatu Jets | Sunday, June 19 @ 5pm
The Sharks are in unfamiliar territory following their 5-game losing streak but will still realise that finals play is a real chance. Playing well enough to keep within touching distance, their most recent games have seen the squad fade down the stretch in the second half of games. But the time for tweaking the lineup is done as this home stand has added pressure, with the loser likely saying goodbye to their Sal's NBL finals dream for this season. With both teams featuring young ball handling backcourts, the response to added defensive attention up the court will be paramount. The added rest will be key for the Sharks as they nurse multiple players (and a Head Coach!) back to health. Manawatu will be hoping to have something left in the tank after what will be a physical first encounter on the weekend, but in the end it will be the team that takes care of the ball while keeping opponents off the offensive glass that will be rewarded with a wee lil hint of postseason life.