The final round of the season is upon us and we almost have a clear vision of the teams who will be contesting the final despite coming off a round where only one game was decided less than 10 points. Even with so many teams playing well the biggest winner of the week didn’t make a shot, with the Auckland Tuatara confirming the return of Chris Johnson, thrusting them into serious title contention once again.
On the court, the Taranaki Airs were the sole road winners of the round, coming back from 18 down to run off a highlight filled victory behind a balanced attack led by Shaun Willett (24 PTS, 11 REB, 6 AST, 2 BLK) despite a career best game from Anzac Rissetto (27 PTS, 11 REB 2 BLK). They now get to play host to a Nelson Giants squad in a battle for the regular season crown (we don’t actually give out a crown) after the Nelsonians hard fought loss to the still surging Wellington Saints to blemish their previously perfect road record. Nelson stayed tight throughout behind a stout defence and second chance points, eventually it was the class of Xavier Cooks scoring eight straight down the stretch on his way to 28 that pulled the game out of reach, while coming closer to grasping a Final 6 spot of their own. The Nuggets and Hawks took care of their business as well, placing themselves on the inside track for the six, and the Rams big (really big) win also keeps them in the race, with some ground to make up. The Bulls are still in the fight, if a bit wobbly after their third straight loss. But with players across the league returning from National team duties the final week of the year will allow teams to be at their strongest with six teams in the mix for the last three available spots in the finals. We should see desperate teams at their best, just the way it’s supposed to be.
Finals Watch (see GM Huw Beynon’s article for more detail here)
Locked In - Seeding on the line
Win and in, lose and a chance
Must Win for a chance Lose and out
Out but can pull others with them on their way out the door
Taranaki Airs vs, Nelson Giants | Thursday, August 4 @ 7:30pm
The Airs have completed a tremendous single season turnaround and are at their absolute best when pushing the tempo and attacking in transition - with the fastest pace in the league matched up against the slowest pace in the league that Nelson features. When needed both teams can play the other's style, with Jarrod West leading breaks after he and Alex McNaught pressure teams into turnovers or quick shots for Nelson, and Hilliard coming off screens to change the geometry of the court with his 3-point shooting.
The Airs are prone to more mistakes, in particular when chasing highlight plays. Without Tai Wynyard, Trey Mourning will have the advantage on the block, especially if he is able to avoid early foul trouble. If the Giants can control the possession game while contesting offensive rebounds to counter the transition game they will be in position late to win yet another road game. But with a sellout crowd cheering the Airs to their first regular season title since rejoining the competition that will be a tough task. Even without the depth afforded by the soon to return Wynyard and Richie Rodger, the Airs have been able to push the pace and find an extra gear when needed most. With first place and a preferential postseason schedule on offer this will be a battle of heavyweights with championship aspirations and the mettle to go with it.
Southland Sharks vs. Franklin Bulls | Friday, August 5 @ 7:30pm
The Sharks are coming home to shake off a 50-point drubbing in a game where effort wasn’t missing but execution was. As possibly the team most reliant on the 3-point shot of anyone in the Sal’s NBL, a poor shooting night makes winning difficult, but a 2-of-19 shooting display makes winning almost impossible, and when combined with giving up 29 second chance points it becomes non-existent. Their playoff hopes have now been extinguished but there may be some solace in dashing the hopes of the Bulls while finishing the season on a high in their home stadium if the 3-point shooting can bounce back to the mean.
The Bulls will look to take advantage on the offensive glass and hope the interior play of Anzac Rissetto can reach similar heights to his career best game against the Airs while hoping for a bounce back of their own from deep. With Giddy Potts likely still shelved due to injury that job is a bit more difficult but Isaac Davidson has been much improved since his Tall Blacks stint and can pick up some slack there. The team that wins the battle on the boards and takes care of the rock will most likely win this game and it will deliver either playoff hope or a stepping stone to next season.
Hawke’s Bay Hawks vs. Canterbury Rams | Saturday, August 6 @ 3pm
The Hawks enjoyed a return to form against a limited Jets squad with promising signs for their postseason hopes with an improved attack from three and the seamless introduction of the frontcourt trio of Tajuan Agee, Jack Salt and Jordan Hunt. The return of Hunt was especially important as his combination of shooting from deep (4-of-5 vs. Jets) and ability to stretch defences in the transition game lifts the scoring ceiling of the squad while also creating more space for his teammates by stretching defences. Ethan Rustbatch used the extra space well, finding his best shooting night of the year at 5-of-10 from deep.
The Rams found a similar get well card in their blowout of the Sharks, finding great form on the glass behind a collective effort led by Matthew Moyer and an offence that turned the ball over only eight times. Taking care of the ball should allow the Rams to find success in the halfcourt, and against a Hawks team that is next to last in forcing turnovers that isn’t the tallest of tasks. If both teams are able to imprint their ideal gameplans on the matchup the outcome will most likely come down to who can get the upper hand on the glass and on the interior. It’s an easy equation for both teams, if the Hawks win they will be in, but a loss puts them in a precarious position with a mini ladder likely not to favour them. The Rams have an even easier calculation, they must win to have a chance, as a loss will end their postseason hopes definitively the Hawks will lean on the home crowd, but a 3-5 record in the nest doesn’t match up well with the Rams 5-3 record away from home. With finals hopes on the line both teams will need to play their best game of the year.
Auckland Tuatara vs. Wellington Saints | Saturday, August 6 @ 7:30pm
Chris Johnson is back! The Tuatara have done just enough to secure their postseason birth and now welcome back the early season favourite for MVP. With Johnson this is a vastly different Tuatara squad, one that excels defensively guarding the rim while punishing defences in the halfcourt. His perimeter shooting combined with Rob Loe can stretch the opposition's biggest defender away from the paint allowing the other to take advantage of a more favourable matchup on the block while also punishing teams on the glass. Siler Schneider has found his form since CJ’s departure and with reduced focus from defences should find even more room to operate. Rumors of a temporary Kirk Penney return continue to swirl but with Dontae Russo-Nance absent (attending the NBA global academy) this may be the best opportunity to slip in without derailing the team's chemistry, although I’m still skeptical he plays.
Either way the return of Taki Faherensohn will have Auckland near full strength in a game where they may be able to extinguish the finals hopes of the Saints. That is a tough task indeed with the Saints playing the best basketball in the league right now, although they haven’t faced a team that was their equal athletically since a loss to Taranaki in June (also their last loss). Xavier Cooks is a matchup nightmare and he is by no means the only one on the Saints roster, with five players averaging double figures and seven capable of scoring 20 or more given the opportunity. Neither team boasts great depth which could become an issue in an expected physical encounter with neither team likely to take a backwards step.
Despite speculation they had clinched a finals spot a loss could spell doom depending on how other results fall, with the Saints able to finish anywhere from 3rd-7th, while the Tuatara are locked in and could go from 2nd-5th themselves, and as such this will be a tightly contested contest with either team having the ability to gain the upper hand and guarantee their finals position.
Otago Nuggets vs. Franklin Bulls | Sunday, August 7 @ 3pm
After a full season of basketball it may all come down to this! If the Bulls are able to take care of business against the Sharks this game will have finals implications up and down the ladder (if interested find all the info here). The Nuggets look to have righted the ship after a mid-season swoon (mostly due to the return of Nikau McCullough and Sam Timmins) and seem to be finding their groove on their home court during a four-game stand to close the year. Get the win and they’re in, to do that they will need to work the glass and commit to running the lanes to find advantage against the one of the slowest paces in the league. Keith Williams should find advantage on the wing while the matchup between Tray Boyd and Corey Webster should offer offence by the truckload, but it will be the work of Todd Withers that will have the most profound effect on the Nuggets should he return from injury. If he’s able to find his stroke from deep the Bulls will struggle to keep him at bay and defend driving lanes with consistency. Without proficient shooting from Withers the Bulls will be able to pack the paint to negate Timmins interior strength at the same time they clog driving lanes.
For the Bulls the key is always finding offence outside of C Webb, as when his teammates are able to turn on the tap it becomes more difficult to send two or three defenders his way coming off on balls to dissuade jumpers and shut down passing angles on the roll man. The Bulls will be coming into the second leg of a doubleheader, but with a day to travel between the games fatigue shouldn’t be a factor. But in a game for your playoff lives fatigue won’t matter anyway. Come tip off it will be 89 regular season games down and this one to go, and if we’re lucky the last one may just be the most important of all.