While standout performances were on display throughout the league in Round 4, five teams have consolidated themselves into early season top of the table position, and those teams’ performances were highlighted by standout victories in opposition venues. Notable home victories for the Mike Pero Nelson Giants and Steelformers Taranaki Airs deserve attention, but it was the road dogs getting it done that was most impressive. The Night 'n Day Otago Nuggets made the biggest climb up the ladder, as they were dominant in a road double (despite rarely pulling out of second gear) against opponents that found scoring difficult in the face of their tenacious defence. The Rams enjoyed a more condensed doubleheader (less than 24 hours between games) and showed promising mental toughness to bounce back from a difficult loss in leg one (where their frontcourt failed to fire) to keep pace with the league leaders.
However, the most impressive road warriors came out of the week's opening game on Wednesday night, where the Hawks found the second half energy reserves to give the Tuatara their first loss of the season. Unexpectedly back on the recruiting trail after Jack Salt’s season start has been delayed, the Hawks squeaked out a victory behind a collective effort on both ends of the court, which was highlighted by the relentless Hyrum Harris (16 PTS, 10 REB, 8 AST, 2 STL and 2 BLK). The Hawks were able to overcome a poor shooting night (five 3-pointers on 20 percent shooting) and another massive Chris Johnson performance (29 PTS, 10 REB, 4 BLK) behind stout half-court defence that fueled a relentless transition attack. Despite the grouping at the top of the table there is little separating the league from top to bottom as eight teams sit on at least two wins. The time for excuses is over as teams reach full strength and the squads with real aspirations will need to begin playing with a heightened level of intensity as we move into a Round 5 that features mouth watering matchups across the board.
Canterbury Rams vs. Hawke's Bay Hawks | Thursday, May 26 @ 7:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)
The Rams are coming off their best win of the year where their enthusiasm and execution rose to the occasion following a tough loss. While hopeful of this being the new normal they will welcome the Hawks who have been one of the best on the road already racking up three victories away from the Bay. Something will have to give when the second best 3-point shooting team in the league (Rams at 34%) meets the second best team at defending it (Hawks at 26%). The bigs for the Rams were a determining factor in recent wins but will have to deal with the mobility of Jordan Hunt and Hyrum Harris pestering all night long. And the Hawks will have their hands full with Sunday Dech firing on both sides of the court. Will the Rams frontcourt be able to control the boards and thereby the pace of the game, or will long rebounds and turnovers lead to fast break opportunities for a team that continues to prove deadly in the transition game?
Southland Sharks vs. Otago Nuggets | Friday, May 27 @ 7:30pm
The Sharks have had the look of a meal that was one ingredient short. The raw stats look solid on paper with the speedy Mojave King (20.6 PPG) putting pressure on defences (the Sharks are first in the league in scoring, field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage) but dry spells and a lack of cohesion are indicative of the underlying issues. After getting dominated on the glass last weekend, the addition of Winston Shepard will offer another weapon and add some needed physicality, but a table setter needs to be determined for the offence to avoid the purple patches that have been experienced. Unfortunately, there is little time to source solutions as they will be hosting the Battle of the South and welcoming a team whose starting lineup boasts few weaknesses on offence and is quickly looking like a top flight defensive unit. The import trio of Tahjere McCall, Keith Williams and Todd Withers look tremendous on defence and multifaceted defensively. Possession will be key and the team that wins the turnover battle will position themselves well for the win.
Nelson Giants vs Hawke's Bay Hawks | Saturday, May 28 @ 5:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)
The Hawks will head to Nelson for their sixth(!!) road game of the season in the second half of their South Island road double in what would seem to be a clash of styles. A closer look will show teams with similar statistical footprints. Leading the Sal’s NBL in scoring, Trey Mourning will draw plenty of attention facing an agile frontcourt, in Jordan Hunt and Hyrum Harris, who will hope to take away pull-up opportunities while containing off the bounce. If this proves too difficult the Hawks will need to find the legs to produce in the transition game against the ball hawking backcourt of Alex McNaught and Jarrod West, who lead the league in steals. But with Jarrod Kenny, Ethan Rustbatch, and Derone Raukawa (who is featuring a Tall Black sized chip on his shoulder) they should be well placed to counter the defensive attention as once again the possession game will prove paramount in the outcome. This is game two of a huge road double for the boys from the Bay, as two wins will put them in first, but two losses could possibly push them as far down as eighth.
Auckland Tuatara vs. Franklin Bulls | Saturday, May 28 @ 7:30pm
Following a rampaging 2-0 start the Bulls have fallen off the pace following two lackluster offensive performances where a lack of shot creation in the half court became increasingly obvious. The impending return of Corey Webster (who won’t play this week) will undoubtedly improve this area, but the only team in the comp scoring less than 70 points per game will need to find solutions outside of his scoring prowess. Also of concern for coach Morgan Maskell would be the diminishing returns from a physical defence that now boasts the second worst field goal percentage defence and third worst 3-point field goal percentage defence. With defensive questions arising now is not the time to visit the Lizards Lair and their top level offence and their towers of power in Rob Loe and Chris Johnson coming off their first loss of the year. The Tuatara have their own issues as they enjoyed little support for CJ from the perimeter. With Dan Fotu arriving, Siler Schneider will have less attention on him, and how he performs will be a determining factor for the Lizards.
Wellington Saints vs. Manawatu Jets | Sunday, May 29 @ 3:00pm
One of these two teams will get off the schneid and they are both desperate for it although for different reasons. The Jets finally welcomed their full contingent of players and look to have the talent to sneak up and steal a few wins on the road as long as the early season youth movement provides further down the road. The desperation may be a little deeper for the Saints on the first four game losing streak that I can recall (and I played for them), although the possibility of Xavier Cooks return cannot be relied upon to save the day. As of now Welly are the worst shooting team in the league (at 39%) and the worst defensive team in the same category, allowing the opposition to shoot 57 percent from the field. This lack of defensive fortitude would be alarming for Coach Guy Molloy and improvements on this end are integral to the Saints rediscovering the winners box but the team will need to find more of a flow offensively as currently the interplay between a talented group of starters is lacking.
Taranaki Airs vs. Otago Nuggets | Sunday, May 29 @ 5:00pm
The Nuggies will be enjoying their second game in three days following a long trip up from the battle of the south with the main question being if the starting five has enough left in the tank after what will be a hard fought battle. Awaiting them in the mountain air will be a refreshed offensive lineup that now threatens teams from the interior and the perimeter. A matchup between Sam Timmins and Tai Wynyard will draw the headlines, but it will be the Airs’ ability to navigate a suffocating half court defence while keeping the ball in possession that will pave the way for victory. Not the easiest task for a team turning the ball over nearly 16 times per game. But with what should be a first time starting lineup featuring all their weapons they have the chance to make some noise.