A tight season that can feel topsy-turvy at times continued in Round 11 of the Sal’s NBL with the Nelson Giants the big mover of the week, moving to the top of the table with the inside track to get the all important top seed in the Final 6. Possibly the most important factor for the Giants this season has been their consistency, their offence may not reach the heights of the top scoring teams in the competition as they have yet to score over triple digits this year, but they also don’t dip below their quality very often, scoring less than 75 just twice this season.
The unremitting form has put them on the crest of a wave that will be crashing down on the finals hopes of the teams that end up missing out on the postseason party. But the churn can be enjoyable to view from afar and we may have seen season saving victories from the Otago Nuggets and Canterbury Rams, who despite being severely short-handed were able to pull out big wins on the road and keep pace with the pack. The Taranaki Airs seem to moving to the front of that pack with their fourth straight win and an increasingly dangerous two-way attack And that pack may never be tighter than it is right now, with seven teams well and truly in this turbulent race looking at strong finishes to secure their finals berth, it will be the steady ships that weather the storm and sails into the finals.
Wellington Saints vs. Hawke's Bay Hawks | Thursday, 14 July @ 7:30 (I’ve got my eye on)
The Saints used another powerful offensive display where they looked as in control of a game as they have been this season. Cooks produced another dominant performance where we saw Wellington record 25 assists on 40 baskets while committing only eight turnovers. The offence continues to shine with the hope that Reggie Upshaw Jr. can help solidify the backline of defence for a team that has been allowing teams a 58.9% true shooting percentage. Aspects improved slightly in the win over the Nuggets, particularly at the 3-point line where they only allowed 31% (11-of-35) shooting. If the defence can start to slow down teams ever so slightly, it will allow for their dominant offence to rip through opposition.
The Hawks are heading to Wellington in the midst of a 3-game skid where the offence has taken a bit of a dip, especially when the transition game dries up. While Jack Salt has been welcomed back and has added size down low, their pace dropped with him stepping into the lineup for Jordan Hunt. This lack of opportunity in the running game will be difficult to overcome against a versatile Saints squad, but the real concern is the lack of prowess from three, 4-of-23 against Otago and shooting just 31.4% on the season (second to last in the competition). Losing the last two games by a combined five points shows how close they’ve been despite being undermanned, but if the play down the stretch doesn’t pick up on their two game road swing they will find themselves in a precarious position.
Auckland Tuatara vs. Southland Sharks | Friday, 15 July @ 7:30pm
The Tuatara were unable to bring back their winning ways from their successful southern road trip the week before, now having lost three in a row at home and five of their last seven overall. A late season swoon could be expected with the Dan Fotu injury combined with the departure of Chris Johnson, but it seemed as though the slide was reversed after a strong South Island road trip. But the South Island get-back came north when the Rams came and stole a win. They’ll have to do a better job on the boards on their homecourt this week as the deep Southerners come to town. If the backcourt of Dontae Russo-Nance (24 PTS, 4 AST, 2 STL - He’s 17!), Siler Schneider (20 PTS, 5 AST) and Rob Loe (13 PTS, 17 REB) can continue to produce; they will continue to compete, but the contributions of the supporting crew will need to find a higher level of consistency.
The Sharks swim north after an improved effort while shorthanded against the Nelsonians, albeit one with a similar result. In their last meeting with the lizards a lack of commitment to the glass allowed the Tuatara to dominate the defensive glass while neither team found an advantage on the o-boards. If they can show renewed commitment to keep Auckland off the glass they have more than enough offensive weapons to put pressure on the scoreboard consistently. There is no doubt they have the talent to play spoiler down the stretch, and it would be more surprising if they didn’t knock back a team or two's postseason hopes, leaving the only question: when will the surprise pop up?
Manawatu Jets vs. Nelson Giants | Saturday, 16 July @ 5:30pm
It's the rematch, but in two very important ways it is the first meeting between these two teams with the match four days ago being little more than a training run with the absence of Robert Crawford and John Bohannon (and Nathaniel Salmon..) the blowout from earlier this week. One thing the Jets will have learned is to be careful dribbling the ball around Jarrod West, who copped 7 steals in the first half while Nelson tallied 18 as a team. The inclusion of the imports hopefully recovered from illness, would be a step in the right direction as a majority of the offence runs through their hands. Their 16% turnover percentage (last in the league) shows it may be a problem regardless even if the 21-4 start is unlikely to be repeated, the Jets will be hard pressed to muster a victory against the top team in the league.
But a little reminder for those that haven’t had faith in the Manawatu this season, the Jets followed a very similar script earlier this season when going down by a larger margin to the then top of the table Tuatara before sneaking a victory on their home court less than a week later.
Franklin Bulls vs. Hawkes Bay Hawks | Saturday, 16 July @ 7:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)
We saw two versions of the Bulls last round, the understrength squad that was unable to keep pace with the depth of the Airs for two out of the four quarters and the pace controlling where they squeezed the life out of the Jets half-court defence. Corey Webster is as smooth as ever with the ball in hand and his 24.1 points per game seems like his floor moving forward game by game. Webster will put pressure on the scoreboard with the help of Giddy Potts and the returning Jayden Bezzant, and when combined with efficient performances from Anzac Rissetto the offence can tick along against anyone.
The key performance may need to be delivered by Leon Henry to control the glass against a Hawke’s Bay Squad that will be playing its second game in three days. For the Hawks this will be about pace, if they are able to get the ball off the rim and push in transition they will find the road more easily travelled then if they are forced to perform in the half court. Tajuan Agee, Jack Salt and Hyrum Harris can play the strong-man game as well as any team in the NBL, but they will be tested by a Bulls squad that relishes contact. The result will come down to the 3-point line, with the team that wins the battle there likely to get the scoring boost needed to snatch a win that will propel the victor into the finals.
Canterbury Rams vs. Taranaki Airs | Sunday, 17 July @ 3pm
The Rams come off a short-handed win that was belied by physicality, defence and stroking the ball from deep. Outside of a near career-best performance from Mike Karena we saw a solid two-way effort from Matthew Moyer (15 PTS, 13 REB) and support as expected from Sunday Dech (17 PTS, 7 REB, 5 AST) on the offensive end and a collective effort on defence. With the Airs coming to town that physicality and ability to defend in transition will be of the utmost importance as they begin a 3-game home stand they hope will secure their finals hopes. The task against a full strength Taranaki will be a tough one.
The Airs still lead the league in pace and when they get going downhill are nearly impossible to pull back as shown in their blowout fourth quarter against an understrength Bulls squad. But the Airs don’t only look good on their home court, as they and the Giants are the only teams in the league to have a winning record on the road as well as their home court. As always they will depend on Hilliard and Douglas to lead the way offensively, but this looks like a game where Shaun Willett’s impact off the bench will be a deciding factor.
Otago Nuggets vs. Manawatu Jets | Sunday, 17 July @ 5pm
The Nuggets may have saved their season with a pace controlling Josh Aitcheson tip-in victory in Hawke’s Bay. Trey Boyd was nay-unguardable in last week's double header (averaging 28.5 PTS, 7.5 REB, 4.5 AST), but the victory was enabled by Todd Wither’s two-way performance, as when he’s efficient from three the gravity of the court completely changes. When combined with their ability to win the battle on the glass despite the absence of Timmins, their confidence will be flowing coming into this opportunity for a home court defence.
The Jets will be playing their third game in five days which will place extra burden on a young squad that had been enjoying its mid-season reversal of fortune. When playing with a full squad this year they have played better than .500 ball as well as been extremely entertaining. With a finals run becoming less than likely they may end up finding success in the closing part of the season by taking the chance of postseason success away from other teams, and if things go their way the Nuggets could end up being their first victim.
Note: all advanced stats sourced at spatialjam.com