Somehow, the closer we get to the end of the Sal's NBL the more difficult the permutations become to figure out who will receive golden tickets to the Final 6. With teams flip-flopping identities from game-to-game and sometimes half-to-half, there is no clear favorite amongst teams in finals contention that has shown itself to be immune to a misstep or two.
The Wellington Saints were the big mover of the round, leaping from the bottom three and straight into contention and sitting fourth on the ladder following two dominant performances on the road, including the most one sided quarter of the season (maybe ever?). The Giants continued their road dominance after a slow start in Christchurch, where Sam Thompson kept them steady with a stellar first quarter to enable their seventh straight road win against zero defeats. The losses left the Rams finals hopes hanging by a thread and the Hawks searching for solutions despite improved performances from both squads in defeat.
Rebounding back with an improved performance of their own allowed the Tuatara to finally punch their finals ticket after a domineering fourth quarter on the road in Franklin, and moves their road record to an almost as impressive 7-2. The Bulls can once again point to foul trouble and an offence that slows down to a sputter when threes aren’t dropping, but can take solace in the knowledge that they can still forge a path to the Final 6. The Taranaki Airs took the long way to their tenth win, falling to a surprisingly resurgent Sharks squad (and their gummy zone defence) before blowing the doors off the Nuggets in the a third quarter where their pace was undeniable.
What isn’t undeniable is that few can remember when a season had this many teams still with legitimate hopes to travel to title town. Hope can be a dangerous thing, but that hope will be the fuel as eight teams trim to six over the final two rounds of the year.
Locked In - Playing for seeding in the Final 6 (I can’t deal with the math on that just yet)
Win out and in, any less and they’re rolling the dice
Win out and in, any less and they’re rolling the dice
Win out for a chance, lose and out
Out but can pull others with them on their way out the door
Otago Nuggets vs. Southland Sharks | Wednesday, July 27 @ 7:30pm
The Nuggies continue their home stand to finish the season, but will be looking to right the ship as the season draws to its end. Tray Boyd exploded in the first half of the loss to the Airs with 25 points, but could only manage four in the second half as poor shooting from the arc (16%) and lack of rebounding (-16 on the glass) fueled the Naki’s transition attack. Keith Williams was solid in support with 27, but with no other Nugget scoring more then 5 there was just not enough firepower. The return of Sam Timmins will help solve the boards equation (if fully recovered from an ankle injury) and enable Todd Withers to relinquish some of the big man duties he has been covering for in the big fellas absence. This should send the roster to it’s more natural fit, and when coupled with the hopeful return of Nikau McCullough from illness, have the Nuggets at full strength at the right time of year. The biggest factor is likely to will be the three-ball once again, as the Sharks have been giving up opportunities in that area, and will likely do so to an even greater degree facing the 28% shooting Nugs (last in NBL) but when the shots drop (particularly from Withers) the gravity of the court changes and they become an offensive force.
With an ember of a finals chance remaining the Sharks have have started playing their best basketball of the year just in time. Gill’s presence in the paint and extended minutes have mostly made up for the loss of Winston Shepard III (for the season) and Dom Kelman-Poto (to Comm Games) on the glass while unlocking his rim protection for greater stretches. Similarly Daishon Knight's point play has enabled other wings to fill their more natural roles while combining scoring prowess with his facilitation duties. If the defence can continue its steady improvement (despite still being 3rd worst at 89.13), the offence should provide enough to pick up an upset in the battle of the South and continue their late season form.
Franklin Bulls vs. Taranaki Aris | Friday, July 29 @ 7:30pm
The Bulls have been finding offence tough to come by with just two outings over 76 points in their last six games (and one of those was against the Jets). Corey Webster has boosted the offence as the second top scorer in the league , but with the absence of Jayden Bezzant (Comm games) Issac Davidson and Kane Keil (Asia Cup, Tall Blacks) offensive weapons were limited, allowing extra attention on Webster and Giddy Potts. That attention led to 24 turnovers against the Tuatara and when coupled with the Bulls physical style of play saddling them with foul trouble and further impacting their depth victory quickly moved out of reach. What isn’t yet out of reach are the finals, but it will take a renewed defensive effort in transition to slow the Airs second ranked pace while countering with their own ball control style. Against a shorthanded Taranaki, the Bulls may want to force more action on the rim to get the opposition in foul trouble and negate transition opportunities, but a league worst free throw rate (21.2%) makes that difficult. Crashing the offensive boards would help, but the Bulls second worst offensive board rate doesn’t stack up well against the best defensive rebounding rate in the league.
Last round the Airs found success in the running game and will try to replicate that again, but the Sharks proved it can be slowed down. If they can force it into the half court, the ability of Potts to slow down the leagues leading scorer, Anthony Hilliard, without fouling will be a bell weather. If he gets off early the gravity of the court will change and Javonte Douglas and Shaun Willett will find ample space to drive and the Bulls will struggle to keep up. But if Webster can find some support in the returning players while the Bulls keep up on the glass and on the break we will have ourselves a ball game.
Canterbury Rams vs. Southland Sharks | Saturday, July 30 @ 7:30pm
The effort and execution on both sides of the ball has been trending in the right direction for the Rams despite having lost 6 of their last 8. Of those losses the one that may hurt the most was a one-point defeat at the hands of the Sharks in Southland in a game where they were at their running best. The Rams should have much of their contingent back (if not at full strength) to try to reverse the result this time around. Defending the 3-point line will be key, which may make juggling the minutes of Mike Karena, Max Darling and Matt Moyer difficult. Both teams took great care with the ball in the first duel (15 TO’s total) making execution and efficiency key in gaining an upper hand. Taylor Britt will be key in this area, as will his ability to pester Daishon Knight coming off his most influential game of the season (21 points). Despite the late season swoon the the finals are still a possibility, if one they no longer have total control over.
The Sharks will be riding high with finals hopes of their own, and if they are able to pull out the Battle of the South the Rams will become the next in line as the seasons most important game. The threes will continue to fly, but Gill and his ability to control the paint and stay out of foul trouble may be most important against the stacked front line of the Rams. Even in their victory they were dominated on the glass, and a repeat would be difficult to overcome on the second leg of a doubleheader.
Hawke's Bay Hawks vs. Manawatu Jets | Sunday, July 31 @ 5pm
The Hawks managed an explosive first quarter against the Saints and looked like the first encounter between the two was in the distant past, then the second and third quarter happened. The good news is that it was a much improved effort, the bad news that it didn’t matter. With out Jordan Hunt running the lanes fast break opportunities were tough to manufacture, with his return that tool will be available in the shed once again. When combined with the added size of Jack Salt, a previously undersized Hawke’s Bay now has the choice of going small or super-big to smash the glass and match or exceed the physicality of any opponent. Success on the interior should also free up some space on the arc, where the Hawks are surprisingly next to last (30%) despite Derone Raukawa’s league leading career year from deep (at 46.9%). With a transition attack an improved eye from deep would increase the offensive efficiency and make the Bay a threat on any court.
They won’t need all of that to overcome the Jets, who with Zane Najdawi lost for the season, have lost the focal point of their interior attack and had their thin depth stretched even thinner. They will need to be careful with the ball to limit transition opportunities and their preferred slow pace will help in that area as well. If John Bohannon controls the glass and Robert Crawford and Shane Temara go bombs away from deep they will have a recipe to be in the game, but with a league worst 69.1% defensive rebounding percentage they will have to work hard and cohesively to keep a Hawke’s Bay team fighting for their finals life off the glass.
Wellington Saints vs. Nelson Giants | Tuesday, August 2 @ 7:30pm
Coming off a 32-4 1st quarter against the Jets and a 61-31 second and third combined at the Hawks, the Saints have become an offensive juggernaut with defensive prowess. Early season struggles are a memory, but their effect lingers with a slim margin for error. Xavier Cooks has been a force and even without Mike Smith on hand for the weekend the Saints have become the best 3-point shooting team in the Sal's NBL (36%) as another tool the number one offenses repertoire (94.1 ppg). The shooting is stretching defences and opening driving lanes, and with at least one mismatch on the court most of the time there is a fall back plan for the odd off night. They take care of the ball almost as well as their opponent (10.56 to 10.38 per game) increasing their efficiency even more.
But they are coming up against the best defensive team in the league who is almost their match from three (35%) while taking better care of the ball. Jarrod West is unrelenting at the point of attack defensively and their are deep threats at every position which opens driving lanes and interior space for Thompson and Mourning. Having already secured a two seed in the Final 6, a win here would not only seal a likely top spot, it would more than likely keep the Saints from becoming a postseason threat, which would be more then enough motivation for most.
Note: all advanced stats sourced at spatialjam.com.