It is a little unusual when the National Basketball League's best regular season team is ranked only third favourite heading into the playoffs.
But such is life for Hawke's Bay, whose franchise record 13-3 season this year counts for nought come 8.30 tonight in Wellington.
The NBL's decision to again hold a Final Four tournament at the TSB Bank Arena means the Hawks have to tackle the fourth-ranked but two-times defending champion Wellington Saints on their home court.
And even if the Hawks give the Saints their marching orders tonight, they'll have to play tomorrow night's grand final without star forward Paora Winitana, a Mormon bishop who doesn't play on Sundays.
"We don't get any trophies for winning the regular season," said Hawks coach Paul Henare, who held a team dinner on Monday to celebrate the achievement before getting down to business.
"For our group to be able to do that was fantastic but to win championships is why the guys play and why we coach. It's not even half the job done yet."
Henare said he didn't agree with the Final Four format, which also pits the second-ranked Auckland Pirates against the third-placed Manawatu Jets in tonight's 6pm semifinal.
"Teams that do well throughout the regular season have no reward," Henare said.
"It does make it a little bit tougher, Wellington get to play at home, they get great support there. From my understanding, they were pretty much the only ones that could host the Final Four. But my preference would be to go back to a best of three format and allow those successful teams throughout the regular season some advantage."
Despite his objections, Henare said the obstacles would make winning in Wellington even more satisfying.
The Saints have bounced the Hawks out of the playoffs for three years running, the last two with Henare's former Tall Blacks team-mate Pero Cameron at the helm.
Henare and Cameron are now assistant coaches with the Tall Blacks.
"With us going on tour in a few weeks with the Tall Blacks, one or the other is going to have bragging rights," Henare said.
"That's definitely good motivation but in all seriousness it's good to see him coaching and doing so well. His record obviously speaks for itself and it's a tough challenge that we haven't been able to overcome. We're definitely hoping to get some redemption."
The Hawks success this season has come as no surprise.
Grand finalists last season, Henare whipped his men into shape in the pre-season and kept the core of his team intact – Winitana, Galen Young, Jarrod Kenny and Aidan Daly – while recruiting Everard Bartlett from Auckland and Kareem Johnson from the Saints.
"I've known Kareem a long time and he's a proven winner in this competition. Everard is ready to have a big weekend with the Hawks and he's definitely putting his hand up for the Tall Blacks as well," Henare said.
The Saints and the Hawks won a game apiece in their match-ups this season.
The interior battle will be bruising with Young and Johnson up against the Saints' tandem of Casey Frank and Arthur Trousdell.
Despite being pipped by Auckland in their regular season finale, the Saints' ball movement was crisp and they appear to be peaking at the right time.
But at times they can be overly reliant on three-point shooting and Henare said keeping Troy McLean and Ernest Scott off their favourite spots would be crucial.
"When you've got someone like Jason Crowe, who's just a great distributor of the ball, it becomes really easy to get your feet set and the pass is usually on the money. That's when the percentages go up. It's about not allowing too much penetration and then if it does go out to their shooters, make sure we're there and they're shooting over a hand. It's definitely one of their strengths and something we'll be trying to do a number on."
If Cameron does emerge triumphant tomorrow night it would just add another chapter to a remarkable career.
The man with the midas touch already holds 11 NBL titles – nine as a player and two as a coach – and has overseen an almighty rebuilding job this season.
Off-season exodus is an understatement, as Lindsay Tait, Corey Webster, Leon Henry, Erron Maxey, Steve Adams and Johnson all moved on.
The Saints looked wobbly at 5-6 after changing imports but recovered to finish 9-7.
Cameron was a member of the Auckland Stars team that won a three-peat in the 1990s and is now on the verge of achieving the same feat as a coach.
"I'm not thinking about that," Cameron said.
"I'm only worried about one thing, semifinals. Hawke's Bay mate, that's all I'm thinking. We have big game players and now it comes down to decision making. Any time you get to this spot it's a great feeling."
What: NBL Final Four at Wellington's TSB Bank Arena. Tonight: Semifinal one, Auckland v Manawatu, 6pm; semifinal two, Hawke's Bay v Wellington, 8.30pm. Tomorrow: Grand final, 6pm. TAB (NBL winner): Auckland $2.15, Wellington $3.50, Hawke's Bay $4, Manawatu $6.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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