Josh Pace is picking a Nelson Giants side toughened by adversity to give its more favoured opposition a working-over this weekend.
The Fico Finance Giants locked in a place in the National Basketball League's final four a fortnight ago and, last Friday, moved from fourth to third with a win over defending champions Southland.
That earned them the semifinal matchup the Sharks were clearly trying to sidestep - at 8.30 tomorrow night in Wellington against the hometown Saints.
American swingman Pace, in his second stint and fourth season with the Giants, already has a championship here, from 2007. He believes this year's side is as good as that one and better than last year, when Nelson were beaten to the title by the Sharks.
"This year we've faced some adversity and we have had to battle through that," he said. "It's tested us more than we were tested last year."
That adversity - the loss of Mika Vukona through the mid-part of the season, a significant injury for guard Brook Ruscoe and Pace's own illness - resulted in seven losses overall but, with three wins in a row to build towards tomorrow's playoff game, the Giants are feeling comfortable in their skin.
"Last year, we weren't put under the same pressures, and the league wasn't as strong all the way down. This year, you knew every team was coming to get you," he said.
The only major personnel change between seasons saw Erron Maxey replaced in the second import role by the younger, bigger Jamal Boykin. The well-regarded Maxey was a slick, skilled scoring forward, but Boykin has delivered more grunt up front.
The combination of Boykin and Pace has yielded 41 points and 16 rebounds a night while, defensively, Boykin gives Nelson a man who can stand his ground under the basket against the likes of Kareem Johnson (Hawke's Bay), Bryan Davis (Saints) and Southland's Brian Conklin.
"No knock on Erron, who was high quality, but Jamal is a different kind of player. I think, as the season has gone on, Jamal and myself have showed out as the best import duo in the league."
Pace had led the NBL in scoring the past two seasons but has not been needed to put up the big point totals in the same way this year. Instead, he has refocused on being Nelson's everywhere man, plucking rebounds, pushing the ball in transition and floating through defences on his unorthodox drives to the basket.
Pace was a shadow of himself a month ago as he battled the flu over three weeks but, once he got well, he has scored 30, 23 and 23 and averaged double figures off the boards.
"I basically wasn't here when the team was losing . . . I thought I could get myself better with vitamin C and inhalers but it took some medical treatment to get me back to where the team needed me to be," Pace said. "Add in Mika being away for six weeks and that removes two veteran players who know what it takes and will do what it takes.
"The guys did a great job of keeping us rolling in that time but we are playing our best basketball of the season right now."
Saints will be a handful again this year but the Giants don't need to scratch too deeply for a confidence boost. Wellington went to the playoffs last year as short-odds favourites and were systematically dismantled by Southland in their semifinal. Nelson got up over Otago, then copped similar rough handling from the Sharks in the final.
Wellington have toyed often with their lineup this year and are on American players 4 and 5 after the first three were released early. Corey Webster and Lindsay Tait have been consistent contributors but there is always the feeling the Saints could just as easily flame out as flare up.
Driven by the team desire to send captain Phill Jones into retirement a champion, the Giants won't back down tomorrow.
"Now that we're here, we don't care who we play," Pace said. "We are on one track now, semifinal, final, get that title home for Phill and for the people of Nelson."
Pace, 31, spent last summer in the Australian league with Townsville but doesn't have his next job locked in yet.
He said no offer had made him say ‘Oh, yeah, I'm going there', with the most likely option an extension of his stopover in Nelson and then a return to family in the US.
"Nelson's been my second home for a while now, there is so much I love about being here. I might just stop a little while longer."
Tomorrow's semifinal matches will screen live on SKY Sport, with the Hawks and Sharks meeting at 6 and the Giants taking on the Saints at 8.30pm. Saturday's final is live from Wellington at 7pm.
Fico Finance Nelson Giants squad for the NBL playoffs: Phill Jones, Josh Pace, Jamal Boykin, Mika Vukona, Josh Bloxham, Brook Ruscoe, Sam Dempster, Finn Delany, Chris Duthie, Bronson Beri, Gus Riley. Coach Liam Flynn, assistant coach Tim Fanning, manager Tony Barnett, physio Dawn Chalmers.
- The Nelson Mail