NBL Final Four: How the contenders stack up
SAM WORTHINGTON, PETE MCNAE AND LOGAN SAVORY
The cream has risen to the top in New Zealand basketball so here's the low-down on the four remaining teams ahead of this weekend's NBL semifinals.
Kiwi coaching legend Tab Baldwin arrived in the Bay last year, only for the Hawks to suffer the ignominy of missing out on the Final Four when it was held on home court.
Baldwin clearly learnt his lesson. The Hawks romped away with the 2014 regular season title with a franchise-best 15-3 record. This, despite not boasting the same star power of other NBL rosters - Everard Bartlett is arguably their best player yet he is yet to crack the Tall Blacks.
Baldwin's not-so-secret weapon is that he assembled his settled squad early for a comprehensive pre-season programme and the wins have followed. Captained by the ageless Paora Winitana, the Hawks' offence is run by steady Tall Blacks point guard Jarrod Kenny, while American forwards Dustin Scott and Kareem Johnson are a bruising one-two punch down low.
They are the most balanced team in the league, with six players averaging double digits in scoring. Baldwin has always valued three-point shooting and the Hawks are the best in the business. Kenny leads the way at 44 per cent, with benchman Darryl Jones at 42 and Bartlett 41.
It will be a case of master versus apprentice tonight, as Baldwin, a four-time NBL winner, locks coaching horns with the young up-and-comer, his former Tall Blacks point guard turned Southland mentor Paul Henare.
The Hawks are warm favourites against the understrength Sharks, who they have beaten in both meetings this season. - SW
Regular season record: 15-3
Coach: Tab Baldwin
Star player: Everard Bartlett
Squad: Paora Winitana (captain), Jarrod Kenny, Everard Bartlett, Dustin Scott, Kareem Johnson, Marco Alexander, Darryl Jones, Ana Haku, Matt DeMarcus, Matt Wilson, Shaquille Hohipa-Wilson
TAB odds to win title: $2.70
Stat attack: At 38 per cent, Hawke's Bay were the best three-point shooting team in the league.
You know that a season hasn't gone smoothly when the club's owner threatens to sell the team. Yet that was the scenario for the Saints this year, as, during a mid-season slump, long-time boss Nick Mills warned he would shut up shop if they missed out on the Final Four.
That seemed to do the trick: the star-studded Saints finished the regular season on a four-win tear to qualify second and book a date with long-time adversaries the Nelson Giants. It is the fourth semifinal meeting between the two clubs since 2008 - with the Saints winning in 2008 and 2011 and the Giants in 2009.
First-year Saints coach Shane Heal has remained calm and confident throughout a rollercoaster season and has orchestrated the most efficient offence in the league. The Saints shot a league-best field goal percentage (47.5), while MVP candidate Corey Webster poured in an average 26.5 points and hit on 44.8 per cent of his attempts from downtown.
"I guess they'll [Nelson] throw multiple people at me, that's what most teams do," Webster said. "Josh Pace will probably guard me a little bit and maybe Brook [Ruscoe]. Nelson's a real good team, they've got some great players. Mika [Vukona], Josh Pace and Phill Jones, they're good veterans and we know what we're coming up against. They've got [Josh] Bloxham and Ruscoe out there to shoot the three ball and their import [Jamal] Boykin, is playing really well.
"We're doing some good scouting and preparing for what we have to go up against. It's going to be tough but we're looking forward to it." - SW
Regular season record: 12-6
Coach: Shane Heal
Star player: Corey Webster
Squad: Lindsay Tait (co-captain), Damien Ekenasio (co-captain), Corey Webster, Brandon Bowman, BJ Anthony, Bryan Davis, Dion Prewster, Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa, Jordan Ngatai, Jordan Mills
TAB odds to win title: $2.90
Stat attack: At 47.5 per cent, Wellington boast the highest field goal percentage in the league.
Emotion can only carry the Nelson Giants so far, winning an NBL title tomorrow will require more than just big hearts. The Giants have been swept along in recent weeks by their "do it for Phill" mantra as they attempt to send captain Phill Jones into retirement with a third championship ring.
After a low point a month ago when they were blown out on their home floor by Waikato, the Giants won three straight to move up to third and a semifinal shootout with Wellington's Saints.
The win streak coincided with a team meeting that resulted in coach Liam Flynn shortening his rotation and 40-year-old guard Jones coming into the starting five on a regular basis. Nelson's senior players sought to set the tempo before handing over to young energy players Brook Ruscoe and Finn Delany off the bench.
The revival was also sparked by the return to full health of swingman Josh Pace. The league's leading scorer in the last two seasons had games of nine and seven points before a brief hospital stint saw him bounce back with 30 and 10 rebounds against Otago. His combination with fellow American and post player Jamal Boykin is crucial to how the Giants will fare against the big Saints side. Boykin's made a strong impression in his first season in the NBL.
The well-travelled 27-year-old is athletic enough and tall enough but his on-court smarts and polished footwork have allowed him to gain an edge on other bigs. A key for the Giants this weekend could be guard Josh Bloxham.
An under-rated shooter, the Tall Blacks trialist will have to run the offence and hit his open shots, while trying to rein in Wellington's Lindsay Tait. - PM
Regular season record: 11-7
Coach: Liam Flynn
Star player: Josh Pace
Squad: Phill Jones (captain), Josh Bloxham, Josh Pace, Jamal Boykin, Mika Vukona, Brook Ruscoe, Sam Dempster, Finn Delany, Chris Duthie, Bronson Beri, Gus Riley.
TAB odds to win title: $3.50
Stat attack: At 77 per cent, Nelson were the best free throw shooting team in the league.
The defending champion Southland Sharks will attempt to go back-to-back this weekend with a very different team. The Sharks were last year's fairytale story when they won their first NBL title in just their fourth season in the league.
When the organisation was able to retain pretty much the exact same team this season they were pencilled in as one of the competition favourites. But midway through the season their title defence was turned upside down with an incident in New Plymouth after a dramatic come from behind win over Taranaki.
Leon Henry, Reuben Te Rangi and Shea Ili were all charged with assault and stood down from the Sharks. The three joined Gareth Dawson who had already been shown the door after he tested positive for a banned drug. The Sharks looked in disarray but have since regrouped and are still a title prospect.
There was a feeling when Southland was depleted that too much rested on Kevin Braswell racking up big numbers. But that does not seem to be the case now with plenty of scoring options. Amongst all the drama coach Paul Henare recruited well, in particular Tai Wesley, while Henare himself has come out of retirement in the time of need.
Dan Peck and Puke Lenden have also stepped out of retirement to help the Sharks, Luke Martin has stepped up his game and in Brian Conklin the Sharks have one of the best players in the league. While outsiders they will provide Hawke's Bay with a tough assignment. - LS
Regular season record: 10-8
Player-coach: Paul Henare
Star player: Brian Conklin
Squad: Kevin Braswell (co-captain), James Paringatai (co-captain), Luke Martin, Tai Wesley, Brian Conklin, Dan Peck, Puke Lenden, Paul Henare, Sam Everitt, Mitchell Newton.
TAB odds to win title: $6.50
Stat attack: At 90.8 points per game, Southland were the most potent offence in the league.