The path to a three-peat is still a steep one but at least now the Wellington Saints control their own destiny.
A fired-up Saints squad ended a three-game losing streak and kept themselves in the centre of the National Basketball League playoffs picture with an 88-73 win over the previously No1 Bay Hawks before a crowd of 3800 at TSB Bank Arena on Saturday night.
Now coach Pero Cameron's two-time defending champions face a season-defining week, with three games in four days – including two on the road – starting against North Harbour on Wednesday night.
Forced into playoff mode out of desperation, the Saints held the typically free-scoring Hawks to 19 points below their season average in a much-improved defensive effort, keeping them to 40 per cent from the field and 22 per cent on three-point attempts, while also forcing 19 turnovers.
"I'm not getting above myself," Cameron said. "The Hawks are a tough team, they've booked themselves into the playoffs and we haven't yet. So let's just keep our feet on the ground and remain focused for our next game, against the Heat on Wednesday."
The win lifted Wellington into fifth spot at 6-6, breathing down the necks of the 7-7 Taranaki Mountain Airs in fourth and a half-game ahead of the 6-7 Nelson Giants, as that trio and the Manawatu Jets (7-5) chase the last two berths in the final four (May 26-27 in Wellington).
Casey Frank led the Saints with 23 points (9/15 FG) and eight rebounds, while point guard Jason Crowe had 22 points, as all five starters scored in double-digits and combined for 82 of their 88 points. Forward Arthur Trousdell put in a tireless effort that included 12 points (6/8 FG), four blocks and helped limit Hawks import Galen Young to eight points.
With a more aggressive approach offensively, the Saints never trailed after a Frank dunk at the 5:14 mark of the first period. They led by seven after the first quarter, nine at halftime and 12 with a quarter to run.
A corner three from Frank, with accompanying celebration in front of the Hawke's Bay bench, with 5:18 remaining put the Saints up 15 points and signalled the end.
Wellington continued their sub-par three-point shooting in 2012, going 7-of-26 (27 per cent), something McLean, who went 1-of-5 himself, was not overly concerned about given the defensive effort and final result.
"I prefer to look at the positive – if we make 40 per cent or 50 per cent of our threes, that's a blowout our two-point percentage this season is pretty great. As long as we don't live and die by the three we'll be OK."
The Saints tip off their week 11 triple-header at the Harbour Heat (3-9) on Wednesday night, returning to Wellington to host the Otago Nuggets (4-9) on Friday night, before a road trip to Nelson to face fellow final four aspirants the Giants on Saturday night.
Their final regular season game is at home against the NBL-leading Auckland Pirates (10-2) on May 18.
"It's tough. Very tough," Cameron said. "We've got Auckland and we've got the Heat. They had a great win last week against the Palmy Jets.
"So we can't take any game lightly. It's not that we have in the past, but we're on the edge. We can't have any slip-ups."
- The Dominion Post
Who is the most important player for the Tall Blacks at the World Cup?