By Aiden McLaughlin
90 games down, just 3 to go. After a Covid affected season that resulted in the one-off (and award winning) NBL Showdown in 2020, the Sal’s 2021 NBL Season returned to a traditional format this year, with 10 teams playing each other home and away over the last 3 months. The result has been the final standings shown below.
Now, it’s time for the top four to do battle over two nights, this Thursday and Friday at the Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua. On Thursday night, first plays fourth as competition favourites and 11-time champions, the Wellington Saints, face one of the new kids on the block, the Auckland Huskies, who, along with the Franklin Bulls, are in their first regular NZ NBL season. Afterwards, second plays third as the 2019 runners up (to the Saints) Hawke’s Bay Hawks take on the 3-time champions, the Southland Sharks.
The Saints led the regular season ladder and are justifiably favourites to take the title. With just two losses all season (one to the Hawks, the other to the Sharks), they possess the league MVP and defensive player of the year in Dion Prewster, the coach of the year in Zico Coronel and another member of the All Star 5 (alongside Prewster) in Taane Samuel. When comparing the Final Four teams, they lead the game averages in points for, points against, free throws made, 3 pointers made, offensive rebounds and steals. So where are the weaknesses? Well, potentially the format of the playoffs could count against them; Coronel hasn’t gone too deep into his squad during the 18 regular season games, meaning that their top 6/7 have played plenty of minutes. Should this be repeated in a victorious semi-final, then how easy will it be for them to back up in a final vs the Hawks or Sharks?
The Huskies have done so well to make this stage, but their star import Chris Johnston (who has NBA experience with Portland Trailblazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves) departed with two rounds of the regular season remaining. It means that so much rests on the shoulders of the 2020 MVP Tom Vodanovich if they are to put up a show against the Saints; his matchup against Prewster will be huge. Zach Riley and Justin Bibbs will need to have huge games and the Saints will need to drop off their high standards if this one is going to be close.
The Hawks and Sharks enter their match with identical win/loss records this season (13-5) but the Hawks are the favourites. The Hawks have had an interesting season. Players (and coaches) have joined the squad as the Australian NBL has developed; Jordan Hunt and Jarrod Kenny’s arrival from the Cairn Taipans has provided real depth and if Derone Raukawa has recovered from a calf niggle that has sidelined him in the last couple of weeks, they can easily rotate 9 players during the game and still be assured of quality all over the court.
The Sharks suffered an injury blow recently with starting shooting guard Alonzo Burton breaking a hand during practice although the story of the season so far raised spirits last week when Alex Pledger, who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer earlier this year, made his comeback off the bench in their last regular season game. Dom Kelman-Poto was named in the league’s All Star 5 earlier this week and he will need to be at his best. The Sharks lost on the road to the Hawks 85-73 back in early May, but it was the return fixture less than three weeks ago in Invercargill that was more alarming for the men from Southland; the Hawks raced out to a 37-18 first quarter lead, on their way to a 97-71 victory. The Sharks simply cannot let Ethan Rusbatch’s team run up a lead like that again.
Most neutrals are expecting a Saints v Hawks final and I’m no different; if it is to be, then it should be a cracker. The Hawks beat the Saints at home 88-82 in mid June, before the Saints were victorious in the return match at TSB Arena 119-112 in overtime (although it should be noted that the Hawks played at home the night before, with the Saints having had an eight day break). On Friday night I’m predicting a 5-10 point winning margin for the Hawks to avenge their 2019 Grand Final defeat to the Saints and secure just their second NBL title.
6.00pm – Wellington Saints v Auckland Huskies
8.00pm – Hawke’s Bay Hawks v Southland Sharks
8.00pm – Grand Final
Tickets for both nights are available at the door or via Ticketek. All games are live on Sky Sport 2.
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