THE weekend to close out week four of competition is the first of the short 2020 Sal’s National Basketball League (NBL) season where all seven teams take to the court. Manawatu Jets and Taranaki Airs face off after a little break from their last matches, while Auckland Huskies also enter the fray for the first time, fresh up against a Nelson Giants outfit that played last night.
NELSON GIANTS vs. AUCKLAND HUSKIES
In the opening match of the night, a Giants side fresh off snapping its four-game losing streak come up against an improving Huskies side with fifth spot on the line in this clash. After a slow start to the season, dropping their first few games, the Huskies have rebounded nicely to notch up four of the pat five games and really look a damaging threat. Impressively, they have been able to knock over three of the top four sides and looked great in doing so, even when most of their wins have been low scoring, but effective. Their performance against the Airs on Thursday reaffirmed they could stick at it for longer and notch past 100. The Giants on the other hand have only scored above 80 once in their past five games, but managed to win last night by reaching that total and conceding just 64 points to the Rams.
The Giants were thrilled to welcome back Mika Vukona for his first game of the season, putting up eight points, three rebounds and two assists off just over 12 minutes in the match. With more time on court expected in this game, he could be a real danger for the Huskies who need to find a way to stop him. Along with Vukona, the Giants also have the top center in the league with Mike Karena also returning last night and he averages 17 points, five rebounds and two assists this season. For the first time, Nelson may well have its strongest starting lineup without minute restrictions, and the duo along with Dane Brooks (9.9 points, 6.0 rebounds) and Thomas Ingham (15.3 points, 5.1 rebounds) loom as a team not to be underestimated as they eye off consecutive wins.
Izayah Mauriohooho Le’Afa has been sensational since coming into the team, averaging 19.8 points, 5.1 assists and 4.9 rebounds. Leon Henry has shown his experience guiding the team with an identical points and rebounds balance of 11.7. Tohi Smith-Milner had a huge 20-20 game on Thursday to guide his side to the win, which resulted in his average going up to 14.3 points and 8.6 rebounds. The other crucial one to watch is teenager Taine Murray who has shown plenty of potential on the scoring front with 17.5 points per game to be a real game changer for the Huskies.
The match is a danger game for the Huskies who can join the top four, two wins clear of their opponents, or slip back level with the Giants. The stage is set for it to be a massive encounter.
MANAWATU JETS vs. TARANAKI MOUNTAINAIRS
A top four clash between Manawatu Jets and the top of the table Taranaki Mountainairs promises to be an absolute pearler to close out week four of competition. With only a week left until finals, the Airs have been the most prolific scoring team, but have also conceded the most points on average too. Their run-and-gun high octane style of basketball is exciting and they back themselves to match it with any other side. Franklin Bulls have beaten them twice, but have only lost two of the remaining nine contests. The intriguing note is that one of those losses was to the Jets back on July 5, which means Manawatu could be level on top by the end of the night. The Jets have transformed themselves from an inconsistent side to a really strong one, winning four of the past five, and only a disappointing 36-point shocker in between.
Impressively, the Jets have hit 100 in all of their most recent wins, so are the next highest scoring team behind the Airs. Both Jayden Bezzant (21.8 points) and Tom Vodanovich (21.5) are prolific scorers, though it would be remiss not to include Taane Samuel (18.3) and Nelson Kirksey (14.8) of whom the latter has filled the role of the recently injured Hyrum Harris (14.0). Harris is nearing a return which will only strengthen the Jets, as he and Vodanovich both maintain double-double averages thanks to 13 and 12 rebounds apiece respectively. The Jets have the same top five in different orders for points, assists and rebounds showing the importance of their top-end talent, and have the best starting team in the competition.
The Airs have not done too much wrong since the Jets loss, and won four consecutive games against quality opposition. They were all fairly close, but were able to notch up wins and move two games clear on top of the Sal’s NBL table. A disappointing defeat to Auckland Huskies on Thursday night bumped them back a bit, so they will not want to lose here and surrender top spot. Derone Raukawa is on track to win the competition’s MVP and is clearly an elite talent. He averages 23.3 points and 7.5 assists, able to do it himself or set up his teammates. He has been incredibly supported by the work of double-double specialist Marcel Jones. The big man time and time again gets it done with 22.3 points, 14.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists. The pair are near-unstoppable, and with Shane Temara (12.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists) and Ken Tuffin (10.3 points, 5.7 rebounds) providing great support, the team has a strong core.
Given these teams are the two highest scoring teams in the competition, expect the game to produce a couple of tons and plenty of electrifying baskets.