2021 NZNBL Semi-Finals preview: Final Four tips off tonight

TEN teams started in the 2021 New Zealand National Basketball League (NZNBL), and just four remain after 13 weeks of top notch basketball action decided the final four which tips off tonight. Held at Te Rauparaha Arena over two consecutive nights, the four semi-finalists will face off in two do-or-die matches tonight, with the winner of each semi-final progressing through to tomorrow night’s grand final. The four teams in contention are Wellington Saints, Hawkes Bay Hawks, Southland Sharks and Auckland Huskies who remain in the hunt for premiership glory.

WELLINGTON SAINTS vs. AUCKLAND HUSKIES
Thursday, July 22 @ 6pm
Te Rauparaha Arena

Up first are the minor premiers, Wellington Saints taking on fourth placed Auckland Huskies for the opening spot in the 2021 NZNBL Grand Final. The Saints finished on top with 16 wins from 18 matches, clearly the benchmark team ranked first in overall points and first in least points conceded making them an easy favourite for the overall title. In nine matches at home, the Saints did not lose, and their 7-2 record on the road was pretty imposing as well. For the Huskies, they secured their final four spot in the penultimate round, winning 11 games from 18 matches, including a 5-4 record at home, and a 6-3 record on the road, making travelling no fear for the side.

Fans do not have to look too far back to see the last time these sides faced off, with the Round 12 match just five days earlier and the Saints coming away with a 24-point win, 85-61. Captain and League Most Valuable Player (MVP) Dion Prewster went to work putting up 23 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in that game, well aided by Taane Samuel (20 points, four rebounds and two assists). For the Huskies, Justin Bibbs (18 points, nine rebounds and four assists) and Tom Vodanovich (17 points, 10 rebounds and two assists) were the two key players. In their only other encounter back on May 28, Wellington Saints easily accounted for the Huskies by 31 points in a 107-76 victory.

In terms of the key statistics, the Saints average almost 11 points more per game (97.1 to 86.2) and concede nine points less (76.7 to 85.4). Their shooting percentage is higher from inside and outside the arc, and from the free throw line, they have more rebounds and assists per match. In particular, the Saints are great at second chance opportunities, grabbing an average of 11 offensive rebounds per game. They can also win the ball back in transition, recording nine steals per game to the Huskies’ 7.2. In saying that, the Huskies are generally good with ball-in-hand, only committing the 11.8 turnovers per game, less than the Saints’ 12.9.

With Chris Johnson back in the United States and teenage talent Dontae Nance injured, the Huskies have looked to Bibbs and the returned Vodanovich as the key players. Vodanovich has averaged the 20.3 points and 78 rebounds per game, teaming up well with Bibbs (18.0 and 5.3) in that sense. Brook Ruscoe-Taiaroa (10.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists) and Zach Riley (10.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists) are others who have stepped up in the absence of key players. Riley in particular has had a memorable season, winning the Youth Player of the Year.

The Saints on the other hand have no shortage of stars, with Prewster (18.7 points, 4.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds) voted the best player in the NZNBL this season. Kerwin Roach Jr (17.4 points, 4.2 assists and 5.8 rebounds) has also been outstanding, whilst Samuel (16.6 points) is also an All-Star 5 this season, and Tohi Smith-Milner (13.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists) has been outstanding throughout. When weighing up the two sides, it is hard to look past Wellington Saints who have been the best side all year, have very few flaws and an outstanding starting five that should get the job done yet again.

HAWKES BAY HAWKS vs. SOUTHLAND SHARKS
Thursday, July 22 @ 8pm
Te Rauparaha Arena

Once the winner of the first semi-final is decided, it is straight onto the other match with a blockbuster second against third clash. Hawkes Bay Hawks and Southland Sharks both come in with 13-5 records from this season, and were as evenly poised as any to go head-to-head in this match. The Hawks did not lose a match at home in nine outings, including toppling both the Sharks and Wellington Saints, whilst their road record was a little more shaky with a 4-5 record. The Sharks were not as dominant at home but still recorded seven wins from nine matches, whilst also having six from nine away from home.

The most recent encounter between these sides was not so close, with the Hawks coming away with a comfortable 97-71 win on the road. In what was only the Sharks second loss on the road – after a one-point overtime defeat at the hands of Auckland Huskies in the last match at ILT Stadium – the Hawks stormed to a 26-point victory. In an even team performance, five players had double-figure points for the Hawks, with Jordan Hunt (21 points, four assists and two rebounds) and Derone Raukawa (17 points, four assists and three rebounds) leading the way in the win. For the Sharks, Dom Kelman-Poto was a one-man wrecking ball with 27 points, four rebounds and two assists, whilst Joshua Cunningham put up 13 points, eight rebounds and two assists. In their earlier encounter back on May 8, the Hawks came away with a closer 12-point win at Pettigrew Green Arena, 85-73.

In terms of individuals, Kelman Poto is the sole member of the All-Star 5 in this match, with the Hawks having an overall balanced lineup. Looking at the key team stats, the Hawks are marginally ahead in points per game (93.2 to 91.3), and have conceded marginally less points to their opposition (83.4 to 84.3). The Sharks are a marginally better shooting team from inside the arc (56.1 to 55.7 per cent), though neither team could be split from outside it, with 36.9 per cent, and the Hawks hitting 1.3 additional three-pointers per game. Off the boards it is the Hawks who lead the way (37.7 to 36.9), whilst the Sharks are ahead in the assists (19.8 to 18.7) and steals (8.3 to 8.2), whilst also having less turnovers (12.0 to 13.1).

Having played every game for the Hawks, Hyrum Harris has been a rock across the court, able to impact in a multitude of ways on his way to an average of 12.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.1 steals. Leading the team for points, Devondrick Walker has put up 20.2 points. 4.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals in an impressive effort, whilst Ethan Rusbatch managed the 17.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game. The depth of the Hawks is ultra-impressive, with Hunt (12.7 points, 4.6 rebounds), Raukawa (12.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.1 steals) and Rhys Vague (12.2 points, 6.9 rebounds) also averaging double-figure points.

Kelman-Poto’s All-Star 5 season came about from his 17.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game, shooting an a high 57 per cent from the field. He worked well starting every game with Cunningham (14.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists), whilst three others reached double-figure point averages. Courtney Belger (12.3 points. 5.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals), Brayden Inger (14.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists) and Alonzo Burton (13.1 points. 2.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals) all played 17 or games this year showing great durability.

This game is hard to split, but with the Hawks having won both their previous encounters, the scale tips in their favour, but it could genuinely go either way given the stars on display in this contest.

Picture credit: PhotosportNZ via NZNBL

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