(Moncton, NB: January 8, 2018)
Scheduling quirks are nothing new to longtime observers of NBL Canada (pause here for knowing head nods from those St. John's Edge and KW Titans fans). As a player and coach, sometimes you have to rise to meet the challenge of a 10-day, 5-game road trip taking you all the way from Ontario to Cape Breton. (The Moncton Magic are facing just such a challenge in the upcoming weeks.) As a fan, you have to cope with no home games to attend for a few weeks at a time. (Fire up the NBL Canada site or and find an out of town game to fill the void…right??). As an analyst like yours truly, the challenge of Central and Atlantic Division teams facing each other so infrequently is taking what you see on screen and breaking down matchups based on your advanced knowledge gleaned from years of basketball education…and/or your wild stabs in the dark based on guesses, let's be real.
Wednesday night brings the first game of the year between the 8-8 Moncton Magic and the 8-9 Niagara River Lions and after a little film work online, I think it's as intriguing a tilt as any we've had in this still young season. The Magic come in off of one of their most complete games of the year, a 101-89 victory over the Windsor Express, an encouraging performance but another one that had Coach Joe Salerno humming a familiar tune. "I was fairly pleased with how we played offensively. I thought we were getting shots within the sets that we run, and were putting guys in a position to score. We do, however, need to start knocking down some of these open shots we are getting on a more consistent basis."
That search for elusive shotmaking consistency has been a season-long one and Coach Salerno offered a decidedly uncomplicated solution to their biggest ongoing issue. "Drilling, drilling, drilling, shooting, drilling, and more shooting," he said with a laugh when asked about his strategy to carry over their excellent Windsor performance to a matchup with Niagara a full 6 days later. "We need to continue to try and build good habits. Good habits from all 5 guys on the floor at once is what will eventually give you consistent play".
If you'd told most Magic fans before the season that 16 games in, they would rank in the bottom three in the league in almost every offensive category...first they wouldn't have believed you...and second, they'd probably have predicted a much worse than .500 record. The Magic's secret to hovering around even-steven while searching for an offensive identity isn't a secret at all. It's the mirror-image defensive numbers the team is sporting. They are TOP 3 in points allowed, opponent FG%, rebounding margin, forced turnovers, and blocks. For the offence to catch up to the defence, they'll have to achieve some semblance of balance on that end. Everyone knows the explosive nature of the Magic on the perimeter, but points from the frontcourt have been at a premium. Coach Salerno knows just how important that balance is. "You need paint touches, period. Whether that's throwing the ball into the post, or getting the ball to the paint off the bounce, it creates North and South movement by defenses, something that makes almost any offensive action hard to guard." Anthony Cox, Denzell Taylor and Tirrell Baines aren't guys you're going to post-up over and over again and expect scoring from, but they certainly have ways to contribute and they were terrific against Windsor in many ways, especially ones that don't entirely show up in their numbers. Cox dominated the offensive glass in a key stretch of the third quarter and Taylor and Baines' physicality was bothersome to the Windsor frontcourt. We may see some moves to shore up scoring from those positions as the year goes on, but if they get play like they got from Brent Jennings against the Express, it may matter a little less. "We certainly feel BJ can be a scoring presence inside," said Salerno, "especially if matched up with smaller guards, and it's something we will look to exploit more moving forward." Jennings was the player of the game for the Magic with 21 points on 9-16 shooting on all three levels and Coach Salerno knows he can depend on him to be a threat from the three point line and at the rim, as well as everywhere in between. "(We can put) him in more ball screen situations as a screener where teams feel they can switch on the perimeter and we drag them to the post, or we can screen for BJ off the ball looking for teams to switch. I feel he can be a weapon for us in those type of situations, and it's something we need to look for more often."
The play of Jeremy Williams against the Express was encouraging as well. He was missing early and, given his recent struggles from the field, he could have adopted a "here-we-go-again" demeanour. But even on those early misses he looked confident and one had a feeling the lid was going to come off. It did starting in he second quarter and his 18 points on 7-13 from the floor were huge.
Anthony Anderson and Terry Thomas both struggled from the field, but adapted to the flow of the game beautifully and ended with 9 and 6 assists respectively. There are going to be other nights when the Magic's two top-ten league scorers aren't going to be at their best, and their unselfishness as Jennings and Williams stepped up was key.
The Niagara River Lions come in off a thrilling but disappointing 143-132 loss to the now-rolling defending champs in London that played out as a microcosm of their season so far. They are explosive, but are apt to allow big scoring nights on the other end as well. Coach Salerno knows the problems their squad presents. "In my opinion Niagara is one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the NBL. They have good size, and a lot of knock down shooters all over the floor." The shooter with the deadliest eye of them all at almost 52% from the three-point line on the year, Omar Strong, has struggled of late and didn't play against London at all, but others stepped up. Furthermore, coach Salerno recognizes that there is much more to that offensive attack. "They are one of the only teams in the league that have two true pick and pop threats in their front court in Marvell Waithe and Sam Muldrow. The combination of those two and the guard play they have with the likes of Jaylon Tate make them a very difficult team to defend." Muldrow struggled with foul trouble against London and will be well-rested. His physical style will make for an intriguing matchup against a Moncton frontcourt who never shies away from butting heads down low. It is Waithe though, the "Canadian KD", who comes in as the most difficult matchup for this elite Moncton defence. His length and activity and creativity help him rank in the top-20 in nearly every offensive category and his 19.2 PPG rank him 9th in league scoring. He does turn the ball over at a high rate as well and a clash with Terry Thomas and his lightening-quick hands and competitive fire should be the one to watch. Canadian ball fans should pay particular attention to Guillaume Boucard, a product of the Smart-family Carleton Ravens CIS juggernaut. His first season has been tremendous and, after a stellar outing against London, he's up to 13.7 points and over 8 rebounds per game, which puts the small forward into the top ten in the league in that category.
The point guard matchup is key to any NBLC game and the Tate/Al Stewart pairing is intriguing for a few reasons. Tate is exciting with the ball in his hands in the open floor and when they are playing up-tempo, he is particularly dangerous. If Stewart can slow him down and make the River Lions more of a halfcourt team, that will blunt Tate's effectiveness as he's struggled with his perimeter shooting. "Two-Times" has seen his minutes dip slightly lately as coach Salerno has made a concerted effort to get both Corey Allmond and Marquis Clayton more run, but it hasn't affected Stewart's effort or effectiveness and he's still the man to close out games. Clayton, it should be noted, had his best game as a pro against the Express with 8 points, 4 assists and stellar defence to go against only 1 turnover.
Wednesday night marks the last time Magic fans will see the guys in person until January 24th as they will take off on a 5-game road trip with stops in all the Ontario ports-of-call before a long bus ride to Cape Breton for a January 20th date with the fast-improving Highlanders. Not an easy stretch to be sure but coach Salerno isn't asking for any sympathy. "Yes, it's a tough stretch, but every team in our league goes through them. It will be a test for sure, but we will rely heavily on film study, rest, and eating right. These guys are pros, and when the lights come on we need them to fight through the fatigue and leave it all out there for 48 minutes."
The guys are going to want a loud, happy send off Magic fans, so a big crowd on Wednesday at 7 pm at the Moncton Coliseum is important. If you can't make it out, remember to tune into myself and Scott Squires on the call from monctonmagic.ca and go to the website for all our pre and post-game interviews with the guys as well. Follow me on Twitter @hoopstingley and Scott is @JohSco and we want to see and hear from you Wednesday!
Story by: Dave Tingley, Official Colour Commentator of the Magic