(Cape Breton, NS - March 8, 2018)
Whether it's players, coaches or fans, high expectations are nothing new to anyone invested in the inaugural season of the Moncton Magic. Adding names like Anderson, Thomas, Stewart, Williams and Allmond will tend to set the bar high, but there is nothing easy about winning games in professional basketball, and the first 25 games of this season bore that out. It took longer than some expected for the team to come together and gel, but as the transaction deadline approached last month, they were playing like the best team in the NBLC. Still, Moncton GM-Player Operations and Head Coach Joe Salerno looked at Halifax and London at the top of the league and decided changes were still necessary to challenge those two squads in a 7-game series. Length, versatility, interior defense and rebounding weren't exactly lacking on the Magic roster, but are things that the two division-leaders have in excess. Fast forward to last Sunday's game with the London Lightning, and Moncton came in at another crossroads in their season. Juan Pattillo and Marvell Waithe had been added to fortify things at the deadline, but Waithe was making his first appearance after only one day of practice, and Pattillo's adjustment to his new team was not proceeding without it's share of bumps.
Moncton came in losers of three of four, only having broken 90 points once in that span. Pattillo was averaging only 6 ppg on 35% shooting in his first three appearances and the gap between the Magic and third-place Saint John was down to 1 ½ games in the battle for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. London meanwhile, was winners of 7 of 8, had regained sole possession of first place in the Central and jumped out to a quick 24-7 lead buoyed by hot three-point shooting and the playmaking of Royce White. Led by Terry Thomas in the first half and supported by Waithe, Pattillo and Al Stewart in the second though, Moncton responded, taking advantage of London's lost composure and 20 turnovers in a 108-103 victory. Thomas was outstanding from the jump, carrying the team early when buckets were hard to come by, and deferring to Waithe late when the fellow Canadian veteran found a matchup he liked and got hot facing up from the mid-post. Waithe's chemistry with his new teammates may have surprised some, but don't count Coach Salerno in that group.
"We said it coming in," Salerno commented from Cape Breton in advance of tonight's 7 pm Atlantic matchup with the Highlanders live from monctonmagic.ca, "Marvell is the type of player you can put out there in virtually any situation, and his ability to score the ball, and make plays on the defensive end, will always come into play. Our whole team was familiar with Marvell, and what he was going to be able to bring to the table for us. I think it was great the guys had so much confidence in him right out of the gate. I highly doubt that is the last time we call his number down the stretch in a game when we need a bucket." Waithe put the full package on display in his debut, scoring 17 points on 7-13 shooting with 5 boards and 2 blocks in only 21 minutes. Locked in a spirited battle with Ryan Anderson down on the blocks with 90 seconds remaining, Marvell overreacted and threw Anderson to the floor, resulting in a 5-point play and nearly costing the Magic their entire lead. However, he bailed himself out with a huge 18-footer on the very next possession. The trust the team showed in him by going right back to him after his mistake was as impressive as the shot itself.
Also impressive was Pattillo's effort on both ends of the floor. In his first three games, he seemed apprehensive both offensively and defensively and lacked his signature aggression. Against London however, he responded with 16 points and 9 rebounds and was a key component of the effort that held Royce White to 16 points on 4-10 shooting with 7 turnovers. Coach Salerno was encouraged by his performance. "Juan is just trying to find where he fits in with us," he observed, "more so on the offensive end. We do want him to be a little more assertive and look to attack the rim more. We feel he can pose a lot of match up problems for other team's post players, having the ability to face up and beat them off the dribble. He finishes very well around the rim, so we are looking to take advantage of this." Pattillo's breathtaking athletic ability was apparent on several finishes at the rim as well as a couple of stepback jumpers that left defenders grasping at air.
The win put Moncton four games over .500 at 19-15 and gives them a fourth chance this season to get to five games over for the first time in the history of professional basketball in the city. Coming off their mini-slump, the London win has to inject some belief into a team looking to recapture a little consistency. "We are working back towards playing at a high level night in and night out," said Salerno, "with all of our guys understanding how we are trying to play, and I think the London game will give us a shot of confidence. Holding that team to 103 points, any coach would be pleased, especially after then hung 147 on us in our last meeting and scored with such ease. All in all, any time you can beat that team, its a good win. I think deep down, we all believe we can compete for this NBL title."
Cape Breton is a team that comes in to tonight's game losers of 4 in a row and 7 of 10, a streak that leaves them on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs. They now trail fourth-place Island by three full games and have a schedule left that does them no favours. They have 2 games remaining with the Storm but only 3 of their 10 games left are at the friendly confines of Centre 200. That being said, the Highlanders are coming in off of a brave effort in a loss to the red-hot Storm where they fought back from a big deficit despite being down Shane Osayande to an illness, Antonio Biglow to injury, and having two players ejected in a hotly disputed contest. Newcomers Rashad Whack, Malik Storey and Chris Braswell have had a little time to blend in with star guard Bruce Massey Jr. and with Osayande returning for tonight's game, they have the potential to put it all together anytime and make life difficult for the Magic. Coach Salerno points to their transition game as a real weapon. "We have to make sure we slow them down a bit," he emphasized. "They can be very dangerous in the open floor, and the last thing we want to do with them is make it a track meet. We have to be able to make them play a half court game, get stops, and then make them defend multiple actions in our half court offense when transition isn't there. Keeping their shooters like Storey, Whack, and Massey off the three-point line, and then relying on sound backside defense on penetration. They are a good offensive team, we have to make sure we play with some energy on the defensive end, and make them a bit uncomfortable."
The Moncton schedule is also road-heavy to close the season, but doesn't pose quite the same issue as Cape Breton's. They only have 6 games remaining and they are quite spaced out, giving coach Salerno a chance to rest guys, but also challenges him on how to give his new roster the reps it needs to get comfortable in game situations. "We have to be smart about how we handle our down time," he observed. "We obviously need to go back and review a lot of things with Juan and Marvell, which can be tough for some of our other guys because they are so comfortable with it. We know both of those guys will have big impacts for us in the post season, so it is vital we spend the time on reviewing our stuff with them. We need to stay sharp, and continue to improve, it will be a couple of important weeks for us."
The Magic are focused on putting a stranglehold on the second seed in the Atlantic Division and an away win tonight would go a long way to accomplishing that goal. Also on their mind should be the knowledge that they will have to steal games on the road in later rounds if their goal of an NBL championship is to be realized. While they own the second most home wins in the league, only Niagara and KW own worse records on the road than their 6-10. Don't think that a veteran squad such as the Magic aren't fully aware of that record and won't come in eager to nudge that record back toward the .500 mark. The action starts live at 7 pm Atlantic from monctonmagic.ca so join us and support the guys!
Story by David Tingley