Nothing better than that week's vacation away from work, right? You relax, put your feet up, and come back fresh and revitalized. The Saint John Riptide didn't spend their last 6 days on the beach sipping from drinks with little umbrellas in them, but you can bet they didn't mess with whatever formula worked for them during their first week-long break of this young NBL Canada season.
The Riptide come into today's 2 PM clash with the 9-0 Moncton Magic at the Avenir Centre fresh off a 2-0 Ontario road trip that saw them topple a confident 4-1 Sudbury Five squad after 7 full days off, and follow that up with a 24-point trouncing of the defending champion London Lightning. For a team that came into last weekend 0-5 on the year, it was an encouraging 3 days to say the least.
The Moncton Magic's preseason foray to the Orient was the first of its kind in the league and it's becoming increasingly obvious how valuable the China trip was, particularly in the context of this weekend's two matchups. The Halifax Hurricanes had no preseason action at all, struggled mightily out of the gate and haven't yet caught up, dropping to 0-4 against Moncton with Friday night's loss. The Riptide, meanwhile, with just 2 returning players, and only 5 with any previous NBL experience, are just now finding their footing.
Saint John coach Nelson Terroba betrayed just a touch of jealousy speaking of the jump today's opponent may have gotten on the rest of the league, but rightfully recognized other reasons for the quick Magic start. "It was a smart move doing the China tour," Terroba began during our conversation earlier this week. "You get an extra couple of cycles with the guys seeing how they handle everything, travel, teammates, playing in hostile environments, and how they handle coaching."
"But I think it's a testament to what coach Salerno is doing in Moncton and how he's built it that they're so balanced both on the floor and in the organization. It's a tough ask for us this weekend, but we always have the same approach to most games, and that's to figure out on our end how to match up and cover things up the best we can."
The "best they can" at the defensive end of the floor has been awfully good for the Riptide since Terroba took charge of the franchise before last season. Coming off a 2017/2018 season where they ranked at the top of the league in that category, they are one of only 4 teams holding opponents under 100 points per game so far this season as well. And when Terroba refers to the Magic defensive prowess…….well, game recognizes game.
"They get a lot of credit for the firepower on the offensive end of the floor," observed Terroba, "but you don't get to be the number 1 defense in the league by accident. That happens through effort and hard work, and it's the togetherness on that end that's been so impressive to me." We've nearly reached the season's quarter pole, and the Magic are giving up a whopping seven fewer points per contest than any other team in the league.
Teams are shooting just over 40% from the field against Moncton overall, almost 4 points better than anyone else in the NBL, and opponents 31.6% mark from beyond the arc trails only the St. John's Edge at the top of the league. When you throw in the second highest forced turnover rate, the numbers really tell a story here. Observing them up close though, that's when you realize just how cohesive a unit this is right now.
The Magic also block more shots than all but three teams in the league, a mark that might be higher if they didn't do such a fine job locking down penetration at the point of attack. Moncton Coach Joe Salerno's defensive philosophy doesn't involve much in the way of getting in passing lanes and stopping ball reversal. His teams try to stay home, stay solid, and communicate in an effort to force the most difficult two-point shot possible. When guards and wings do manage to get into the paint, they've been met with help from a trio of both heralded and unheralded bigs at the rim.
Nick Evans, Billy White and Denzell Taylor all come to the floor with different strengths, be it White's unnaturally long arms and quickness, Evans toughness and ability to get vertical and force misses with his size or Taylor's overall adaptability and tenaciousness. All three are terrific at communicating with a deep group of tough-minded guards and wings, giving the Wayne McCullough's and Doug Herring's of the world the confidence to make life tough on the ball-handler, knowing the help they've got behind them.
For his part, Coach Salerno knows the unique challenge a Terroba-coached team makes for this afternoon and the adjustments he'll have to make accordingly. "He has a G-League background," Salerno observes of his counterpart's time in the NBA development league, "and you can tell that in the way they run offense with their spread pick and roll, but also how well they defend the pick and roll. We'll look to attack a little differently with more screening off the ball and a little less ball domination, more ball movement."
Doug Herring Jr. will be the man tasked with the most responsibility executing the game plan on the offensive end for Moncton. If his second game as the primary quarterback for the Magic after the departure of Jahii Carson goes as well as the first, the Riptide have their hands full. Herring dropped 7 dimes against Halifax in the first quarter alone, made a dagger three deep into in the 4th and snagged a late defensive rebound on the way to recording his first career NBL Canada triple double.
Herring and his backcourt mates have knocked down threes at a 39.1% clip so far this year, the best mark in the NBLC, a success rate that will have to continue today against an intense Saint John defense that makes up for a little lack of size up front with some help from it's guards. Bothersome pests (a compliment, believe me) like Jeremiah Mordi, Brent Arrington and Marvin Binney dig down hard on opposing post players, trying to time those digs as best they can to force tough shots, a turnover or a difficult kick-out pass.
Salerno knew early in the week that yesterday's day off would be spent working on how best to counter what Saint John does well. "We'll work on stuff out of double teams," said Salerno, "quick sprint cuts off of guys digging hard, because St. John does that well, and if there's any big guy in the league you want to do that to it's Billy White."
Terroba acknowledged the toughness and ability of his guys defensively but also recognizes the risks inherent in challenging the Moncton offense in that manner. "I had this discussion with a middle school coach one time that stuck with me," Terroba remembered. "We were discussing pressing this team and how risky it was, and he said, 'life's about trade-offs'. You've got to figure out what you're willing to give up."
"Our guys do a great job helping the bigs by digging down on the ball, but that stuff has to be situational. You put Corey Allmond at the other end of that assignment and it's a different outcome. It's contextual and it's what's great about our game." Terroba is excited about his team's improvement defensively in the past couple of weeks, but it was only one of three points he emphasized when discussing their recent turnaround. "Guys have been doing a much better job executing their defensive assignments, but also offensively, getting themselves in the right position. So, just completing our assignments in general has been key."
"Guys have been figuring out within our system how to get their shots. It's just a level of comfort and figuring how things work together, but guys have just been making more shots than they did in those early games." Above all else though, Terroba just thinks it's taken some time for all the new players to find ways to fit together.
"We have a lot of new guys," he mentioned, "and, for us, it's about letting folks find their footing and figuring out how they're best utilized. Some of that had to be done in the first couple of games because I think we only have 2 returning players. Only 5 of our guys have any kind of experience in the league. That's not an excuse of any sort, it's just a statement to say that us figuring out how to fit everyone together best is the number one reason we've gotten better."
If there is one player Terroba knows he count on to be the leader in the locker room, it's Jeremiah Mordi. Mordi has been one of my favourite players in the league since the start of last season. He just makes winning plays, regardless of if they show up on the scoresheet or not. "Jerry is consistent," said Terroba, "never misses an assignment, and brings his full energy and focus to every game and every practice and everything that he does. He's always giving you everything he's got. He's been a real steady leader and cultural driver, letting new guys know how it goes, and building a bridge between last year and this year to be standard bearer for us. That influence has been invaluable."
The new addition that most closely matches Mordi's attitude to an outside observer would be Brent Arrington, one of two starters, along with Chris Early, that the franchise uncovered at the draft combine. "Brent's definitely got some juice to him," laughed Terroba about his new point guard. "He's got good energy, he's a tremendous kid, athletic, explosive, smart, and he really wants to learn what it takes to win. He's really growing into that position, and it's a good role for him. Defensively he's dynamic, and he's got that spirit that's tough to beat."
Replacing an All-Star like Horace Wormely, who left for Windsor in the offseason, was never going to be easy, but this team has really found something in Arrington, a sentiment echoed by Coach Salerno. "Yeah, I really like that kid," the Magic coach says with admiration. "He's tough, and one of a bunch of guys that are athletic and can attack the paint. In general, they're long, tough and they have good athletes."
Frank Bartley is but one of those athletes Magic fans should be concerned about. Playmakers abound on the Riptide roster and he's really found his stride after a tough start. "Yeah, he's had a couple of really good games in a row," said Coach Terroba. "He can make a lot of plays, can shoot, put it on the deck, and he's smart, really starting to find his way within the system."
The rookie in Bartley has come out more than once during the early season in the form of shot selection, but his coach sees improvement there too. "Frank lately has made good situational decisions by getting into the paint and taking what the defense gives him. He's been poised and really good the last 2 games."
Up front, both Daniel Dingle and Chris Early possess a varied skill set that will provide a challenge for the Magic big men. Dingle struggled badly his first 4 games, but he flipped a switch and has been a terror his last three outings, averaging over 18 a game on over 60% shooting with 5 made threes. He was instrumental in the overtime victory over Sudbury. "Daniel had a great 4th and OT for us," said Terroba. He's just got a unique game. He's got playmaking, some size, he's intelligent and he's got the feel of that old man at the YMCA court. He's not saying much, he just fits in and knows what he's doing. Daniel's been big for us in that role."
Early is Saint John's leading scorer and rebounder on the young season and has added excellent defense as well. I love it when an NBL guy reminds me of one of my favourite NBA players and every time I watch Early, I see a little Paul Millsap in him. "Chris has been a great addition right from the draft combine. It just goes to show there's a lot of guys that don't get chances that maybe aren't celebrated or heralded."
"He's a guy who's getting a chance and making the most of it. He's been instrumental as a rebounder and has the ability to defend the tougher checks in our league like the Billy Whites. He's the kind of guy who's got the size, strength and athletic ability to guard some of those guys, and that's where he brings a lot of value, along with his shot-making and scoring ability."
Coach Salerno knows the Riptide's 2-5 record early on isn't going to mean a thing come 2 pm today. "They're going to be a tough get coming off wins with a lot of rest and they have their own streak to protect. They have so many guys they can attack you with, but we've also got the players who can go two ways with that. Our guys are sharp enough to rotate out of those pick and pop situations they create and also execute clean switches like we did on the Rock. But hey, if Saint John is shooting the ball well, they're gonna be really tough to beat."
Terroba knows the growth of his team is nowhere near complete "We have really good balance with our skilled guys," he said, "and we're working to get out of their way at some level to enable them to best use what they've got, and put them together in a fashion where they'll succeed as a group. Moncton though, they're so organized offensively. They know where their shots are going to come from and how to get them and, again, defensively, they're so solid." He pauses. "They just don't have a glaring weakness.....anywhere."