Basketball: Baldwin left with mountain to climb

By Anendra Singh

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Kareem Johnson (left) and Dustin Scott tangle with Taranaki's Suleiman Braimoh.
Kareem Johnson (left) and Dustin Scott tangle with Taranaki's Suleiman Braimoh.

With the minor premiership bragging rights already in the bag, one would expect the Hawks to be tweaking their systems before the Final Four early next month.

In an ideal world the answer from the IMS Payroll-sponsored Hawke's Bay franchise basketball team would be an emphatic: "Yes!".

Realistically coach Tab Baldwin and his troops are tipping off in the Bartercard National Basketball League (NBL) tomorrow at New Plymouth on the foundation of the "worst disruption" any team can envisage.

"Everard Bartlett has had some personal issues so he's headed off to Perth where his wife and children reside," Baldwin reveals after the Hawks played a typical hammer-and-tongs playoff-type match against defending champions Southland Sharks in Napier last Sunday to seal their position on the top rung of the NBL ladder in overtime.

It is unlikely the Hawks shooting guard will jet back in time for tomorrow's 3pm tip off at TSB Stadium against the Good Home Taranaki Mountainairs.

Baldwin's consternation doesn't end there.

Bench small forward Anamata Haku's uncle died this week so he's attending the funeral in Auckland and there's a question mark on his appearance at the game.

Bench forward Darryl Jones, who had a blinder against Paul Henare's Sharks, is nursing a scratch to an eyeball during a scrimmaging session here.

"If he plays then he may have limited time but we'll still be pretty short on numbers," says the five-time NBL title-winning coach as he spearheads a second crown in the history of the province.

"Even if Everard, Ana and DJ [Jones] play, they haven't been training."

As it is, Hawks swingman and captain Paora Winitana, a Mormon bishop, doesn't play on Sundays because of his religious beliefs.

"We have concerns for the wellbeing of the players, except for Paora, of course, and the wellbeing of the team.

"A hand has been dealt to the players, unfortunately, so our prayers and thoughts are with our teammates and it's just incumbent on us to step up."

The Mountainairs are on the second-last rung of the ladder, two points above bottom dwellers Canterbury Rams on eight but on a poor percentage against the Manawatu Jets perched above them on the same points.

In May last year the hosts beat the Hawks 101-86, under former coach David Bublitz, but it was salt-in-the-wound stuff when Baldwin was ejected from the New Plymouth venue for referee abuse in a season when the Hawks failed to make the playoff cut.

With the Hawks winning 88-84 in the first round at the PG Arena in April, it goes without saying the knuckle dusters will be out on the road tomorrow.

Taranaki skipper Aaron Bailey-Nowell says it was disappointing to lose at home to the OceanaGold Nuggets, 90-89, in the last round by a point.

"It's frustrating but we're playing with an inexperienced, young group," Bailey-Nowell says, something that was obvious in Napier in the first round as players argued game plans when the Hawks upped the tempo.

Nevertheless, the Taranaki side endeavour to work as hard as they can on the floor and are hoping a big crowd will get behind them.

"We want to finish the season on a high note against the best team in the league," says the power forward.

He says the Hawks are tough and well coached so it won't be simply a case of turning up at the court.

"Last year we were trying to be more physical to get them out of [their comfort zone] to do other things."

Bailey-Nowell says the Hawks are the best team in the NBL for a good reason.

"They are very physical so we've just got to find ways of stopping the two biggies on the inside," he reveals, adding oppositions have struggled against the Hawks offensively because of the height and athleticism of the US import pair of centre Kareem Johnson and power forward Dustin Scott.

Sticking to his mantra of bygone seasons are bygone, Baldwin prefers to believe his troops are battle-savvy enough now not to fall for any perceived sense of poor refereeing on any given night.

"Even in a bad game our quality of disappointment and class will be better than last year."

Baldwin thinks Taranaki counterpart Daryn Shaw has asked his players to bring physicality to their game to make up for their overall inexperience and they have responded with aplomb.

"They are solid NBL-calibre quality and few of them are young. They may not be experienced but they play hard."

He accepts if the Jarrod Kenny-skippered Hawks look hard enough they will find a silver lining amid the dark clouds hovering over them this weekend.

"We don't change our expectations of others just because some of us are wounded."

Baldwin is adamant they will remain on course to add to the Bay's NBL history on the maiden crown former coach Shawn Dennis masterminded in 2006 with Winitana, Bartlett and Johnson in the mix.

"We definitely aren't going to be making excuses on Sunday and we'll be fairly good about how we rise to our next challenge."

Power forward Scott may have to play out of position as small forward and it appears as if Marco Alexander, the apprentice point guard, will revert to his specialist shooting guard role.

Minor minutes for the young brigade are in order, no doubt.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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