Basketball: Imports to bring degree of warmth to dead rubber

By ANENDRA SINGH sports editor

Hawks v Giants

NBL, Napier

Here was Tab Baldwin reflecting on the chill factor this week from his Napier Hill perch but that sense of coldness will ironically be redefined as the basketball Final Fours weekend draws near, even if it warms up considerably by then.

"It's been bloody cold this week," says the HBS Bank Hawks coach but come July 13-14 his men will be dealing with a different kind of frostiness as four outside teams will invade the Hawks' nest in Napier to decide who will claim the bragging rights to the 2013 Bartercard National Basketball League, reducing the hosts to mere spectators.

"We've had cold gyms to train at so it hasn't been ideal for the boys. It probably affects me more because I'm getting old. My toes were frozen," Baldwin says with a laugh.

Tonight's opponents, the Nelson Giants, haven't just made the cut but are contemplating claiming the minor premiership title, too, although that was hingeing on the result of their game against the Wellington Saints last night.

But the Paora Winitana-captained Hawks' past season is a testimony to the fact that clinching minor premierships isn't a passport to ultimate glory.

Either way, the Giants, smarting from having lost to the Hawks, 87-70, at the Trafalgar Centre, Nelson, on June 8, will bring a steely resolve tonight against a non-playoff side at the Pettigrew-Green Arena, Taradale, in the 7pm tip-off.

Nelson coach Liam Flynn was, no doubt, reluctant to look too far ahead yesterday before the Saints game in the capital city but, needless to say, relished the thought of playing quality opposition and not letting "bigger implications" distract them.

"Our team will be the same but, hopefully, the result [against the Hawks] will be different," the Townsville Crocodiles assistant coach from Australia said.

Last night's clash will rank higher in the Giants' build up because, arguably, the Pero Cameron-coached Saints will be the team to beat come playoff time.

Primarily he believes the Giants need to bank on their defensive systems, something which worked fine this season although on the odd occasions, such as against the Hawks, it was exposed.

"It's a terrific weekend to test our game plan and tactics," he said, mindful the Hawks were capable of making the Final Four so they remain a yardstick.

It is Flynn's first visit to the Bay today in his maiden stint as NBL coach.

"I hear Napier is a beautiful part of the country so I'm looking forward to it," he said, knowing the Bay fans will be faced with the choice of supporting four outside teams in a fortnight here during the playoffs so he welcomed them to jump into the Giants' bandwagon.

Baldwin's men will probably find tonight one of their better positions to be in after a win over Taranaki Mountain Airs last Saturday and having tasted the unexpected victory away over Nelson.

It came on the heels of a poor shooting performance away against the then last-placed Waikato Pistons.

"We'll need to play more intelligently and it'll definitely be tougher," says Baldwin, lauding the Hawks for an improved offensive effort against Taranaki.

He is mindful teams who lose in the first round won't want to stumble again.

While the gyms were like storage facilities, the players didn't need much incentive to work themselves into frenzy in the mid-week scrimmages.

"It must have been because they were watching the rugby league match [State of Origin on Wednesday night] because there was a bit of feeling out there in practice," Baldwin says, stepping in to restore a modicum of civility as some boys produced knuckle dusters in the fiery lanes of contention amid all the hoopla about throwing punches in the NRL arena.

A hobbling Perth Wildcat, Everard Bartlett, is only 60 per cent fit with his ankle so will have limited minutes tonight.

Veteran point guard Aidan Daly is still grappling with his knee injury and will undergo an MRI scan.

Comeback kid Sam Walker's Achilles heel remains a problem.

Bronson Cherrington, back from a shoulder injury, will finish the season as a predominantly practice player but fellow guards Dan Evans and Jacob Walsh will join other bench players such as Matt Wilson, Geoff Heather and Ezra Nikora for some minutes provided the Hawks are on the front foot.

"It'll be great for the young group to get some returns on training and some experience," says Baldwin, accepting the Hawks will assume the mantle of spoilers.

Eking out another win for the fans, sponsors and a sense of pride will be the major motivating factors in the penultimate match.

He hastens to add beating the Giants twice will be just that and one cannot read anything else into it, for argument's sake the Hawks were playoff material.

"We didn't perform well this season so we don't have the right to be among the play-off teams," he said, rueing games that were close or lost against the likes of Taranaki, Pistons and newcomers Waitakere Rangers as a reflection of lacking stability and consistency.

The Giants have the services of former Hawks playmaker and US import Josh Pace who has set the NBL alight with enviable performances.

Small forward Pace's agility and nous will be juxtaposed with that of Hawks import slasher Brian Greene who has caught the eye of other coaches from as early as the pre-season tourney.

Winitana's relatively smaller species will have to find answers to the physicality New Zealand Breakers captain/forward Mika Vukona will bring.

Then there are the clutch shots of veteran Phill Jones, never mind the adroitness of the other Nelson import, Erron Maxey, who claimed successive NBL titles with the Saints in 2010 and 2011.

In his 19th season here, Jones is not far from eclipsing all-time NBL games record of 361 that former Hawks player/co-coach Willie Burton holds.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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