The top four have opened up a gap on the rest of the field in the National Basketball League.
The Nelson Giants' 79-74 victory over the fifth-placed Taranaki Mountainairs has created a noticeable buffer, with the Airs having dropped off the pace required to make the Final Four.
With just under half the season in the books, the Airs are now 3-5, having lost four straight games and influential centre Daniel Gomis to injury. This game, against the previously winless Giants, was one they would have targeted to stay in touch with the Wellington Saints (7-0), Supercity Rangers (4-2), Southland Sharks (4-3) and Canterbury Rams (4-3).
Nelson, who fired head coach Alan McAughtry during the week, put in their best effort of the season, although were aided by the Airs' lack of scoring firepower. The game was dire to start, with the teams combining for just 61 points in the first half.
31 of those points came from Nelson as the two sides traded offensive competency. Just when the Giants opened up a double digit lead, the Airs snapped out a funk which had seen them score just two points in seven minutes, edging back into the contest.
Taranaki were led by Alonzo Burton, who continued his career-best season with 22 points on 8/15 shooting. He was supported by one of the few other Airs able to create his own shot, import Tylor Ongwae, who had 16 points in a decent display.
The Airs were managing to get initial penetration on the perimeter, but the Giants defence were more efficient with their help defence than in prior weeks. Airs guard Houston O'Riley regularly got into the lane, but shot 0/9 as he struggled to finish against verticality at the rim.
The game remained tight throughout the second half, but started to flow as more shots began to fall. Giants import point guard Kyle Adnam overcame a slow start to record 26 points on 7/19 shooting, adding six assists. Adnam was the only Giant to score more than 13 points, but contributions from Sam Dempster and new import Morgan Grim proved helpful.
The defining moment came with 14 seconds to go, after the Airs had played excellent defence to force the quiet Finn Delany into a tough three. The rebound skied high and Grim just beat Ongwae to tip it in, giving the Giants a three point lead.
Needing a three to tie on the last possession, Airs skipper Aaron Bailey-Nowell bizarrely went to the hoop for a layup. He missed, and the Giants came out on top to snap their six game losing streak.
Two top four sides clash tomorrow afternoon, with the Wellington Saints hosting the Canterbury Rams. The game is live streamed from 3.00pm on nzherald.co.nz