The absence of Bay Hawks captain Paora Winitana looms as a potentially decisive factor heading into the final four of the NBL in Wellington this weekend.

Winitana will suit up on Saturday night for the Hawks' semifinal clash with the Wellington Saints but, should his side advance, the former Tall Black will be unable to take the court for Sunday's final.

The small forward is a Mormon bishop and will sit out the showpiece - against either the Auckland Pirates or the Manawatu Jets - for religious regions for the second year running.

And the coaches of the league's also-rans seem to agree - the Paul Henare-coached Hawks should make the final but they'll struggle without their talisman.


"It'll just be a huge thing with Paora being out because it'll weaken Hawkes Bay," Southland Sharks coach Richard Dickel said. "That's a tough one ... but I think it'll come down to how it's refereed and the way the game is played."

Otago Nuggets coach Anthony Arlidge said the potential absence of Winitana "changes everything", and thought a Hawks outfit sans their captain would face an uphill battle.

"I find it an absolute pity that he won't be playing if the Hawks make it to the grand final."

For that possibility to become a reality, the Hawks will first have to vanquish the Wellington Saints. Taranaki Mountain Airs coach David Bublitz believed that shouldn't be too much of a problem, despite the Saints benefiting from the home-crowd support.

"The Saints seem to have come at the right time, so it'll probably be close, but Hawkes Bay certainly have too much depth," Bublitz said.

Harbour Heat coach Alex Stojkovic agreed with his peers on the likely outcome of the semifinals and echoed similar sentiments on Winitana.

"Winitana is a key player and he'll be hard to replace if the Hawks make the grand final. It's also an opportunity for young Morgan Natanahira to step up, because he did that last year in the finals."

The side that will benefit most from Winitana's withdrawal will be found in the first game of the double-header in Wellington.

A stacked Auckland Pirates line-up, boosted by Breakers Alex Pledger and Dillon Boucher, take the league's best road record into the final four and will be warm favourites against the Manawatu Jets.

All of the coaches gave the edge to the Auckland side, though Arlidge felt the injection of Pledger and Boucher had slightly upset the Pirates' rhythm.

The Jets do, however, provide something of an unknown threat due to a changeable side, especially in the import ranks. American power forward Dustin Mitchell, who helped the Jets hammer the Pirates in March, has departed with livewire American point guard Chris Hagan taking his place.

"I haven't seen too much of [Hagan], but I know he's a very good player," Auckland Pirates coach Judd Flavell said. "He's turned that team around to make them real contenders.

"He complements what they already have and fills a big hole - he's made them a well-balanced team."

Other interest can be found at centre, where reigning MVP Pledger goes up against Manawatu's Nick Horvath. The former Duke University captain has defended his rebounding title, held before him by Pledger, and has put together a portfolio that should see him challenging for top individual honours when the NBL awards are handed out.

"Horvath is always a handful, but this year he's playing as well as I've ever seen him," Flavell said. "That match-up between him and Pledge will be a good one."

- Additional reporting by Hawke's Bay Today