Tall Blacks 63
The Tall Blacks are safely on track to be in China for the 2019 Basketball World Cup, but good lord, they just took one hell of a detour.
A 63-60 victory over Lebanon in Rotorua featured one of the worst offensive performances ever produced by the Tall Blacks, but for all their struggles, somehow the end result was another win - their seventh on the trot.
In what is surely the first time the Tall Blacks have ever won a game while shooting below 28 per cent from the field, some late free throws and a defensive stand was just enough to grind out a desperately ugly win which extends their lead atop their World Cup qualifying group.
Believe it or not, by the time this elongated qualifying campaign ends, the Tall Blacks will almost certainly be amongst the teams heading to China, and while such a presumption may seem awfully generous to a team who provided enough bricks to solve New Zealand's housing crisis, consider the following.
If the Tall Blacks can play that badly, against purportedly the toughest opponent left on their schedule, and still win, then imagine what will happen in their remaining fixtures with a simple dash of offensive competency?
Had they put in tonight's performance in their clashes earlier this year against South Korea or China, the Tall Blacks would have been bulldozed, but their opposition in the second phase of qualifying – Lebanon, Syria and Jordan - just aren't at that level.
As it turns out, travel might be the toughest opponent on the Tall Blacks' schedule, with a casual 38 hour journey home following their win over Syria on Friday significantly zapping energy levels.
Tall Blacks coach Paul Henare opined that the travel was the main factor for the sloppy offensive showings from both sides, and it would be the only logical excuse for the Tall Blacks' horrendous start – shooting 2/20 in the first quarter as they fell into an 18-7 hole.
"It was just a bit disappointing with the scheduling from FIBA. It was never going to be pretty, it was always going to be ugly and I'm sure that's not what FIBA are trying to achieve," said Henare.
"It was a little bit disappointing that it had to be that sort of spectacle, but I'm just happy that we were able to grind it out."
A grind it was, indeed. Lebanese centre Ater Majok was playing defence like the lovechild of an octopus and the local car dealership's inflatable tube man; disrupting everything at the rim as the Tall Blacks reached halftime shooting an abysmal 23 per cent in the paint.
To their credit, the Tall Blacks too were battling on defence, and that, combined with Lebanon's own offensive ineptitude, had the game tied at 25 at the half. But, just as you assumed regression to the mean would favour the hosts, the shots, well .... the shots kept missing.
Not even the usually consistent Webster brothers (A combined 8/29 from the field) could connect, and as Majok started to get some offensive assistance from Elias Rustom, Lebanon suddenly led by nine with seven minutes to go.
Perhaps that was finally the wake-up call that the Tall Blacks needed, as they ever so slowly ground their way back into the clash. For all the missed shots, they were at least grabbing offensive rebounds, and their 25 second chance opportunities eventually paid dividends as they hit the front with 22 seconds to go.
That, mercifully, was enough to end the game, seeing off one last Lebanese raid and sealing a victory which keeps the Tall Blacks in control of the race for the likely four available qualifying spots from their group.
But while there's little doubt the Tall Blacks will qualify for the Cup, if they want to shine when they get there, then performances like tonight cannot be seen again.
Tall Blacks 63 (Shea Ili 14, Tai Webster 13, Corey Webster 11)
Lebanon 60 (Elias Rustom 19, Ater Majok 16)