Moncton put their magical undefeated start on the line twice in the Hub City this weekend

Moncton put their magical undefeated start on the line twice in the Hub City this weekend

In today’s sports environment of social media instant response to individual possessions, let alone entire games, the term “Overreaction Monday” has come to stand for the exaggerated importance fans and commentators assign to early season success or failure.  The entire Halifax Hurricane fan base brought new meaning to the term after an 0-2 start, before the signings of Rhamel Brown and Gabe Freeman allowed them to toss aside their oxygen masks. The Sudbury 5’s 3-0 start had them atop the first NBLC power rankings of the year, but it was really masking some balance and defensive issues that finally caught up to them in their first loss of the year to previously-winless Windsor on Wednesday night.

That loss leaves the Moncton Magic as the sole remaining undefeated squad in the league, and supporters and media from around the NBLC have wasted precious little time casting them in the favourite role for the 2018-19 season.  Assigning deep meaning to statistics 5 games into the young season is a classic overreaction Monday move, but Moncton is #1 in the league in points allowed, opponent field goal %, blocks, steals and forced turnovers defensively, and #1 or 2 in field goal %, three-point shooting, and points scored offensively.  The only number that’s ultimately going to matter to anyone is the 4th win in the NBLC finals, but you can only play the teams in front of you on the schedule, and the Magic have mostly looked terrific so far.

With a great record will come great scrutiny, and opposing coaches now have game film to review and break down.  The next challenge of this young season will be their reaction to what teams will bring at the Magic in that second and third matchup, and the adjustments Moncton makes to maintain their high level of play. Both teams visiting the Avenir Centre this weekend are hungry squads getting a rematch after recent losses left them looking up at their hosts in the standings.  Tonight at 7 pm, the Cape Breton Highlanders get the weekend started, and tomorrow night at 7, the St. John’s Edge make their first visit to the new building fresh off suffering their first ever Mile One Centre weekend sweep at the hands of the Magic. If you can’t get out to the Avenir, you can catch myself and Scott Squires on the call from monctonmagic.ca.

With a start like this, teams will always have to walk the fine line between tempering expectations on the one hand, while generating excitement amongst fans on the other.  But there’s a lot to be said for just sitting back and enjoying what you’re watching. Coach Joe Salerno knows his team has a lot of work to do to get where they want to be, but at the same time…..”With the numbers we’re putting up, it’s hard not to be happy,” he says. “Defensively, we’re ahead of schedule, and we’re ahead of the curve with team chemistry and guys gelling. There’s always a feeling-out process with new teams, but I thought our game 2 in St. John’s was solid offensively and has us trending in the right direction.  Plus, we’re having a bunch of guys contributing, so all those things have been key in our start.”

On the offensive end of the floor, high shooting percentages and over 110 points per game generally mean you’re operating at a high-level of efficiency.  What must be a little scary for the rest of the league is that really isn’t the case with this team just yet. Neither of their primary ball-handlers, Jahii Carson or Doug Herring Jr. have fully hit their strides, with shooting percentages in the high 30’s and much higher turnover rates than they’re used to.  With track records like theirs, those numbers will start to regress to the mean sooner or later, and Salerno’s confidence in his All-Stars obviously isn’t going to waver after 5 games. 

“Both Ja and Doug could improve their assist to turnover ratios and they both know that,” promises their coach, “but a couple of high turnover games like our last Cape Breton game have skewed those numbers.  A lot of those turnovers you won’t see in games 10 and 11, and they’re still getting guys involved and they’re scoring the basketball, which is what they’re both good at.” Both lead guards check in at over 15 ppg and more than 5 assists a night while still adapting to significant role changes compared to their previous stops. 

“I think Doug has found a nice happy medium with Ja in the lineup,” observes Salerno. “He’s able to play off the ball and still be involved and score, and that’s something he knew he was going to have to adjust to this season. At the same time, Ja is still in an adjustment period himself.  This is the first time he’s played with another true point guard on the floor a lot of minutes. He’s used to the ball being in his hands more, so they’re both feeling things out a little bit, but it hasn’t stopped them from getting guys involved and getting their own shots.”

Both Carson and Herring Jr. have been terrific in spurts and have looked particularly dangerous out on the break.  That’s promising, considering that Coach Salerno doesn’t feel like the team is yet playing at the velocity he aspires to. “Part of the reason is how effective we’ve been in our half-court offense,” says coach, “but no, we’re not playing at enough of an up-tempo pace. One thing I always look at is our shot attempts.  Last year they were low, and our start this year has also been a little low.  But when you’re winning games, getting good looks and open shots, it’s hard to fix what’s not broken. I think we could play at a faster pace and get out in the open court, because we really have the personnel for it, but we haven’t gotten there yet.  We’ll try to put a little more emphasis on it as we continue to roll here.”

That slower pace has meant finding a lot of shots in the half-court, something an unselfish and talented group like this is obviously capable of, but given that they rank near the bottom of the league in assists and turnover rate, it’s amazing they’ve generated offense at the rate they have so far.  Coach Salerno points to the intelligence level of his players for the explanation.  “I think we’ve gone long spurts without executing what we’re trying to do,” he explains, “but we’re such a high-IQ group that we want to give those guys as much freedom as possible.  There are times we walk a fine line between finding shots and executing with 5 guys on the same page, and there are certainly points where we could have been better. Still, it’s hard to argue with our results.”

During the Raptors game on Tuesday night, the announcers recounted a discussion they had with Toronto coach Nick Nurse about their strong team defense.  Coach Nurse had expressed some surprise with how far along his team felt on that end of the floor given that they are yet to install more than 30% of their defensive schemes and sets.  Coach Salerno finds himself feeling similarly about his squad. “I’m pleasantly surprised with it,” he says enthusiastically, “because I’ve always felt that your team defense comes last at the start of a new season.  Traditionally in this league, you see more high-scoring games in the first quarter of the season and then teams settle in. But the guys have picked up our system quickly, especially our principles off the ball.  That’s put us ahead of the curve and now we can think about installing other stuff, whether that’s trapping or zones, that could be effective in spurts against certain teams.”

Part of what’s struck me about watching league games so far is the different styles we’ve seen out of the various teams.  There’s London’s and Cape Breton’s frenetic pace, KW’s balance of inside versus outside, the Magic’s ability to go inside and post up, and teams like Sudbury and St. John’s pushing with smaller lineups and constantly seeking out a good three-point shot. Given that, teams must possess the ability to defend different lineups and not be dictated to.  Teams that can command the style of play are most often the ones that come away with the win. Coach Salerno has been pleased with the adaptability of his guys so far.  “We’ve really done a nice job executing specific game plans,” he says. “With the Edge, for example, everything is about running them off the three-point line. They still knocked down some, and they’re going to with the amount they take, but we wanted to make Carl English’s life difficult last weekend and I think we did that. The other thing that’s surprised me on that end is the versatility.  I didn’t think we’d be able to put match ups out there where we’d be able to switch so many things, but guys like Denzell and Billy and Evans have all given us that ability.”  

Any good individual defender possesses similar instincts and abilities on the floor, but for a roster of talented individuals to defend well as a group, the coaching staff must communicate a cohesive plan that plays to their team’s strengths as well as the principles they believe in on that end of the floor. Salerno’s system depends on all five guys on the floor adhering to his staff’s principles. “Our scheme emphasizes rim protection and the backside, help on penetration, and when rotating out on reversals and skip passes, making sure our spots are always covered.  The basics come down to responsibility off the ball and that’s what our defense is all about.”

The team’s versatility on that end is so important because all that help and rotation will often result in awkward matchups.  A guard down low battling a larger man for position on the block, or, even more crucially, a bigger player matched up with a dynamic ball-handler looking to make plays on the perimeter.  Guys like Denzell Taylor, Billy White, Nick Evans and even their larger guards like Isaiah Tate, have done yeoman’s work containing smaller guys and keeping them out of the lane.  “Every single day,” describes Salerno, “we have a 6-minute drill called pick on the ball contain. We allow our guards to attack our bigs downhill and they have to move their feet and contain.  We’ve done it almost every single day since the start of training camp.  Whether you’re in a switch or a pick-and-roll, and you find yourself with like Maurice Jones and Bruce Massey, you have to contain those guys and make someone else beat you. Get the ball out of their hands and let the backside defense clean up any mess.”

I asked coach whether he put a lot of thought into what other teams may do to throw off his team’s flow and whether he let that dictate his game plans for this weekend.  “Earlier in my career I would try and plan what teams would do,” he remembers, “but as I’ve gotten older, I concentrate on what we do well and then react. You can never really be fully prepared for what other teams will throw at you.  All we can do is look at what was effective for them last time and plan for ways to adjust and be better. For us, it’s so early in the season, we make it about us, what we do well, and as far as changing in anticipation of what they may do, we don’t concentrate on that.”

Against the Edge last weekend, one of the many things the Magic did well was dominate the frontcourt matchup. Billy White, Denzell Taylor and Nick Evans maneuvered for easy opportunities down low and the team was a collective plus-11 on the glass over the two games.  Salerno isn’t overthinking things in advance of this Saturday’s return engagement. “We definitely wanted to pound it inside. It’s no secret the Edge want to play small ball with 4 or 5 guards out there, but we feel our bigs can guard some of their smaller guys and then punish them on the other end. You saw that on Friday with the way we kept going to Billy and I think you would have kept seeing that if he hadn’t had foul trouble Saturday night.   Our whole goal is to make teams adjust to us, not the other way around.”

Cape Breton is coming into tonight’s game with a 2-2 record after splitting a pair of 2-point games last weekend at Centre 200.  Offensively, they’ve had stretches that have been ugly to watch with bad spacing and forced shots late in the shot clock.  However, when they get out in transition and Bruce Massey Jr. and Jamal Reynolds are at their creative, attacking best, they’re tough to contain. For that reason, coach Salerno knows their first line of defense comes when they themselves have the ball.

“Cape Breton is converting 65% of every turnover they force into a basket at the other end, which is a very high rate.  No doubt our best defense is what we will do offensively, valuing the basketball, not taking quick, bad shots, and letting them get out and run.  Our biggest emphasis on D is how well and smart we play offensively. It’ll be interesting this weekend since they hung 110 on us last time.  We can measure how far we’ve come.”

Reynolds and Massey Jr. come into the game as the reigning Canadian Player of the Week and League POW respectively.  Corey Allmond will be back into the lineup sometime this weekend for the Magic, making them almost whole from a roster perspective, but it’s a name off the bench that Salerno points to as, maybe, the key to containing the Highlanders’ dynamic duo.  “You may see Gentrey Thomas on the floor a little more,” he says, “because I like what he gives us defensively against Massey or Reynolds.  He can really be a pest with his great length. All our guys bring something to the table defensively, but that’s why I talk about our guys being high IQ, understanding a game plan and then having the physical ability to execute it. When you have options like Gentrey to go to, it’s a luxury, we just need all the guys on board with that.”

“It’s gonna be interesting,” Salerno continues, “because our rotation has been comfortable the last few games and now you add that 6th guard back.  We’re going to have to work through some rotation stuff and get things figured out over the next few games now that we’ve got a roster in place. It’ll be interesting, but it’s a good problem to have.”  It remains to be seen just how much that 6th guard joins them on the floor tonight versus Saturday against the Edge.  “Corey did a few live drills today (Wednesday) and he’s running and jumping on it, and got up lots of shots.  I think he’ll be fine for the weekend, but definitely Saturday.  We may not want to push him back to back nights, so I think we’ll use him sparingly Friday or not use him period unless we have to.  I’d like to keep him to one game this weekend.”

With Allmond back in the fold, that only leaves one piece left to make his way into the lineup.  Winnipeg native Chad Posthumous arrived in the Hub City this weekend and his debut with the team is quickly approaching.  “He’s probably 2 weeks out,” says his coach. “The earliest we would see him is December 9th in Halifax and the latest would be the 14th home against Halifax.”  Posthumous had minor hip surgery in August and he’s following his surgery and physiotherapy program with early December as the target for live game speed. “He’s not quite ready for physical live contact yet,” says Salerno, “but he looks pretty good.”

And for the fans not familiar with Posthumous’ game?  “He’s definitely a banger,” observes Salerno.  “He led all Division-1 in rebounding his senior year at Morehead State.  He’s just such a big body and actually has a soft touch around the rim.  I think he’s improved his mid-range a little bit, so he can make it out to 12 or 15 feet, but he’s space eater who can clean it up around the glass.”

That sound you just heard was the collective sigh of the other NBLC fan bases around the country.  “Oh good, another weapon for the Magic.  Just what they need.” See everyone tonight at the Avenir or come find Scott Squires and I at monctonmagic.ca. Enjoy the games everyone!