For most professional sports franchises, any road trip that ends with a winning record would be considered a success. For the Moncton Magic, their 3-2 Holiday road trip would fit that criteria and, despite returning home to the Coliseum this Friday night off a loss, the team has to feel like their arrows are all pointing up. Coach Joe Salerno certainly saw some things he liked in their 120-117 Boxing Day setback to the Island Storm. "I was pleased how we played for the most part. It was certainly one of our better games offensively, which was good to see. We spent a lot of time on the offensive end over the holiday, so it was nice to see that come together." Any viewers of Tuesday's matchup saw one of the most entertaining games of the NBL season, and a close loss to a good team on their home court is going to happen in a 40-game season. "The Storm were tough" Salerno continued, "they hit a lot of big shots, from all over the floor, and it was certainly a tough environment to play in". The loss dropped the Magic 2 games back in the loss column behind Island for first place in the Atlantic division. Their matchup Friday at 7:00 pm at the Coliseum is with the 4th place Saint John Riptide, coming in off a disappointing Boxing Day loss of their own, on the road in Cape Breton.
Saint John pushed out to nearly a 20 point lead in the second quarter, but a stagnant offence cost them late in a 99-88 loss. The teams last two matchups have resulted in blowout victories for the respective home teams, a pattern the Magic will look to continue Friday night. The Riptide will be contending with a Moncton squad that has tinkered with their rotations since their last matchup for reasons both strategic and necessary. The absence of Tim Mitchell was felt on Boxing Day, particularly on the boards, and especially on the defensive end. "Obviously Tim is a force on the glass," coach Salerno explained. "So of course others have to step up. All five guys on the court need to be more wary of limiting second chances. This played a big factor late in the game, and definitely contributed to the loss." It's a situation he and the team will be dealing with for the foreseeable future. "We are planning on have Tim down for 10 days to two weeks minimum to rest the inflammation in his knee, and then we will reassess the situation."
Much of Mitchell's minutes on Boxing Day went to Brent Jennings, and the Magic newcomer didn't have much time to get himself acclimated, having landed after midnight on Christmas Eve, and the Christmas Day storm having robbed him of his only chance to practice with his new teammates. Still, his shooting and playmaking ability were apparent and he finished with 14 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 6-14 from the floor. The potential he has to create offense and take some pressure off of Anthony Anderson and Terry Thomas is promising. Salerno sounded similarly optimistic today. "He will be a nice fit for us. He will certainly take some attention off of Terry and AA, and open up the floor for us even more. I was pleased with his game in PEI, especially in the second half."
Moncton's other lineup shuffle has been more subtle and was solely designed to kickstart the offense. Anyone who witnessed Corey Allmond's 34 point, 8-13 from 3-point range Boxing Day performance can attest to it's effectiveness. Coach Salerno talked about how giving more minutes to Anderson at the point was part of a larger strategy. "This allowed us to keep Allmond and AA on the floor longer together. It was a conscious decision before the game even started to play Corey more that night. We had been struggling a bit offensively, so keeping another one of our weapons out there for longer periods of time was something we wanted to do." Allmond works incredibly hard on his shot and an eruption like this was inevitable but Salerno is simply hoping for more balance offensively with the change, not miracles. "The tweaks we made in practice that week really opened up more opportunities for him to get good clean looks at the basket. I dont think you could expect 34 a game from him but he was hot last night, and we continued to find him, which I was pleased with."
Saint John, meanwhile, comes in having played only twice since its 26-point victory over the Magic on December 17th. In losses to both the Storm and the Highlanders, the bench has struggled to support the potent starting lineup anchored by the league's leading scorer Gabe Freeman, Horace Wormley, and Malcolm Miller. Sixth and seventh men Mareik Isom and Aaron Redpath shot a combined 12-42 from the field in the two losses. Additionally, in Cape Breton on Tuesday, the entire offense bogged down once the Highlanders started aggressively denying wing entry and ball reversal and going under ball screens. It forced the Riptide into a lot of isolation post ups for Freeman and deep jumpers late in the shot clock. The Magic had trouble containing Saint John's playmakers last time out but the Highlanders efforts show that concentrating on ball containment, rotations, solid close-outs and boxing out is the recipe even for teams as talented as Saint John. Additionally, the smaller, more versatile offense the Magic will be rolling out will provide similar matchup problems for the Riptide defensively. Cape Breton put up 63 points in the second half despite only registering 8 assists. They moved the ball quickly from one side of the court to the other and used the 1-on-1 skills of Duke Mondy, Bruce Massey and Ty Beatty to create easy shot opportunities off of missed close outs.
A guard rotation of AA, Al Stewart and Allmond and the playmaking of Terry Thomas up front should prove to be a handful for Saint John defenders provided the Magic continue to build on their efforts on the Island. Come on out to the Coliseum at 7:00 pm tonight to find out if they can do just that. Tune in to the game here if you can't make it, and check out the website for our pregame and postgame interviews. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter and my broadcast partner Scott Squires!
Story by Dave Tingley
Photo by Jason Bowie