(Moncton, NB: January 12, 2018)
The Moncton Magic probably assumed their biggest obstacles tonight as they kicked off their 4-game Ontario road swing would be Windsor Express stars Logan Stutz, Maurice Jones and Shaq Keith. Little did they know they'd have to contend with Mother Nature and the airlines. A cancelled flight, a little lost luggage AND a motivated opponent coming in playing well will make for a challenge as the Magic take the floor at the WFCU Centre at 8 Eastern tonight against the 7-9 Express. Go to our www.monctonmagic.ca website for the Express YouTube page link and settle in for a good one. This is the second and last meeting of the season for the clubs and the first matchup saw the Magic play one of their most complete games of the year in a 101-89 win on January 4th. Keith had a 20 and 10 double-double, but Stutz and Jones were held well below their season averages with 4 points and 5 boards and 11 points and 4 assists respectively. Coach Joe Salerno knows that last matchup won't have much bearing on tonight's clash.
"You are talking about a former league MVP, and last year's NBL Rookie of the Year, two very good players. We will need to tweak what we do on the defensive end this time around," he said. "I'm sure Windsor will make some adjustments as well." The Express have gone 2-2 since their last matchup but they have all been on the road and the two losses were close ones in St. John, and on The Rock against the Edge. "Windsor is a very good team, and I think they showed that on the tail end of their Atlantic division road trip", Salerno continued, "so by no means are we overlooking this team. We know they will play better then what they did in our first meeting against them, so we need to be prepared mentally for a tough game." In fact, it's the first of three tough games in three days for the Magic and Coach Salerno, so mental prep and an improved bench will surely be put to the test tonight, tomorrow at 8 Eastern in London and Sunday at 3 Eastern against the Niagara River Lions.
New arrival Jason Calliste only saw the floor for five minutes against the River Lions on Wednesday night but showed a little of what he could do and knocked down his only attempted three. Salerno doesn't plan on keeping him under wraps any longer. "Jason will certainly see more minutes this weekend then he did the other night. We wanted to get him acclimated to the team a bit, get to know the guys,as well as how we like to do things. He is a very fast learner," he continued, "and I expect him to contribute this weekend. We will need all hands on deck playing 3 games in less then 72 hours."
Salerno has tweaked the minutes recently in an effort to get guys like Corey Allmond and the fast-improving Marquis Clayton more minutes. It's mostly come at the expense of Al Stewart but certainly not as punishment. "Anytime you can rely heavily on your bench to give you quality minutes," said Salerno, "and to get back to your starters for the final 6-7 minutes of a game, you will be in a good position." Stewart's minutes had dropped in the first three quarters recently but he's still been the closer at the point for the Magic in the fourth. Wednesday against Niagara, however, Salerno couldn't keep him off the floor. He finished with a crowd-pleasing triple double of 23 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. "Al had it going on, and was playing very well," Salerno observed, "so we were going to run him until the wheels fell off." But he knows what a help the continued progression of Halifax native Clayton can be. "We are still bringing Marquis along, as it is important to continue to develop him over the course of the first half of the season, as well as making sure Al is getting the rest that he needs." Stewart looked like the fastest player on the floor all night against the River Lions, getting into the paint at will both as a scorer as the Magic struggled early, and as a table-setter for Jeremy Williams and Terry Thomas as those two got it going on a big way in the second half.
Anthony Anderson has had a couple of quiet nights recently as far as the scoring column goes, but that hasn't blunted the effectiveness of the league's all-time leading scorer. As the team's primary screen and roll ballhandler, he knows he's going to be the focal point of many a defence. Time and time again he's been finding his way into the paint and throwing his body into defenders, both in an effort to get to the foul line and as a way to create offence for his teammates. The Magic get to the line more than any other team in the NBL, and AA has made more free throws, with 94, than any other player. And as a playmaker, he's never been better either, averaged over 5 assists a game with one of the best assist/turnover rates in the league. I asked coach Salerno if durability was a concern for the veteran shooting guard. "He has always been durable over his whole career, rarely if not ever missing a game due to injury. I think with the addition of Calliste and some improved play by Marquis," Salerno continued, "we will be able to start giving him a little more rest throughout the course of games, making sure he is in good shape when it comes time to make a playoff push and into the postseason." Coach also knows it's easy to understand why Anderson's effort level is always so high. "AA is just trying to do whatever he can for our team to win games. He is on board with looking at the big picture, and to him that is finally getting to an NBL Finals."
This is the mantra for the team as a whole and, even through some early season offensive woes, their focus hasn't altered and their effort hasn't waned. They rank in the top three in most defensive categories and continue to lead the league in offensive rebounding as well as getting to the line. In particular, Corey Allmond has stuck out as a guy not letting the offensive end affect the rest of his game. "Corey is a great example of being a true pro," Salerno offered. "He has been struggling a bit as of late shooting the basketball, so in the meantime he has stepped up his game on the defensive end to continue to contribute to the team in anyway that he can. That is the sign of a class act, and a true team player." I asked coach if pointing out that professionalism and character was a focal point in film sessions. "We always highlight guys in film sessions that are giving 100% effort all the time on both ends of the floor, he said. "It is important our guys see on a daily basis how much more effective we are when we have 5 guys giving the same effort."
That effort will be needed from all twelve guys over the next three nights, but tonight the focus will be the Express and an offence that can execute you to death if your defensive intensity isn't on point. Stutz makes up for any liability his limited athleticism causes with wonderful footwork in the post and a reliable shot out to the three point line. Jones is a reliable scorer on all three levels as well, and rarely turns it over, a big reason that Windsor is the second best squad in the league at taking care of the ball. Shaq Keith is a menace at both ends of the floor and made life difficult for the league's third leading scorer Terry Thomas defensively while contributing that double double offensively in their first matchup. Chad Frazier, Damontre Harris and Braylon Rayson have been, at various points, explosive and quiet recently as supporting players, but if 2 or all 3 have it going, it makes the Express much more balanced and dangerous.
Tune in tonight using the links at monctonmagic.ca , nblcanada.ca or the Express YouTube page, and tune into monctonmagic.ca all weekend to watch me try and keep up with the action and provide you with some more previews and analysis. Find me on twitter at @hoopstingley. Thanks everyone!