(Moncton, NB - January 13, 2018)
On December 9th in London, the Windsor Express defeated the Lightning 108-91 at Budweiser Gardens. The loss dropped the Lightning to 2-5 and, for some London fans, it was time for changes. First-year coach Keith Vassell unnecessarily took most of the heat online, but longtime viewers of the NBL assumed a turnaround was inevitable. They wouldn't have to wait long. Since that night, the Lightning have won nine in a row, a streak that continues into tonight's 8 PM Atlantic matchup with the Moncton Magic. Coach Vassell didn't have Royce White, Ryan Anderson, Mo Bolden, or Doug Herring Jr. at his disposal that night against Windsor, but he certainly will for tonight's matchup between the league's division leaders. The link for the game between the 10-8 Magic, who come in on a 3-game winning streak of their own, and the 11-5 Lightning can be found by heading to monctonmagic.ca.
Reigning MVP White is the one that gets the lion's share of the publicity, but this is a roster stacked deep with multi-talented threats from from both inside and the perimeter. I asked Moncton coach Joe Salerno whether game-planning to try and take away what they do best is a dangerous proposition. "London does a lot of things well, so narrowing in on one or two things may not be much of a help," he said. "We need to stick to our defensive principles, play with energy, and try to limit their second chance opportunities." If he had to pick one player to focus is on, Salerno actually picked someone else besides the league's leading scorer. "I believe, if you need to key on one guy, it's Doug Herring Jr. He is the engine that makes them go, and makes it all work. We have to limit his playmaking," Salerno continued, "keep him out of the lane, and just try to make things difficult for him, which is much easier said then done." Herring rejoined the team Dec. 29th after a stint in France and has immediately made an impact, averaging 16 points and 7 assists on 50% shooting in 6 games.
Two-time defensive player of the year Al Stewart will be the man tasked with slowing Herring down. He's coming off a night where he registered just two points, but held last year's league rookie of the year Maurice Jones to 5-14 shooting and just one assist in a 123-108 victory in Windsor to kick off their Ontario road trip. That game was only two nights removed from Stewart recording the first triple-double in Magic history and coach Salerno loves having a guy like Stewart to whom only one thing matters. "Al did his job creating shots for others, and locking down defensively on another very good point guard. He could care less about individual statistics," he continued, "it's just about getting the win. That's just one of the reasons that he's so great."
The main beneficiary of the team's ball movement and shot creation last night in Windsor was Corey Allmond. He erupted for 31 points off the bench on 11-17 shooting and 8 three-pointers. The team as a whole made 20 threes and led by as much as 32 in a wire-to-wire victory. In just his second game in a Magic uniform, Jason Calliste dropped in 12 in just fifteen minutes and drained three shots from long range himself. "I thought we played very well offensively," observed Salerno. "The majority of our looks were good looks, created by guys penetrating, drawing two and finding the open man. Obviously when Corey and Jason are shooting the ball as well as they did," he continued, "it is going to open up more driving lanes. I think the guys played very unselfish, and continued to work for the best shot available."
The team's performance was all the more laudable considering they came in exhausted after a tough trip derailed by a cancelled flight and lost luggage. There appeared to be some tired legs at the defensive end that led to Windsor getting to the line 38 times, but on the whole, Salerno was pleased.
"I actually felt we played very well defensively for the first 3 quarters," he said. "Credit to him, I thought Chad Frazier did a great job probing off the ball screen and getting into the lane and drawing some contact." And Salerno knows they'll need to improve in that area this evening in Bud Gardens. "We'll have do a better job cutting off the penetration before it gets so deep into the lane and into scoring positions. We can't have that tonight."
The Lightning allow the most points in the league, but we have to place those numbers in context. London also scores very efficiently and plays at a brisk pace that lends itself to high-scoring contests. They come in leading the league in shooting percentage and scoring at over 116 a night. Salerno knows his team's chances improve if they can make the game play to their strengths defensively. "They are extremely dangerous in transition," he said. "We want to rely our half-court defence and make it a priority to get stops. On the flip side of that coin," he continued, "we have to make sure we are taking good shots on the offensive end, getting good possessions and high percentage shots to try and limit their running game."
In a tightly-bunched league characterized by parity thus far this year, these two squads have begun to get on a roll and threaten to distance themselves atop their respective divisions. Tune in to monctonmagic.ca at 8 Atlantic tonight to see whose win steak continues. Find me on twitter @hoopstingley if you have any thoughts. Enjoy the game everyone!
Story by: Dave Tingley, Official Colour Commentator of the Magic