(Moncton, NB: Feb 10, 2018)
In our pregame chat before their January 20th game with the Cape Breton Highlanders, Moncton Magic coach Joe Salerno was not downplaying expectations for his team. It was the end of a long road trip and they were recovering from some nicks up and down the roster, but Salerno insisted his team was ready and he was expecting a solid effort. What he got was a lacklustre and disappointing defensive performance in a 116-104 loss that saw Cape Breton shoot over 58% from the floor and only turn the ball over 8 times. The two teams meet again Saturday night at 7 pm Atlantic live from the Moncton Coliseum and on monctonmagic.ca, and Salerno will make sure the result of THAT Saturday effort in Cape Breton is not lost on his guys. "We will certainly remind them of our last trip to Sydney," he said Friday afternoon, "as I believe it was a bit of a season low for us. But it won't be our focus. This is a very improved Highlanders team, with a lot of offensive fire power that they have added over the last few weeks. We will spend our effort focusing on that, but we will certainly remind our guys that our effort was not there the last time we played them."
The Magic come in at 14-12, good enough for third in the Atlantic division, behind the 14-9 Halifax Hurricanes and the 13-9 Saint John Riptide. Cape Breton is currently tied for the final playoff spot in the division with the Island Storm at 10-14, fresh off a 113-100 home victory against the Riptide that did both themselves and the Magic a big favour. The Highlanders were playing without Kevin Loiselle and Tydran Beaty because of an accumulation of technical fouls, but they will be back Saturday night performing alongside their two newest teammates, one of which will be familiar to Moncton fans. Malik Story made the All-NBL third team last year while with the Miracles and scored 12 on Wednesday night against Saint John in his Highlander debut. Cape Breton coach Rob Spon is excited about what Story brings to his lineup. "Malik has Corey Allmond range," he said Friday from Cape Breton, referring to his Magic counterpart at shooting guard. "He's trouble coming off screens, can get to the foul line and has great size for his position. I really think we were just lacking that three-point shooter, and you gotta run at Malik. I think we finally have one like Moncton has in Corey, and Anthony Anderson. We tell our guys, if we set a good screen for Malik or if he sets one for you, you'll be open. Plus, he can play great defense, which people forget."
Defense was a concern for Spon with his other new arrival, Chris Braswell, but practice time and the Saint John game has put those concerns to rest. "I've been trying to get Braswell for a long time because of how good I knew he was at the University of Charlotte," he said. "He was on NBA watch lists coming out because he's such a great post scorer and can step out to the three-point line. The question was, could he rebound and play enough defense? But I've been impressed with how he communicates, how he's always in the right spot. He used his time in the G-League to really improve his defense." Braswell was very impressive indeed against Saint John, coming off the bench to score 14 on 5-8 shooting with two three-pointers. It was his array of moves in the post however, and his ability to finish with strength inside or with finesse on the fadeaway that was most striking. Coach Salerno wasn't familiar with Braswell's game, but he certainly is now. "That was the first time I had seen him play and he was very impressive," he said. "I believe he adds another true low post scoring threat to go along with an ever-improving Shayne Osayande, but he can also step out and knock down the three, as well as pass extremely well from the post. All that makes him tough to double team." Salerno knows the move for Story makes the Highlanders more dangerous as well. "He is almost a prototypical guard for Cape Breton this season in that he's a bigger guard who can score in multiple ways. Both of these guys only add more depth and talent to their roster."
The Magic come in off a split in Newfoundland last weekend, certainly not a bad result against a team that came in tied for the best record in the league, but ultimately disappointing after a dominating victory in the first game of the double-header. The Magic fought off a terrible start to make it close in the fourth quarter despite missing 16 free throws and losing the rebounding battle by 20. I asked Coach Salerno if he was more encouraged by the tight loss despite playing so poorly or disappointed with all the mental errors from such a veteran squad as his. "Probably a little of both," he admitted. "But I was most disappointed with the fact we didn't match their intensity out of the gate. We knew they would be coming out very aggressive after the lopsided loss the night before. This was something we had discussed earlier that day, and in the pre-game, so to lose the first quarter by 12 and give up 32 points was pretty discouraging. On the flip side, to still have a chance to win the game I think says a lot about our team. I know we would all like that one back."
Despite the loss, the Magic held the Edge under 40% from the floor and won the turnover battle in a landslide, continuing a run of mostly excellent defensive performances that has Moncton playing their best basketball of the season. But Coach Salerno knows there is lots of season left and he's focused on keeping his team trending in the right direction. "I believe we have played to our full potential on defense in stretches of games. Now the key is to play that way for as close to 48 minutes as possible. We could still improve in certain areas on the defensive end, which is what we will continue to strive to do." Cape Breton's revamped lineup offers a fresh challenge, however. The Highlanders have been reliant on Duke Mondy and Bruce Massey Jr. on offense, but are now far more balanced and dangerous. Osayande and Beaty, amongst others, have provided effective secondary scoring, but they aren't consistent shot creators. They have been effective cutting and spotting up off of the movements of their two leading scorers, however. In Story and Braswell, they have guys smart enough to do that, but also skilled enough to create shots for themselves off broken plays or with their starting backcourt resting.
For Coach Spon, he also feels like the defensive end is where his own team can make another jump as the playoffs get closer. While going back and watching a lot of games for my midseason article, it was obvious how many good individual defenders Cape Breton has, but the team's overall numbers on that end rank toward the bottom in the NBLC. Spon takes a lot of pride in his defensive bona fides and hasn't been happy with those stats. "I'm a defensive minded coach first," he said, "and because of the young guys I've had and guys I was unfamiliar with, we've had issues with rotations and guys getting lost on pick and rolls. It's been frustrating at times." After these recent moves, Spon feels as if his team should improve in one big area. "For me, communication is so important. Our bigs need to talk and we haven't had that consistently. Shane, (Osayande) I'm very impressed with. I didn't know he'd be this good. He's been a pleasant surprise right along with Mondy. He's out there hedging hard and doing what we ask of him." Spon spoke in glowing terms about Moncton's performance on that end of the floor as well. "Joe has always been known for running great sets and being an offensive coach, but they are a surprise to me on defense this year. Coach is doing such a great job with them defensively and I really think they have the best team right now even though Halifax is first in the division." Spon is eager for the challenge that Saturday night's matchup offers his team. "They're deep, but I feel like we're deep too now, he said. "It comes down to execution and energy from our guys. The teams that don't take time off on defense and play with energy win games. For my part, it comes down to how I execute as a coach against Joe, like a chess match of adjustments. Players win games, coaches lose games. I have to put my team in a position to win by breaking down their sets and defense and hopefully, it comes down to execution in the 4th quarter."
The run to the playoffs starts now Moncton fans, and with 6 of the team's next 7 games here at home between now and March 4th, the time is now to get out and support this team. Come on out Saturday night at 7 and Sunday afternoon at 2 pm Atlantic against the Island Storm. As always, if you can't make it, join myself and the Voice of the Magic, Scott Squires on the call live at monctonmagic.ca.
In order to avoid the long box office lines it is recommended you book your tickets in advance online and reserve your seat. Just print your tickets off at home and go right to the entrance doors to scan for fast and easy entry to the game.
Tickets available online at: www.tickets.moncton.ca
Coliseum Box office: 1-888-720-5600
Story by David Tingley