Battle for Division lead heats up

Preview Feb 25

(Moncton, NB - February 25th, 2018)

When the Moncton Magic and the Halifax Hurricanes come together for the 4th time this year Sunday afternoon at 2 PM Atlantic at the Moncton Coliseum, and live on monctonmagic.ca, only 9 days will have passed since their last matchup, an 87-86 OT victory for the Hurricanes also on Moncton's home floor. Not much time in the lifespan of a 40-game regular season to be sure, but when dates are scheduled on either side of the NBLC transaction deadline, the rematch can take on an entirely different complexion. Both squads coming together on Sunday made a single move of consequence on deadline day, but the impact of one in particular could reverberate throughout tomorrow's game and well into the spring.

In last Friday's matchup, hoops were incredibly hard to come by at both ends of the floor, which made the Magic's inability to control the defensive glass all the more problematic. In fact, it marked the fourth straight game in which the team had given up at least 19 offensive boards. Halifax corralled 23 of them in all, leading to a 7-point edge in second chance points and 14 more points in the paint than Moncton. Overall though, the Magic played a strong game defensively, holding the Hurricanes to 31% shooting and forcing 19 turnovers in all.  Additionally, leading scorers Billy White and Antoine Mason were held in check for large portions of the game. However, after Denzell Taylor was forced to the bench with his 6th foul, White, in particular, was able to thrive down low late.  The All-Star had 12 of his 18 in the 4th quarter and overtime, coming out on top of repeated wrestling matches for position down low against Anthony Cox and Tirrell Baines, no slouches defensively themselves.

Given their struggles in those two areas, Magic GM and Head Coach Joe Salerno couldn't have made a much bigger splash on Monday than adding last year's NBLC rebounding champ Juan Pattillo. The schedule offered Moncton the perfect respite as well, granting them an entire week off to incorporate their new big man into the lineup, time that Salerno was glad to have with his newcomer. "It can be a bit overwhelming coming into a brand-new system," Salerno commented on Saturday, "but even more so when the other 12 guys that were already here are so comfortable with it. It can be challenging to pull back the reins a bit in practice to allow a new player to get caught up, but the guys have been great with it this week, and we all feel he can be a very strong addition to our team."

The Magic traded Tyrrel Tate and a first-round pick to the Windsor Express for Pattillo's rights back in October, but he made his way to Finland, where he was averaging 22 points and 8 rebounds for Korihait before deciding to return to the NBLC. At 6'8", 225 pounds, Pattillo possesses soft feet and hands, and explosive jumping ability, making him a handful around the rim and on the perimeter out to about 18 feet. He's not a threat from the three-point line, but that's not the job the Magic have brought him in for. It's his board work and usefulness as a big body on the interior defensively where he'll really show his value to this squad down the stretch. While not a shutdown guy, he's mobile enough to play the screen and roll, protects the rim and doesn't get caught overplaying, typically leaving him in the proper position for help and on the defensive boards.

All that being said, the Magic wouldn't have brought him aboard if he threatened to disrupt the harmony they've worked so hard to achieve these last few months on the other end of the floor. Coach Salerno doesn't sound concerned. "I think Juan is going to be a great fit for our style of play," he said, "as well as the chemistry we have in the locker room. He is a vet, like so many of our other guys. He just knows how to play the game, which will also help this be a fairly smooth transition. From a scheme standpoint, down the road we will probably work on specific sets or actions to get him touches in scoring positions, but for the time being its just about getting him caught up to speed with what we are currently doing." With Windsor last season, Pattillo was adept at effectively playing off Maurice Jones and Darren Duncan, carving out space off their penetration and finishing with a dunk or a soft jumper. After getting acclimated, he will no doubt make life easier for guys like Anthony Anderson, Terry Thomas and Al Stewart. Coach Salerno places a premium on his big men setting quality screens, a role Pattillo is also well-suited for.

Halifax comes in at 18-9, winners of 8 of 10 and 4 in a row. On Friday night, they dominated the Cape Breton Highlanders 115-101 despite missing leading scorer Antoine Mason due to injury. He is unlikely to return for Sunday's game, but Friday did mark the return of CJ Washington after missing two games to be present for the birth of his child. He complimented frontcourt-mate Billy White's team high 29 points with 14 of his own. Ta'quan Zimmerman and Mike Poole picked up the slack for Mason in the backcourt with 23 and 19 respectively.  For Poole, it continues a run of remarkable play lately after a slow start to the season. He's shot the ball very well since the calendar turned to 2018 and even when he struggles from the floor, like he did last week against Moncton, he contributes in other ways.  He's been playing at an All-Defensive team level and rebounding at a rate of 8 per game from the backup SG position, an incredible rate.  His 17 boards and 4 steals were crucial factors in helping to stifle the Magic's explosive offense last Friday. The level of intensity and physicality at both ends of the floor in that game was a sight to behold, but Salerno thinks the key to scoring the ball better this time around is stepping it up to yet another level. "I think the biggest thing for us is not letting Halifax's physical style on the defensive end take us out of what we want to run in the half court," he said. "This is obviously easier said then done, but we need to just stay committed to what we are looking to do, and match their physicality when we are on the offensive end. Whether that means setting and holding screens longer, being more aggressive on the offensive glass, or just putting more pressure on them when it comes to trying to penetrate into the lane. We need to be physical on both sides of the ball, and be the more aggressive team for 48 min tomorrow."

The Hurricanes added to their depth at point guard behind Cliff Clinkscales with the addition of Canadian Ashton Khan with their deadline deal. He won't be a difference-maker, but may be able to help give their veteran starter some rest.  They are currently in the middle of the most difficult part of their schedule by far, with 8 of 9 on the road, and keeping their big names rested and healthy must be a priority.  The Magic took that to heart as well when they added Pattillo by keeping their roster intact instead of cutting a quality player.  They are making use of the new league provision allowing them to keep up to 3 players on a deactivated list and both Brent Jennings and Terry Thomas are currently on that list.  There was some mild concern about Thomas' health, but Coach Salerno is optimistic for a quick return. "He has been feeling better," Salerno observed, "and I think this week-long layoff in between games was the best thing for him. Again, we will just be cautious with Terry, and probably a few other players over this last month. I anticipate he will be activated for tomorrow's game."

The passing of the transaction deadline allows the teams for forge ahead with a set roster, but it also allows the players to exhale, secure they no longer have to worry about uprooting for another franchise. "There certainly is some nervous energy among the players in the days leading up to the transaction deadline," Salerno admitted. "Players know how competitive this business is, and for the most part, teams and front offices will always try to do what they can to put what they feel like is the most competitive team on the floor, even when that means making some tough decisions. Obviously, this can be very difficult for players, especially for those guys who may have been released and who have families, but at the same time virtually all these guys have been through it at some point in their career. It doesn't really make the situation any better, but they all know at the end of the day, pro sports is a business. As harsh as they may sound, everyone who is truly involved in this business understands that."

This was easily the busiest deadline day in the history of the NBLC and almost every team can look at the moves they made and be happy with potentially improving some aspect of their lineup. I say "potentially" since the clear majority of the moves come with some sort of risk or out of some sort of element of desperation. Anthony Stover hasn't played for the bulk of the year and is a bit of an unknown quantity for St. John's. Names such as his new teammate Xavier Ford, Brandon Bowdry in Saint John, and Roshun Wynne and Carl Hall for the Island Storm are either unproven talents or guys who still haven't been activated by their new teams.  And when you look at former Rookie of the Year Rashad Whack in Cape Breton and Cavell Johnson and Dominic Phillips in KW, they weren't added for depth, but for players lost to injury, or in Cape Breton's case, to replace an All-Star signed by the G-League. Still, Salerno points out correctly that the deadline had people talking. "I actually think it is great for the league," he said, "as it certainly has created a buzz amongst all the fan bases. Everyone knows how competitive this league is, especially in the Atlantic division. So, every team is looking to do all they can to improve their roster for this home stretch. I think it some of the additions to these rosters will bring even more excitement as teams are jockeying for playoff positioning."

The Magic come in 3 ½ games clear of third place Saint John in the battle for home court advantage in the 2 vs. 3 matchup in the first round of the Divisional Playoffs.  If they have any hope of catching Halifax for home court advantage throughout, it starts Sunday afternoon at 2 pm.  It's buy one get one FREE for all tickets in all seating, plus kids under 5 get in free and there is face painting and bouncy castles for the kids, so come on out to the Coliseum. As always, you can catch Scott Squires and I on the call at monctonmagic.ca and check out our pregame analysis live on periscope at 1 pm.

Story by David Tingley

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