(Moncton, NB - March 31, 2018)
From the birth of the Moncton Magic out of the ashes of the inaugural Moncton professional basketball franchise last June, to the hiring of Coach and GM of Player Ops Joe Salerno in July, to the signing of player one Al Stewart in August, and then to the transaction deadline moves adding Juan Pattillo and Marvell Waithe in February, this season has been all about one thing for everyone on the roster, the sidelines and in the front office. "The postseason is the only thing that matters," Salerno said today in advance of the final game of the regular season, Saturday at 7 PM Atlantic at the Moncton Coliseum versus the Saint John Riptide. The game can also be seen live on monctonmagic.ca with myself and the Voice of the Magic, Scott Squires on the call.
The last thing tonight's game will be wanting for is storylines, not with the Riptide coming in off a dramatic 96-90 win over the Magic in front of 5400 fans at Harbour Station on Thursday night in the front half of the "Battle of the 506". Saint John is 19-19 and locked in a tight battle with the 19-20 Island Storm for third spot in the Atlantic Division and will be hungry for the win, the Coliseum is sure to be rocking it's biggest crowd in a long time and the fans will be just as hungry, and finally, this is a Magic squad coming in just 2-5 on the year against a possible first round playoff opponent.
None of that phases Coach Salerno or takes away from his stated focus. "We will more than likely cut back some of our starters minutes, potentially sit a few guys. Sure, we would love to head into the playoffs on a high note in front of a nice crowd tomorrow evening, but the priority is the post season, and making sure all our guys are rested, healthy and ready to go for our opening series. Some of this decision could also be based on what happens in the Island, Cape Breton game this evening, so it will be more of a game day decision."
Cape Breton upended the Storm in that game last night, making Island's road to passing Saint John all the more difficult, but it remains to be seen how that will affect the minutes Salerno doles out. No matter the five on the floor, the Magic will be looking for the keys to unlocking a stingy Riptide defense that's held them under 100 points in 5 of their 7 matchups. "They are the number 1 team in the NBL defensively," Salerno pointed out, "at least when it comes to points against. They have good size in the back court with (Jeremiah) Mordi, (Malcolm) Miller, and (Aaron) Redpath, as well as some versatile players at the 4 that allow them to switch some things out effectively."
Moncton came into Thursday's game off a huge 107-95 win over the first place Halifax Hurricanes two nights earlier, and I asked Coach Salerno whether the Saint John performance could be attributed to a little bit of a letdown. He acknowledged it was possible, but that they addressed it as a coaching staff in pre-game and he wasn't about to let his players off that easy. "Sure, last night was a bit of a tough environment to play in with such a loud crowd. There were two or three occasions we blew a defensive assignment simply because our guys couldn't hear each other communicating. But the bottom line is, we threw up a big goose egg on the offensive end of the floor. We were stagnant, ball-watching, and borderline selfish at times. It was a really poor performance from us on the offensive end."
This close to the postseason, every team wants to be comfortable with their rotations and possess a clear vision of the 5 guys they want to start and finish games and the second units that will come in and give effective bench minutes. But Coach Salerno concedes there is work yet to be done there when it comes to his roster. "(We are) not as close as I would like. We have had some inconsistent individual play from some guys, which has made it a little bit tougher when trying to cement a rotation. It will really come down to the match ups with whoever our first-round opponent is. I believe we will have a few days between our final regular season game and game one of the playoffs that will be pretty vital in figuring out what will be our 8 or 9-man rotation in that first series."
When I tried to steer the conversation with Coach Salerno to the positives out of the Halifax win on Tuesday, and how that effects the team's outlook toward a potential playoff matchup with the Hurricanes, his focus still could not be swayed from the initial step in the looming championship run. "We are not looking ahead in this post season...at all. We have had issues with either team we could face in the 1st round, whether it be Saint John or the Island, so first and foremost, we need to get through them. The biggest take away for us from the Halifax game was the aggressive edge I thought we played with. An attitude we will need to have consistently to win in the post season."
As a fan of the Magic, Salerno's remarks could certainly give you pause with the playoffs looming, but there's plenty to like about a single-minded, unsatisfied, and motivated coach at the reigns of a supremely talented veteran roster that has voiced a similar mindset all season long. The Halifax performance showed what they are capable of, and the Saint John performance on Thursday showed them they need to do more than simply show up against whoever their first-round playoff opponent will be. That Saint John game also showed the effect a huge, fired-up crowd can have on a basketball team. Saint John doesn't think we're capable of showing them up Moncton, but prove them wrong. Saturday night, 7 PM, at the Coliseum. The Battle of the 506. It's the final regular season game for the Magic. Come on out and send the guys into the playoffs on the right note. As always, for you stuck in front of your computers and devices, join myself and Scott Squires on the call from monctonmagic.ca. Enjoy!
Story: David Tingley