(Moncton, NB - April 19, 2019)
Basketball being a game of countless statistical categories, it's almost too easy at times to bend numbers on a whim and make them tell the story you want. Telling the tale of the season series between the Halifax Hurricanes and the Moncton Magic, however, means having to throw all the numbers out the window. Game 1 of their Atlantic Division Finals series tips off Thursday night at 7 PM Atlantic from the Metro Centre in Halifax live at monctonmagic.ca. The regular season, meanwhile, finished with the squads tied at 3 wins apiece, but other than telling you just how evenly matched these teams are, the scoresheets belong in the trash heap.
Being efficient offensively is important right? Halifax won games 3 and 4 of the season series while shooting a combined 33% from the field and making just 11 of 52 three-point attempts. Controlling the glass is always a key of course. Well, Moncton won their first two matchups while being outrebounded by a total of 22. Good bench play is essential in a 48-minute game obviously. Ummm, Moncton lost a game where their reserves outscored the Hurricanes' by 33.
I could bore you with many more of those, but the numbers that matter are these: Moncton scored more than 10 points under their season average against Halifax while shooting 3.5% worse from the field and 7% worse from the line. The Hurricanes meanwhile, scored 13 below their average while shooting more than 8% worse from the field and 7% worse from the three-point stripe. Moncton is coming off an absolute war of a 5-game first round series with the Riptide and it goes to show just how tough St. John is that coach Joe Salerno commented how it was "almost" a relief to be on to the Hurricanes. Believe me, he emphasized the "almost".
Much like the Magic and the Riptide, Halifax and Moncton's offensive/defensive matchups seem tailor-made for a mano a mano, grind it out, intense, low-scoring and long series. With those matchups in mind, I'm going to breakdown the teams position-by-position.
Two teams, three bona fide legends at this spot. Cliff Clinkscales has been running the point in Halifax since the dawn of time and is as dependable a player as you're going to find. He finished second in the league in both assists and assist/turnover ratio and, for a guy who's never averaged double figures in any of his NBL Canada seasons, does any Magic fan want to see him rising to fire a three in a big spot late in any round 2 game? Around the midway point of the season, Coach Salerno moved all-time leading NBL Canada scorer Anthony Anderson from his natural and long-time shooting guard spot to starting point guard. That shifted the only other member of the career 1000-point, 1000 assist, 1000 rebound club, Al Stewart, to a reserve role where, surprise, surprise, he's thrived. AA has had his struggles to score the ball, but his playmaking and defense have remained elite. Both he and Stewart finished in the top 15 in the league in assists, assist/turnover ratio and steals and both were massive during the Magic's comeback from 17 down to steal game 5 in round one. Halifax lacks a true, strong backup point guard and those duties typically end up being shared by some names we're going to get to in our next position breakdown. Ashton Khan got some late minutes for the Hurricanes in game 4 and looked good, but hasn't performed at a high enough level to think he'll play a factor in this series. EDGE- MAGIC
You looking for guys at your two-spot that can fill it up and lock down their man on the other end? Have I got the series for you… For the Magic, starter Corey Allmond has flat-out been one of the best players in the league since his promotion to the starting lineup at midseason. Mired in a shooting slump with his three-point % deep into the 30's, the consistent time and attempts got him in rhythm and he's been firing at almost a 53% clip ever since. Jason Calliste's arrival as backup provided a jolt to the Magic's second-unit, and his superior shooting and tough defense has mirrored Allmond's production on both ends. Neither are easily taken off the dribble, nor do they mind sticking their nose in on the glass. The Hurricanes tandem of Antoine Mason and Ta'Quan Zimmerman isn't the sharpshooting combo that their rivals are but offer more playmaking, (they, along with Mike Poole, essentially share the backup point guard minutes) get to the line more often, and play a more physical style defensively. That isn't to say they can't knock it down from long range and they must be respected out there, particularly 6th man award winner Zimmerman. Both pairs have different strengths, and it's difficult to separate them, but with Mason's MVP-level play this year, the slightest of edges goes to the HURRICANES.
Now, if YOU want to be the one to call Tyrone Watson SMALL, be my guest. He's listed as a power forward on the Halifax roster, but their playoff lineups have seen the former Canadian Of the Year start in this spot and I expect the matchup there with Terry Thomas to be a key to this series. Watson is coming off a TREMENDOUS last three games against the Storm in round 1, a series he capped off with a triple-double in the fourth and deciding game on PEI. Watson's calling-card has always been his defense and he's never going to be a great perimeter shooter, but you must account for him in the post-up game and on the offensive glass as well as in transition, three areas where his brute strength and athleticism come to the fore. Somewhere around the turn of the calendar to 2018, Mike Poole got a second wind and he's been one of the best reserves and combo guard/forwards in the league ever since. Against Moncton, he's had a 17-rebound game, a game where he was almost perfect from the field, a game with 5 steals, he's just found ways to be effective. And his defense is all-league level as well. Speaking of great two-way players, how about one of the premier guys in the league, T-Time, Terry Thomas? The show he put on at both ends in the last 6 minutes of game 5 in round one was absolutely riveting. He threw the Magic on his back and willed them back after starting the game 3-14 from the field. He was a favorite to repeat as Canadian of the Year before being nipped by MVP Carl English and he'll surely be on the All-NBL and All-Defensive lists when they are announced. In smaller lineups, Jeremy Williams or Brent Jennings may be candidates to start alongside T-Time at the 4 spot. However, in this series, those two will no doubt be called upon to play with Moncton's deep second units. J-Will suffered a minor eye injury in game 5 against St. John, but it isn't expected to affect his play for round 2. He was excellent in the last 2 games for Moncton and he'll be called upon for important minutes at the 3 for Moncton in round 2. BJ also had strong minutes, particularly defensively, in round 1 and it will be interesting to see how many minutes he gets against Halifax's very different lineup. I love that pair Halifax puts out there, but because of the overall brilliance of Thomas and the added flexibility of Moncton's trio….EDGE- MAGIC
We're splitting hairs here trying to decide who qualifies as a PF versus a C, but for the purposes of this series, I think you see Denzell Taylor in the starting lineup at this spot next to Juan Pattillo at the 5. Taylor has had an unbelievable rookie season and was fantastic in the clincher in round 1. The Magic are going to need a lot more of his defense and rebounding and vicious screen-setting to overcome the Hurricanes home-court advantage in the Division Finals. The Magic are bound to throw different looks at Halifax All-Star Billy White but Taylor will play a large role in the game plan against the Hurricanes leading-rebounder and second-leading scorer at 18 a game on 55% shooting. Renaldo Dixon is a reliable but unspectacular backup to White who can knock down the occasional three and mix it up on the glass. I'm the president of the Denzell fan club, but even I have to give the clear advantage to Halifax. EDGE: HURRICANES
The Magic played the bulk of round 1 with former Hurricane Anthony Cox watching from the sidelines. With the smaller lineups of the Riptide, it made sense for the Ant Man to be a spectator, but he'll be right back in the mix for the Division Finals. Kevin Farrell-Thomas offers a fourth big body Moncton can employ if need be, but it will largely be a three-man rotation up front with Taylor and Cox rotating freely with the SURGING Juan Pattillo. Pattillo appeared to be a man amongst boys at times against the Riptide, a series where he averaged almost 22 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals, and set a league record for most made field goals made in a five-game series. If he's as focused and aggressive in round two, his matchup with the strong and athletic Rhamel Brown could be a sight to behold. Both are plus athletes, but Pattillo holds a slight quickness advantage so if he can face Brown up from the mid-post and beat him off the dribble or pull up for those rainbow jumpers, he could be a handful. On the other hand, if Brown can use his strength to force Pattillo into shots a little out of his comfort range, that could turn into a real plus for the Hurricanes. I think Brown slows Pattillo down based on his pace from the St. John series, but doesn't shut him down completely. EDGE: MAGIC
WHO'S NOT HERE
Both squads are down a significant piece that alters what they do on both sides of the ball. The Magic's Marvell Waithe left the squad during the first round due to family issues back in Toronto, leaving them down a long-armed defender and gutsy shot-maker, but with the chemistry on this team and the experience of playing much of the season without him, it won't affect their roster as much as the guy missing from the Hurricanes lineup. CJ Washington has long been one of the most underrated players in the NBL and a key cog in what Halifax does at both ends of the floor. Without him, they lose an effective scorer both inside and on the perimeter, and a tough and willing defender down low. It's a huge loss for them, particularly given the quality they are going to see in (potentially) the next two rounds.
Halifax got off a little easy in round 1 with the Island injuries and the departure of Du'Vaughan Maxwell part way through the series. No such luck for them in round 2 however, and the emergence of Pattillo makes CJ Washington's loss all that much more problematic. The effectiveness of Denzell Taylor and Pattillo together in game 5 against St. John bodes well for Moncton as well as those two will have to play minutes together in this series. Another positive was the 14-point, 8-assist, 1-turnover performance by Anthony Anderson who came into the decider averaging just 3.3 points on the series. If he gets back to creating offense for HIMSELF and others, Moncton will be difficult to handle for anyone. But even with ALLLLL that, you could still easily talk me into Halifax prevailing in this series. They have a stockpile of veterans with Finals experience, home-court advantage, a great point guard, an MVP candidate and Tyrone Watson playing the best ball of his season. In addition, their ball movement and motion represents a completely different design than St. John's ball-dominant, screen-and-roll heavy actions, forcing the Magic to adjust quickly to a new style of play and new lineups. However, to boil this down to the most simple of thoughts, without CJ Washington, I believe Moncton now has MORE good players than does Halifax. In a long series where the bench will be so important, I believe that will represent the difference. You could talk me into either team prevailing in a long series, but I gotta make a choice and…..
THE PICK: MAGIC IN SIX