The BBL Playoff finals are finally here. The league champions Leicester Riders will host the league runners-up Newcastle Eagles at the o2 arena on Sunday in front of a packed crowd. The final is a replay of the 2012/13 final which the Riders won, and Newcastle will do everything in their power to get one back over their rivals.
Newcastle and Leicester are amongst the most successful clubs in the history of British Basketball with 8 playoff final victories between them as well as multiple leagues, cup and trophy finals. Both sides saw domestic success with Leicester winning the league and the BBL Trophy with a dominant 91-58 win over Plymouth. Newcastle has also seen success as they finished second in the league and won the BBL Cup with a solid win over Glasgow Rocks 91-83.
Sunday’s final will mark the fifth and most important meeting of the two sides this season, with the season series draw at 2-2. The two sides met most recently in the run-in to the end of the season with a home and home series, in which both sides won their home game. In the first game, won 81-87 by Leicester but it was Newcastle who came out on top 83-76 in the return fixture.
Sunday’s game will be an incredibly close match, in which both sides will go in knowing they have a great chance to win. The strength and depth of the Leicester Riders roster will face off against the versatile talents of the Newcastle Eagles lead by their player/coach Fabulous Flournoy and their League MVP candidate Rahmon Fletcher. The Riders will rotate their squad early, able to put out a fresh five at will whereas the Eagles are more sparing in their rotations, but have a lot of guards who they will swap in and out as the situation calls for it.
The clash sees the best scoring team in the country and the best defensive team in the country matching up. The Riders will want the game to be a low-scoring affair, as they have demonstrated an ability to shut down teams defensively whilst scoring enough points to get the wins. The Eagles, on the other hand, would benefit from the game being more a higher scoring affair as they are able to go blow to blow with the highest scoring teams in the league. In the playoffs, the Eagles have shown an ability to score large numbers of points, but also concede in equally high numbers like they did against Bristol conceding 41 points in a quarter.
Another key to the game will be foul counts. The Riders compound having a deep bench which averages 33.00 points a game with an incredible ability to draw fouls and force teams into foul trouble, something they did to great effect against the London Lions in game one. The Riders were able to get Niktash, one of the key men for the Lions, into foul trouble early and limited his play time to just 6 minutes in the first half.
The Eagles will need to be disciplined and maintain their habit of conceding few fouls and very few turnovers. An area of strength for Newcastle will be their domination on the boards. On average they outrebound the Riders by 11.50 rebounds per game and get double the amount of offensive rebounds, which will lead to more second chance scoring opportunities.
It is difficult to predict who the key players for the Riders will be due to their incredible depth and the ability for any one man to have a standout night for the Leicester outfit. Their guards were tremendous in their victories over the London Lions with Brandon Clark seemingly unstoppable when attacking the basket. The 6 foot Guard from Santa Clara scored 441 regular season points and provided 187 assists in an excellent debut season in the BBL.
Pierre Hampton is another key piece for the Riders as the 6’7” forward is able to guard multiple positions and play both sides of the ball well. The 26-year-old Swede scored 343 regular season points and has been a significant player for the Riders in their run through the playoffs contributing with efficient scoring and good all around play. The Riders will rely heavily on MVP hopeful Taylor King to see them to victory and to lock down Scott Martin on defence. The 6’8” forward from Duke is in his second season in the BBL and has had an incredible impact with 243 regular season rebounds and over 400 points in the regular and postseason, he is a stretch four, meaning he can dominate his guard inside but can also make three point shots which keep the defenders on their toes.
The Eagles are lead by their own MVP candidate Fletcher, who had an incredible season in 2016/17 coming off an MVP year in 15/16. Fletcher leads the league in scoring with 676 regular season points and 220 assists and was pivotal in Newcastle’s last second overtime win over the Wolves last Friday. It was Fletcher who drained the tie winning free throws with just 3 seconds left in the game in a 28 point, 7 assists and 4 rebound night.
The Eagles also have the 6’8” forward and Notre Dame alumni Scott Martin to rely on, who scored 529 regular season points and had a huge game last Friday matching Fletcher in scoring with 28 points with 6 rebounds a steal and 2 blocks. Martin will be relied on heavily against the Riders as he faces down King. Deondre Parks is another important piece for Newcastle. Hailing from Flint, Michigan, the 6’1” guard scored 518 regular season points from shooting the guard and had a very good game two over the Wolves netting 15 vital points and 5 rebounds on 40% shooting. Parks will need to find his 3 point range better than he did last Friday but he will be a weapon against the guards of the Riders.
Both sides have overcome fierce competition to make the BBL playoff Final and both sides know they have what it takes to get the win. The Eagles best hope will be to turn the game into a shootout, they know they can match any team in the country and better most of them if they get into a high scoring encounter. The Riders will look to shut down the scoring talents of Martin and Fletcher and score relentlessly late in the shot clock.
This is the encounter most people would have expected and will be an incredible game for the BBL, the players and the fans. It is too close to call, but the resilience showed by Newcastle to overcome the in-form team of the BBL, the Worcester Wolves will stand them in good stead on Sunday. I can see the Eagles rushing out the gates to get the scoring going, if they do this, they might just do it, but either way we’re in for an incredible showdown.