BBL Championship Preview: Riders at Phoenix

Two days on from securing the second place seeding in the BBL Championship Playoffs, the Riders travel west to Cheshire to take on the Phoenix.

The tip-off at 5:30 pm will be the last of the 2022/23 regular season. Both teams go into the game with their playoff spot secure and will have an eye on the quarterfinals next week.

Riders’ Season So Far

After grinding out a win at home to the B. Braun Sheffield Sharks on Friday, the Riders sit on 50 points with a 25-10 record. Should they claim victory on Sunday, Leicester will finish the regular season with their highest number of wins since 2017, albeit as part of a 36-game season.

The 85-76 win over the Sharks was a much tighter affair than the nine-point margin suggests – the Riders pulled away in the final minute thanks to reliable free throw shooting in the clutch.

After a low-scoring first half, which ended 32-29 to the home team, the second stanza became a back-and-forth tussle with both teams holding a lead on multiple occasions.

Both the Riders and Sharks were playing ferociously on defence. Even talented scorers like Patrick Whelan and Zach Jackson were struggling to get buckets at the clip they are used to.

Smooth operator, Marc Loving, was the Rider who really stepped up to the challenge of Sheffield’s lockdown defence.

The silky forward took the game by the scruff of the neck, finishing the night with 25 points, 10 rebounds and a plus/minus of +11.

Loving’s performance illustrated perfectly how much of a mismatch he can be at his best, something Coach Rob will want to exploit during the post-season.

Phoenix’s Season So Far

The 18-17 Cheshire Phoenix have enjoyed a fairly light end-of-season schedule, having not played since an 85-68 victory in Plymouth on April 16.

Coach Ben Thomas’ squad have cemented fifth place in the playoff seedings and will play the Caledonia Gladiators in next week’s QF’s, the team they lost to in the BBL Trophy final back in March.

As their record suggests, the Phoenix have had a mixed bag of a season, often trading wins and losses on a one-to-one basis.

Their Achilles heel has been the top three teams in the BBL, with Cheshire failing to record a single win against the best teams in the league.

However, against the rest of the BBL they have gone 18-5, proving their worth as the #5 seed.

The Phoenix are a squad that plays on-ball defence tenaciously. Expect the Riders to prioritise ball security against a Cheshire team that makes 9.45 steals per game.

One may be lulled into thinking that the intensity will drop on Sunday, but the chance to snag a first victory over a top-three team should be more than enough motivation for the home side.

Key Players

The cornerstone of Cheshire’s aggressive defence is two-guard, Larry Austin Jr.

The 6’2” American is an energetic scorer on offense and a Pitbull on defence, leading the BBL with 2.59 SPG.

Austin brings a wealth of experience to the court, having played professionally in Turkey and Portugal after a successful collegiate career with Xavier, Vanderbilt and Central Michigan.

As well as his sticky defence, Austin leads the Phoenix in scoring and rebounding, averaging 15.19 PPG and 6.14 RPG.

The Springfield native is a true star of the BBL.

Facing up to the task of quelling Austin’s effectiveness will be Riders’ own emerging star, Carrington Love.

The American has had a hand in everything good the Riders have done in recent weeks and is finding his feet in the BBL, following his mid-season move from Germany.

Now in a starting role at point guard, Love has been serving up more dishes than a restaurant, dropping 11.42 assists per 40 minutes.

He is the only player in the BBL to average over 10 in that category.

The Green Bay graduate also has an eye for the steal, bagging 2.97 per game during his senior year and setting a programme record in the process.

The victor in the battle between Austin and Love could well decide the fate of their respective teams.

Key matchup

The game will be streamed live on the British Basketball League channel, starting at 5:15 pm.