Here we are.
One game to go.
40 minutes between the Riders and back-to-back playoff glory. A chance for every player in the squad to cement their legacy in the history of the club.
In the way – a London Lions squad that has already beaten Leicester in the BBL Cup Final.
Sunday, May 14, 4:15pm is the tip-off time. The O2 Arena in London is the location.
British basketball doesn’t get any more box office than this.
Opposition Report: London Lions
No team has been tougher to beat this season than the London Lions.
Recently named Molten Ed Percival BBL Head Coach of the Year, Ryan Schmidt, has orchestrated a season of rare dominance that saw the Lions win the BBL Cup before running away with the BBL Championship boasting a commanding 32-4 record.
No team has been able to deal with the Lions who, as well as being the most efficient scorers in the league, are the best defensive team in the UK by far.
The #1 seed Lions have carried their sparkling regular season form into the playoffs, first swatting aside Newcastle before getting the better of the #5 seed Cheshire Phoenix.
Neither the Eagles nor the Phoenix were able to get within eight points of the ruthless Pride, who average an impressive 97.75 in the playoffs.
Perhaps the best example of London’s effectiveness on court came in the semi-final second leg at home to Cheshire.
The Lions’ tenacity on the defensive end of the floor held the Phoenix to a poor 41% from the field, which opened clean looks for London’s sharpshooters as Cheshire began to tire.
Granted, the team from the capital allowed Maceo Smith to romp to 34 points, but when a team is averaging 70% in two-pointers, it’s game over.
Leicester have suffered a loss in all five of their games against their southern opponents this season, including a 79-70 defeat in the previously mentioned BBL Cup Final.
Game 1 set the tone for the year, the Lions taking an 89-78 home victory in the Copper Box Arena, courtesy of an 18-11 double-double by American star, and league MVP, Sam Dekker.
The next contest didn’t arrive until December 27 and, despite the score being closer, London pulled out a second win over the Riders to quieten the Morningside Arena’s Christmas cheer.
Darien Nelson-Henry tussled manfully with former NBA player Kosta Koufous for supremacy on the boards, but his 13 rebounds weren’t enough, and the Riders lost 81-75.
The third game in the BBL Championship ended in a blowout 102-77 road triumph for the Lions. Teams must be a 100% to match the London side and Leicester were off their game. Seven-footer Josh Sharma was the standout player on court, dropping 17 points to build a +21 +/- differential.
April 7 brought a night of entertainment to the Copper Box crowd as Game 4 produced the closest result of the season between the #1 and #2 seeds – an 83-81 win for London.
A topsy-turvy first half saw the Riders take a one-point lead into the break, but, with both defences clamping down in the second 20, the Lions edged ahead at the death.
The last game of the season series should best represent the play of the final – tense, tight and point-for-point.
The Riders need to put the regular season results behind them and focus on the here and now.
Keys to Victory
Get London in Foul Trouble
The Lions have very few chinks in their armour, but getting into foul trouble might be one of them.
London are the third most prolific team at sending the opposition to the line this season, and the Riders punish free shots better than anyone.
If impact players like Kimbal Mackenzie and Evan Walshe drive to the basket aggressively, the Riders can use that league-leading 79.47 free throw percentage effectively.
Match Their Shooting Percentage
As previously mentioned, London have very few weaknesses. In that case, the Riders need to match one of their opposition’s strengths with a strength of their own.
Both squads are clearly the most efficient in the league when shooting the rock, and the Riders need to be at their 48% best on Sunday evening.
London will manufacture some clean looks – it’s inevitable. Leicester need to take their clear shots each time one presents itself.
Missing open looks will undoubtedly see the Riders fighting an uphill battle.
Overcome Defensive Intensity
The Lions’ defence has been their sharpest weapon all season.
Their defensive rating of 92.98 is nearly ten points better than the #2 team in that category – Sheffield.
Coach Rob Paternostro’s players will be under more pressure when in possession of the ball than they have been all season.
They need to rise above that pressure.
Playing smart, team basketball that stays ahead of the shot clock gives Leicester their best chance.
If the Riders can get the better of London’s defence, the chances of a famous victory skyrocket.
Following the treble-winning season of last year, the hunger for silverware is embedded in the clubs’ DNA
The BBL Cup and Trophy titles passed the Riders by.
The Playoff title is still within their grasp.
They are the underdogs after five defeats to the Lions this season. Let’s hope it’s sixth time lucky for Coach Rob’s squad.