The quarter-final round of the BBL Championship Playoffs pits the #2 Riders against the #7 B. Braun Sheffield Sharks.
The two teams last met in the playoffs back in 2018, with Leicester coming out on top.
Despite finishing the season under .500, the Sharks may prove to be a tricky opponent for the Riders, who have been bested by their rivals on two occasions this year.
Riders’ Path to the Playoffs
One word can sum up the Riders’ 2022/23 season: consistency.
Last season’s treble-winners began the season in fine fettle, going 8-4 in their first 12 games and continued in that vein until the final tip-off last Sunday.
The Riders’ ability to keep the win column ticking over resulted in a 25-11 record and 50 points, good for second place in the championship standings.
Leicester have matched up well with nearly every team in the BBL this season, recording a clean sweep over the likes of Manchester, Plymouth and Surrey.
Tougher tests have come against fellow playoff squads like Caledonia and Bristol, but the Riders still posted a .500 record in those series’.
The largest obstacle in the Riders’ way this season has been a 32-4 London Lions squad, who are yet to be bested by Rob Paternostro’s men.
The Riders will not face the Lions unless they make it to the playoff final, and there is plenty of basketball to be played between now and then.
Featured on BBL social media this week, Coach Rob described his players as “mentally locked in” and “full of playoff experience”.
They will need to draw on that knowledge of knockout ball if they are to push through to the next round.
Sharks’ Path to the Playoffs
Unlike the Riders, the Sharks have been anything but consistent this season.
Following a decent 6-6 start in the opening 12, Sheffield toiled through a 2-10 winter period that saw them fighting for the final playoff place.
Then came the turnaround.
A 92-74 demolition of the Surrey Scorchers saw the Sharks romp to a 9-3 record down the final stretch, pushing them into the conversation for a top four seeding.
Two late-season losses to Bristol and the Riders kept them as the #7 seed, but in current form, they could be as dangerous as any matchup in the BBL.
Perhaps the most surprising – yet impressive – feature of Sheffield’s season are the two victories over the Lions.
The Sharks triumphed over London 87-81 and 82-80 and – along with Bristol – are the only side to have registered a win against the league’s #1 seed.
Sheffield have based their season around a stifling defence that often restricts the opposition to less than 80 points.
Expect that intense D to ramp up to another level come the QF tip-off.
Watching the Riders and Sharks this season has been like watching two world-class prize fighters going blow-for-blow in the boxing ring.
Leicester’s versatile offense and the Sharks’ impenetrable defence has been evident in nearly every contest – especially during spring once Sheffield’s form had improved.
The first couple of games early in the season both told similar stories.
Riders’ dominance from three-point range and ability to get to the free-throw line could not be matched by their opponents, and the games ended with comfortable victories for Leicester.
A mid-season BBL Trophy game between the two told a different story though.
Leicester uncharacteristically struggled from downtown, allowing Sheffield to hit the offensive glass hard and put back some second-chance points.
The tight contest ended 79-78 to the Sharks.
At the beginning of the final stretch of games, the teams met again. Once again, Sheffield got the better of things, scoring an eight-point victory: 72-64. Guard, Saeed Nelson put in an all-action display, leading his team with 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 dishes and 3 steals.
Finally, last Friday, the teams tipped off for the final time in the regular season. A close game full of spectacular dunks and tough defence finished 84-76 to the Riders after they pulled away in the fourth.
If there is one player the Sharks should fear most, it is combo forward, Marc Loving.
Listed at 6’9” and incredibly long, Loving is a matchup nightmare for any team – against Sheffield he is destructive.
The Ohio native is averaging 17.2 PPG and 8.2 RPG in his five outings against the Sharks this season, three of which have been double-doubles.
Perhaps Loving’s most spectacular performance came in the final meeting last week, where he dropped a cool 25 points and regularly ghosted into the paint to grab 10 rebounds.
Loving always plays with a calm head and regularly finds space on the court that others do not.
The Sharks will need to try something new if they are to slow down #4.
A player that the Riders need to keep tabs on is Sheffield fan-favourite, Kipper Nichols.
Described by Coach Atiba Lyons as being able to “score at will”, Nichols is averaging 14 PPG against Leicester this season, including a 20-point effort in October and a 19-point game in February.
The Riders have done a decent job of keeping the third-year 6’6” forward under control, but he has still managed to put up double-digit performances in four of the five games.
Nichols may not be the obvious danger man this weekend, but so often it’s the unseen man that defences need to be wariest of.
Where to watch
The first leg will be streamed live on the British Basketball youtube channel, starting at 7:15 pm.
The season series between these two squads has shown the BBL community how entertaining a clash of styles can be.
Fate, it seems, had a part to play in matching them up in the playoffs.
It is going to be epic.