It is time for the BBL championship playoff semi-finals, and this weekend has the #2 Riders tipping off against the #3 Bristol Flyers.
Both teams will head into this matchup brimming with confidence after dominant performances in last week’s quarter-finals.
Leicester and Bristol last met in the playoffs in 2021, with the Riders dominating both games. Expect this season’s contest to be a much tighter affair.
Riders’ Road to the Semis
Last week’s playoff quarter-finals saw the Riders put on a defensive clinic as they bested the B. Braun Sheffield Sharks 153-140.
Significant leads built in the first half of both games proved to be the winning formula for Leicester, who knew that their chances would skyrocket if they could make Sheffield chase the game.
The Riders’ knew that they would have one foot in the next round if they could restrict the Sharks to 75 points or less, and that’s exactly what they did.
The first leg, taking place in Ponds Forge, saw forward Marc Loving show his class as he dropped an 18-11 double-double – his fourth against the Sharks this season.
Kimbal Mackenzie once again provided a bright spark off the bench, hitting 19 points of his own at a perfect 100% clip and helping the Riders to a 79-70 first leg lead.
The second chapter was all about captain Darien Nelson-Henry and forward Zach Jackson.
Nelson-Henry and Jackson lit up the scoreboard with 18 and 25 points respectively, the former claiming a hard-earned double-double with 11 boards.
Jackson also managed to snag nine rebounds from his wing position and, at certain points of the game, looked unstoppable.
With Loving and Mackenzie both having a difficult night shooting the ball, the performances from the two showed that any player on the Riders roster can take over a game.
For their outstanding contributions, Nelson-Henry and Jackson made it onto the BBL ‘All-Star 5’ – for #21 it was a superb seventh appearance.
Flyers’ Road to the Semis
Heading into the playoff quarter-finals as the third seed with an identical 25-11 record to the Riders, the Bristol Flyers matched up against a high-scoring Manchester Giants squad.
One of the keys to the round would be whether Bristol could keep Manchester’s Dirk Williams and Tajh Green quiet.
The offensive ‘giants’ were held to an average of 11.5 PPG between them, and both were kept in single digits for one of the legs.
The Flyers did an excellent job of neutralising Manchester’s main threat and the tie was heavily in favour of the #3 seeds after a 97-71 first leg.
The only further requirement was for the Flyers not to capitulate in the SGS College Arena and they would go through to the semis.
A solid 82-81 home victory in the second leg proved that the Bristol squad could hold their nerve, and they were able to celebrate progression.
Guard Tevin Olison was the player of the round, shooting his way onto the ‘All-Star 5’ with a game-changing 29 points in Manchester.
Bench point totals of 31 and 27 also showed how well-rounded the Flyers’ squad is – a large part of the reason why they are ranked at #3.
As expected, the Riders and Flyers have tied the season series, winning two games apiece.
Even more predictably, both teams have triumphed on home court, although the Riders’ average winning margin is 17.5 points compared to Bristol’s 6.5.
One major component that has determined victory in all this season’s contests has been the play of the bench. Both starting line-ups appear evenly matched, so it is no surprise that in all four games, the winning team has benefited from significantly more bench points.
The first two battles came way back in October, with Bristol taking an initial 91-85 victory on the back of a 17-point performance by Thomas Bell III.
Bell didn’t dress for the second game on October 28, and despite VJ King’s 24 points, the Flyers missed the American’s scoring and fell 91-73.
Weekly matchup nightmare, Marc Loving, went off in that game, draining six threes on his way to a tasty 34 points.
The following two games were much more spread, with Bristol hosting the Riders on January 6 and then visiting the Morningside Arena on the final day of March.
Once again, King showed off his offensive repertoire, hitting 12 FGs and 30 points to help the Flyers win, 91-85. He was assisted by savvy guard, Mike Miller, who chipped in with 10 dishes.
March 31 brought with it another blowout in Leicester; the trio of Jackson, Loving and Patrick Whelan all producing memorable games.
The Riders dominated and claimed a 106-89 victory.
The pattern shows that both teams carry a slight advantage on their home court. Margin of victory could become a huge factor when determining who makes it through to the big dance.
When teams have so many great players in their squad, it becomes very difficult to pick a matchup that stands out among the rest.
One area that is worth zeroing in on however, is the tussle between the on-court generals – Riders’ Carrington Love and Flyers’ Mike Miller.
Both starting point guards are often the premier ball-handlers on their teams and regularly dictate the pace of play.
Second-year Flyer, Miller, has been ever-present this season, playing in 37 games across all competitions.
The American is averaging 9.51 PPG and 6.94 assists per 40 minutes, good for eighth in the BBL.
Whilst not a sharpshooter from beyond the arc, Miller does posses scoring ability and uses his 6’3” frame to overpower his opposition guard.
It will be imperative that Love stays strong when sticking to his man and does a good job of getting in the way of passing lanes.
The Riders’ point guard himself has shown flair when scoring the basket and intelligence when dealing the killer pass.
Since joining Leicester mid-way through the season, Love is averaging 7.89 PPG and a delicious 10.63 assists per 40, putting him top of the league in that category.
The 6’1” American had also shown quick hands in defence, currently pilfering 2.44 steals per 40.
Neither Miller nor Love are the biggest bodies on the court. That doesn’t mean that they won’t carry the biggest impact when all is said and done this Sunday evening.
Where to watch
The first leg will be shown live on the British Basketball League’s official youtube channel, starting at 7:30 pm.
This weekend, fans will be treated to a contest worthy of a BBL semi-final. Expect it to be tight. Expect it to be high in quality.
Both teams have played a season deserving of a place in the BBL Finals.
The Riders hope they will be the team that claims the honour.