The Riders will take a hard-earned nine-point advantage into the second leg of their BBL playoff quarter-final following a 79-70 win over the B. Braun Sheffield Sharks.
Here are five things to take away from a tense first leg.
Building an early lead proved crucial
After trailing by five very early in the contest, the Riders took control of the game and built a lead to defend.
Leicester ended the first quarter 28-17 to the good and only allowed Sheffield to get within one basket on a couple of occasions.
Playoff ball requires a hard push for a double-digit lead early so it can be defended rather than chased.
The Riders understood this and used a three-point range finder from Marc Loving to dominate the final five minutes of the quarter.
Two more deep balls by Loving and Patrick Whelan backed up by an unstoppable Kimbal Mackenzie did the damage and the rest of the game was about keeping the Sharks at bay.
Leicester won the battle of the boards
If there was one area where the Riders dominated the Sharks on Friday night, it was rebounding.
The road team outrebounded their opponents 46-30, allowing for plenty of second chances to score the ball.
Leicester ended the game with nearly three times as many second-chance points as Sheffield and the nine-point difference shows it.
Loving, who has been a matchup nightmare for Sheffield all season, snagged 11 boards on his way to yet another double-double, and wing forward Zach Jackson pulled down the same amount, recording a double-double of his own.
When asked whether the impressive rebounding numbers was centred around a specific gameplan, coach Rob Paternostro said: “Not really. Those guys saw the opportunities and they took them really well.”
Loving and Jackson are proof that big-time players rise in big-time moments.
Riders Must Shoot the Ball Better
If Coach Rob was happy with the rebounding, the same can’t be said for the shooting performance, especially from deep.
“I liked the way we played but we didn’t shoot the ball well,” said Coach when quizzed about his initial thoughts on the game. He added: “(We) didn’t exactly shoot the three well.”
The numbers tell the story as the Riders shot just 40% from the field and 24% from downtown.
Yes, the excellent rebounding limited the damage, but efficiency certainly must improve if the Riders are to see a winning end to the season.
One place the team were deadly accurate from was the free throw line, where they posted 91% on 21 attempts.
Mackenzie, once again a spark off the bench, hit every one of his 11 free throws, continuing a reputation as one of the best in the league from the line.
Limiting Turnovers is Key
Looking ahead to Sunday’s second leg, Coach Rob noted that, “taking care of the basketball is very important”, something the Riders excelled at during the first quarter.
The dominant run that saw Leicester build an 11-point lead only contained a single turnover.
Sheffield were forced to hit contested shots against a defence that was often set and rarely on the back foot after a steal.
The tight ball control seeped away as the game wore on, but the damage done in the first gave the Riders an all-important buffer.
Every team in the BBL can cause problems on the fast break, and with Sheffield openly wanting a faster offence than earlier in the season, ball retention is more important than ever.
Good Defence Wins Games
Sunday’s deciding leg in the Morningside Arena will be predicated on defence.
Keeping the Sharks below their offence season average of 74.78 PPG vastly improves the Riders’ chances of advancing, especially with the nine-point hurdle they face.
Leicester have one of the most dynamic offences in the league with players who get clean looks and show great on-court instincts – but as Coach Rob stated after Friday’s win: “Defence is the name of the game.”
The Riders kept Sheffield’s high-flyers, Jalon Pipkins and Saeed Nelson, relatively quiet in the first 40 minutes.
They need more of the same in the second.
Continuing to suppress Sheffield’s premier scorers’ ability to get into a rhythm will be at the top of the objective board.
Where to watch
The second leg is at the Morningside Arena Leicester, tipping off at 5:15 pm. Get your tickets here!
It will also be shown live on Sky Sports, and their youtube channel, starting at 5 pm.