The Riders go into Sunday’s box office clash at the Morningside Arena holding a seven-point aggregate lead over the Bristol Flyers.
After opening a commanding 26-point gap between themselves and their hosts, Leicester resisted a spirited response in the second half to win 84-77 – their first victory at the SGS College Arena this season.
Here are five things to take away from a first-leg high in drama.
Another Fast Start Proved to be the Key
Starting with an earth-shattering slam from Aaron Menzies and ending with a smooth three-ball by Zach Jackson, the Riders surged into a 39-13 lead in the first half.
Much like they did against Sheffield, Rob Paternostro’s squad started the game with purpose.
Marc Loving and Carrington Love matched Jackson with a pair of nice deep balls, and 7’3” Menzies was throwing his considerable size around at both ends of the court.
The Brit was unplayable in the first 15 minutes, blocking shots, hustling to offensive rebounds and scoring with ease around the rim.
In one of his best games as a Rider, Menzies’ stat line read ten points, six rebounds and two blocks.
All of this contributed to a healthy first half lead and, once again, piled pressure on the Flyers to bridge the gap.
Riders’ Spread the Scoring
The Riders finished the game with six players boasting double-digits in points.
Starters Jackson, Patrick Whelan and Darien Nelson-Henry all breached ten points and were ably supported by Menzies, speedy guard Evan Walshe and the ball of energy that is Kimbal Mackenzie.
Mackenzie was the Riders’ top scorer with 14, driving to the basket with pace and always asking questions of Bristol’s defence.
#1 also dished out four of the Riders’ 15 assists on a night where the team displayed its impressive strength-in-depth.
The BBL post-season is bringing out the best in every player on the Riders’ team sheet.
Big Performances off the Bench
With so many points coming from all areas of the Riders’ squad, it’s not surprising that they bested the Flyers in bench points – 39 to 28.
Thursday’s semi-final preview mentioned that (between Leicester and Bristol) the team who wins the battle of the benches wins the game.
Nothing happened on Friday night to buck this trend.
Mackenzie, Menzies, Walshe and Jubril Adekoya all brought their ‘A-game’ to the court, proven by the positive numbers in the +/- column.
Menzies and Walshe both finished with a +13 personal points differential, testament to the physicality and athleticism they inflicted on the Flyers.
The latter’s speed when pushing the ball down the court looked undefendable, perfectly demonstrated by a coast-to-coast bucket in the first half.
If Leicester’s bench continue to bring this ferocity, they will be nearly impossible to stop.
Hitting the Fast Break Hard
Having players with the quickness of Mackenzie and Walshe on the team means the Riders often dominate on the fast break – Friday night was no different.
Leicester outscored their #3 ranked opponents 20-5 in fast break points, often taking advantage of Bristol’s missed shots.
The Flyers have struggled with shooting efficiency all season, and despite their ability on the offensive glass, Leicester’s quick ball-handlers were able to punish enough misses to make it count.
The Riders’ half-court offense couldn’t always break down a very tough Bristol D, so those fast break points, combined with a decent night on the boards, really helped to build the substantial early lead.
Solid Shooting Efficiency
Shooting efficiently is one of basketball’s golden rules. Missed shots just mean more opportunities for the opposition to score.
That’s a mistake Bristol made in this first leg and the Riders didn’t – for the most part.
Leicester finished the game shooting 51% from the floor and 38% from three-point range.
Menzies and Walshe were the team’s most reliable scorers, both hitting all of their shots off the bench, and Zach Jackson had a good day from deep, nailing half of his six attempts.
The 76% free throw shooting could and should be improved for Sunday’s second leg, but again, it was good enough, mitigated by the sheer volume of points the Riders hit from the charity stripe.
The Riders can shoot better, but if they can keep Bristol to a FG% under 40, it may not even matter.
Where to watch
The game tips off at 5:30 pm at the Morningside Arena Leicester.
It will also be shown live on Sky Sports and the Sky Sports youtube channel, starting at 5:15 pm.