Look – I’ve been as critical of a sports fan you will ever find. I’ve heckled my home team’s coach and begged him to call a time out (oh Rick Lewis) for 3 minutes straight while the other team was running a layup line against an exhausted Rainmen squad. I spent years writing a blog that lamented the constant roster moves. I’ve mentioned on twitter that I think some of the Rainmen’s municipal funding has been sketchy. And I’ve drawn the ire of team ownership for it – at one point even inexplicably being publicly accused of not being a “real fan” despite being one of the few people to never use a comped ticket in my five years of attending games.
And here’s the thing, I’ve spent all this time being critical because I strangely care about this team and because there is no better two and a half hours of sports to be seen in Atlantic Canada than a Rainmen game. I also did it because the constant roster moves and the blown close games and numerous suspensions for personal reasons have all been infuriating and frustrating as a sports fan. To see guys like Tommy Mitchell get cut from the Rainmen just for the sake of making a change only to see him get an NBA camp invite 10 months later was confusing yet predictable.
But none of that matters right now because the Rainmen are in the finals and despite being down two games to one against a team who have lost just three times on the season (including last night’s loss at the Metro Centre) I think Halifax can win the first NBLC championship.
It won’t be easy or likely, of course. Halifax face one of the best ever minor league coaches in Michael Ray Richardson. The face a veteran team of tough, physical players who play hard for each other. They also face incredible unpredictability – Halifax have key players like Chris Hagen who are battling injuries, the reffing in playoffs has been horrendous and inconsistent at times and the Rainmen have had a hard time following up emotional, gutsy wins.
Despite all that Halifax have pushed London hard. Even in the two losses they never let London clear out the bench (you know the game is over when London finally let their Canadians get on the floor). The fact that even in the losses they pushed the Lightning to the brink is what gives the home team a shot at winning tonight and maybe even stealing one in the industrial park wasteland that is London. London have nine professional basketball players on their team and MRR favours an incredibly short bench. He won’t go past eight deep if the game is still being contested. He’s ridden guys like Ellis, Freeman and Bowden hard all season. He’s also always preferred minor league veterans and there are very few young legs on this London team.
In contrast, Halifax play their top ten guys more or less equally and even 11th man, Christian Upshaw, has provided a legit contribution in this series. If Hagen or Brown go down hurt I won’t panic if Upshaw gets more minutes. If Bowden goes down for London it just means the other two guards MRR trusts will play the whole game.
Halifax are also on the whole much younger. If things swing back to London then those five games were played over eight days with two significant travel days in the mix. That means one day off. Younger bodies recover faster than old ones, particularly if the old bodies are playing a lot more minutes. This hasn’t been a soft series either. Both teams are physical and intense without being dirty, there’s a physical toll that those hard fouls and floor level scrambles for loose balls take and there’s an emotional toll that late game collapse collect.
Halifax’s deeper roster also means Pep has more flexibility than his counterpart. There are simply more offensive and defensive combinations on the Halifax roster and the Rainmen’s Spanish coach has tweaked around the edges all season. He’s not afraid of playing three (or even four) guards at once or sending out three point guards. He can throw a stupid amount of length out on the floor with Huggee, Crookshank, Wright, Haywood and a point guard in order to create chaos on the full court press. They can put out five shooters. London play eight (incredibly talented players) and play one (very effective) way.
This is also a Halifax team that love each other. Forget all the rhetoric of playing for the fans and the city – these are 11 guys who are playing for each other. Watching Halifax battle and play hard has been the best part of this season. Occasionally the intensity is too much and it leads to rash decision making, bad fouls or lapses in concentration, but give me hard fouls and energy over cold, methodical calculation any day.
Ultimately the key for the Rainmen will be to walk that fine line of energy and concentration and to balance intensity with execution. Can they play intense, energetic defense and still maintain the right rotations on defense? Can they avoid giving up cheap fouls and still generate turnovers? They will also need some luck and some heroic performances. They’ll need a mental lapse or two from London and they’ll need a crew of refs who can do their jobs properly.
So a lot needs to happen for Halifax to win this, but for the first time in five years I feel like there’s a chance the Rainmen will walk away with some hardware.
So here’s my challenge to the Rainmen: make me look like a petulant shit head with a Macbook and too many opinions. Make my five years of complaints about roster moves, coaching choices and public funding look stupid and petty. I want to be proven wrong, this city needs a championship, and most importantly, those 11 guys who play for each other and put their bodies on the line deserve that trophy.