CEBL Recap: Stingers, Bandits worth watching as playoffs approach

Photo: CEBL

Canada’s newest professional basketball league, the Canadian Elite Basketball League, has a second successful regular season in the books. It was played in isolation at the Meridian Center in St. Catharines, Ontario, with every team playing six games in qualification for the playoffs.

The Edmonton Stingers shot to the front of the pack, finishing 5-1 in the regular season and sealing first place before the final game, while the defending champion Saskatchewan Rattlers were eliminated from the playoffs in the regular season’s finale. The playoffs will take place from Aug. 6-9, with the top-two seeds earning a bye to the semifinal.

Here’s what happened in the CEBL’s first 12 days of games.

The Disappointing Favourites

Before the CEBL Summer Series began, the Niagara River Lions and Ottawa Blackjacks were overwhelming favourites. For good reason, too. The River Lions were the best team in last year’s regular season, with Guillaume Payen-Boucard winning Canadian Player of the Year, Sam Muldrow Defensive Player of the Year, and Vic Raso Coach of the Year. Though Niagara fell 104-103 in the playoffs to the Hamilton Honey Badgers in part due to a late-game collapse, Niagara seemed poised for a dominant Summer Series after re-signing the majority of 2019’s core.

Ottawa was perhaps even stronger than Niagara, on paper. The Blackjacks signed Dave Smart as the team’s general manager, who coached the Carleton Ravens to 15 university championships since 2003. Smart signed a handful of Carleton’s former stars to Ottawa’s pro team, including Canada’s iconic Scrubb brothers, Phil and Tommy.

Neither Niagara nor Ottawa fared well when the games began. After an opening victory over rival Hamilton, the River Lions dropped their next four games. Niagara’s new imports, including veteran leaders Daniel Mullings and Tyrone Watson, did not mesh immediately with the returnees. Not even a players-only meeting midway through the losing streak could give the team life, as players displayed selfish tendencies at times.

“We’ve got half the guys from last year, and we’ve got new guys. There’s a feel to what our team was last year that I think some of the guys, and myself to a certain extent, expected to happen right away. But it’s a brand-new situation, and it’s a new team,” explained Raso.

Some internal strife after a loss to the Fraser Valley Bandits resulted in team captain Ryan Anderson leaving the team. But according to Raso, Niagara rallied around the conflict. The River Lions bounced back in its final game against Ottawa, erasing a first-half double-digit deficit before Trae Bell-Haynes won the game 81-79 with a spectacular fast-break layup.

The win sent Niagara to the playoffs. The River Lions will be the bottom seed, facing last year’s playoff foe Hamilton in the first round. Both teams underwent significant changes from last year, but the rivalry is only beginning.

Ottawa fell victim to overseas poaching; a number of the Blackjacks’ most important players left the team early to join professional teams in Europe. Phil Scrubb departed after two games. Kaza Kajami-Keane dropped out before the final roster was named. Ottawa was well-coached by Carleton legend Osvaldo Jeanty, but without the players around whom the roster was designed, the team didn’t have the skill level to fulfill its heavy expectations.

As a result, Niagara and Ottawa qualified for the playoffs in the bottom-two seeds. They have uphill roads, but neither of the pre-season favourites can be discounted in the single-game elimination format.

Edmonton’s dominant season

Defending MVP Xavier Moon is the fastest player in the CEBL. To limit the number of people in the Meridian Arena, the CEBL used cameras handled by artificial intelligence to film the games. That meant, especially early in the Series before the cameras were properly balanced, that Moon was too fast to be filmed at top speed. Whenever he handled the ball in transition, he outran the cameras meant to capture his highlights.

“Man, I re-watched the game yesterday, and I’m like, ‘they gotta get some faster cameras or something,’” he said, laughing. “But I’m not gonna lie, it does feel good to outrun the cameras.”

Moon’s speed was a significant weapon for a Stingers team that only improved throughout the Series. Every player tried to work his way into rhythm in the beginning of the Series, especially as most hadn’t played basketball for weeks or months before training camp. Moon’s ability to create something from nothing gave Edmonton a much-needed weapon early on.

Beyond Moon, Edmonton’s bigs were among the CEBL’s best. Travis Daniels is a strong post player, who is comfortable shooting or diving to the rim in pick-and-roll, which makes him a perfect partner with Moon. Jordan Baker is a do-it-all big. He’s not the best shooter or most athletic player, but he always seems to find himself in the right place at the right time. He has deft touch around the rim and is one of the best passers in the league for his size. Throw in gritty and tenacious defence, and Baker helped Edmonton win a number of close games.

Moon finished with the second-highest scoring average in the league and is a good bet to repeat as MVP. Baker led the league in rebounding and could well win Canadian Player of the Year. Daniels was phenomenal across the board. As a result, the Stingers are the first seed entering the playoffs, with a bye secured to the semifinals.

The Rise of Fraser Valley

The Bandits were, by record, the worst team in the CEBL last year. They struggled throughout the 2019 season finishing 4-16, so the team rebuilt from the ground up for the 2020 Summer Series.

Marek Klassen, the league’s assist leader in 2019, was the lone Fraser Valley returnee in 2020, as a player or coach.

The new-look Bandits were fast, aggressive, and athletic. Cameron Forte was an impressive inside pivot for the team early in the Series — actually leading the league in scoring average — but the Bandits and Forte parted ways before the end of the regular season. The team remained competitive without its scoring leader, as Fraser Valley’s defensive identity kept them afloat.

Marcus Capers is a long guard who can protect the rim and stretch the floor. Point guard Junior Cardougan brings intensity, and his trash-talking and made-basket celebrations kept the Bandits entertained and energized. Canadian sharpshooter Jahenns Manigat led the league in three-pointers made.

The Bandits will enter the playoffs in second place, at 4-2, earning the other bye into the semis. They’re the only team to have beaten the Stingers and their two losses were by a combined eight points.

The Ubiquitous Zone

There was a lot of zone defence played in the Summer Series. Usually basketball teams use a man-to-man strategy, with every defensive player responsible for one on the other team. But this year in the CEBL, almost every team employed some amount of zone defence, with players responsible for areas over others. There were all sorts of differing explanations for this quirk.

“Yeah, that’s actually a big thing,” said Niagara’s Raso of the amount of zone used. “Teams can’t be as prepared as you would regularly be, and they would have lots of time to practice zone. I think that’s a big thing. I also think it fits a lot of the teams’ personnel… People want to throw zones to get guys off page.”

Zones were integral especially because teams couldn’t generate as many comebacks. In general, teams that took early leads went on to win the game, partially because momentum was entirely created by players with no help from the crowd.

“We really try to be disruptive and try not to let teams get into things,” said Guelph Nighthawks’ coach Charles Kissi. “I think sometimes coaches spend so much time worrying about what the other team’s going to run, and letting them run it. I have the opposite mentality: don’t let them run it.”

It also helped Guelph that it employed Jabari Craig in the center of the zone. Craig, perhaps the biggest centre in the league, challenged and changed maybe 10 shots a game despite his limited minutes.

As the regular season neared its close, teams relied on the zone even more frequently. In one late-season bout between Hamilton and Saskatchewan, both teams used zones after made baskets to great success. The Honey Badgers opened the game in a 1-3-1 zone that stymied the Rattlers and forced a number of wayward jumpers. Sasketachewan responded in the second quarter with a full-court press, sinking into a 2-3 zone afterwards.

“[Zone] is something that I’ve always liked to do to switch things up. I think it kind of throws off their rhythm, which I think helped us quite a bit [against Saskatchewan].” said Hamilton coach Ryan Schmidt. “That was the most we’ve switched defences throughout the tournament, but it was something I liked…and something I think we’ll go to [in the playoffs].”

Zone is certainly not the only defensive weapon employed in the CEBL, but it has become a key off-speed pitch coaches use to cause havoc and force turnovers. Expect to see plenty of it in the playoffs.

A Game Experience Like No Other

Facing the challenges of a pandemic, and no crowd in the building, the CEBL chose a number of creative solutions. To help drown out some of the sonic emptiness, the league used an in-arena DJ for every game.

In the playoffs, that DJ will be 4KORNERS, the in-game DJ for the Toronto Raptors. But every sound was still audible on the court of the Meridian Center. That impacted the game itself in surprising ways.

Teams needed to disguise their calls so that opponents couldn’t anticipate plays. Hamilton’s Ryan Schmidt sometimes used hand signals, more often used in baseball and football, to disguise calls.

Other coaches sometimes found themselves louder than intended.

“Sometimes I find myself yelling things that, wow, you should probably calm that down,” said Guelph’s Charles Kissi, laughing. “You probably shouldn’t say that too loud, but you forget that people can hear you sometimes.”

Players and coaches weren’t used to the quiet of the arena, but it meant players heard every word of trash-talk, yell for fouls, and disagreement between teammates. The on-court product benefited.

Another element to which most of the players and coaches were unaccustomed was the Elam Ending. The CEBL was the first professional league to use the Elam Ending in its games. The game clock ended with four minutes left in the game, and both teams played to nine points higher than the current leader’s score. Used in the 2018-19 NBA All-Star game, the Elam Ending was designed to create more opportunity for buzzer-beaters, as a made basket or free throw will end every game.

“That’s what you grew up doing,” said Hamilton’s Briante Weber. “When you play basketball, you grow up counting down in your head, ‘five, four, three, two, one.’”

Weber finished with two Elam winners in Hamilton’s three wins.

“I’m not really looking for it,” said Weber after finishing Saskatchewan with a mid-range jumper, “but if it presents itself, I’m definitely about taking the opportunity and finishing the game.”

Beyond Weber, there were some phenomenal game-winners in the Series. Perhaps the most exciting finish of the Series was Trae Bell-Haynes’ transition layup to beat the Blackjacks, securing a playoff spot for the River Lions.

The playoffs will also feature Elam Endings. Weber and Bell-Haynes will face off in the first round on August 6, so don’t be surprised if one of the two star guards hits the game-winner.

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