With only seven games left in the regular season for the London Lightning, a secured top spot in the National Basketball League of Canada standings and home court advantage throughout the postseason, the black-and-yellow have their mind on the playoffs and the playoffs on their mind.
Fans might have been given a sneak peak into the postseason Saturday at Budweiser Gardens with the Lightning weathering the Summerside Storm 118-114 in overtime. The win gave London (28-4) some vengeance after losing to Summerside 116-97 on Jan. 24 on the road.
The playoff atmosphere came from more than just the top NLB-C teams in their respective conferences battling it out.
After packing Bud Gardens with 4,092 in a 99-92 win against the Windsor Express on Thursday (Feb. 21), 3,722 jammed into the downtown arena hollering until the final buzzer. Both of the attendances mark a regular season team record and squeak Nov. 3, 2011 benchmark of 3,614 at the Lightning's first-ever game.
“It always makes us feel better when there’s a lot of people in the stands,” said Lightning guard DeAnthony Bowden, finishing Friday’s game with 20 points. “The crowd plays a big difference in the game. When you got someone cheering you on and you’re out there playing, not only do you now want to let your teammates down you don’t want to let the fans down as well.”
Fans will be happy if the Lightning can get to the league final regardless of which team they play, but Summerside might be the best matchup for an exciting finish to the league’s sophomore season.
Not only are the Storm the only Eastern Conference team to beat the Lightning, but they have MVP candidate Brandon Robinson (averaging 19.79 points a game) and one of the best stealers and passers in the league in Al Stewart.
The difference though, is London as a team score, steal and assist more per game than any club in the NBL-C.
The Storm may have found a short spot in the Lightning's game and it’s easy to find with the league’s tallest player in Nick Evans standing in at 6-foot-11.
While most teams have one player at 6-foot-8 or taller, Summerside leads the inch count with three past the mark. London doesn’t even have one player at the height.
The Storm took advantage of the mismatch under the net, scoring 64 percent of their baskets in the key Saturday.
“I’m the cleanup man. I Protect the basket, grab the rebounds, get the steals, dive on the floor, punch somebody, whatever you need me to do I’ll do it,” said the Lightning’s biggest body in 6-foot-8 Marvin Phillips, who had a game-high 28 points and 19 rebounds Saturday. “I always play with a chip on my shoulder because they look at me as he’s shorter and I’m bigger than him and I can just bully him, but that’s never the case.”
The Lightning locked themselves into the NBL-C’s top spot after Thursday’s win and surpassed the league’s regular season win record Saturday — beating the 2011-12 London squad’s 28 victories.
The NBL-C has changed this year from last by implementing a conference system. In the inaugural season every team played against each other six times.
This year each squad plays eight inter-conference games and four out of conference and there’s been some grumbling over the disparity between divisions.
One might be able to say with a lowly club like the Montreal Jazz with a 2-33 record in the Central — same conference as London — the Ontario division is more top heavy than Dolly Parton.
The Eastern Conference holds a 26-22 (54 percent winning) record over the Central, but if you take away the games played against London and the second-place Oshawa Power than the stat skyrockets to a 20-5 record (80 percent winning).
“As far as which division is better, I think the whole league is good competitive wise,” Phillips said. “Yeah, you have certain teams that are better than other teams, but in the end we’re all men and as basketball players you’re not just going to let any team come in here and walk over us.”
In the end, there’s only one series that matters to prove which team is the best from which conference and it doesn’t come in the regular season.
The Lightning will travel to Oshawa on Wednesday (Feb. 27) to take on the Power before coming back home and challenging the Saint John Mill Rats on Thursday (Feb. 28) and the Storm on Saturday (March 2).