It’s time to ride or fly – Leicester Riders vs Bristol Flyers preview

When you’re winning, everything feels good. But you might forget how to react when you get punched in the mouth, and with two of the top teams in the league going toe-to-toe this weekend, we’re going to be glued to the action waiting to see who lands the decisive blow.

The Bristol Flyers and Leicester Riders picked up two wins over each of their first-round Play-off opponents. The Flyers built up a massive cushion in the second half of Game One away over the Manchester Giants, and squeezed a win out at home in the second leg. Meanwhile, the Riders held the B. Braun Sheffield Sharks to 70 points in each game and scored enough to achieve two decent wins in methodical fashion, highlighting Leicester’s preparedness.

The second round will be a different beast for both teams. Not much separated them this season as the Riders and Flyers finished with identical records near the top of the standings; they both finished with two home wins over each other. In fact, it was only the points differential thanks to big victories at the Morningside Arena that gave the Riders the edge to the second seed in the BBL Championship.

What will set them apart in this series? Let’s find out.

The battle of the boards

With 14.3 offensive rebounds per game, the Bristol Flyers lead the league in crashing the boards on misses. Malcolm Delpeche cannot be stopped – he was second in the BBL this season on the offensive glass, and led this category for his team. It resulted in 11.1 second chance points per game – 13.3% of the team’s offence, which is the best percentage in the league.

But if there’s any team that might be able to slow that down, it’s the Leicester Riders. They were only mid-table in terms of limiting their opponents’ offensive rebounds, but they led the league in defensive rebounds per game. It’s a team effort, with Marc Loving leading Leicester with 6.6 rebounds per game, but he is one of six Riders that averaged more than 4 per game this year.

You can’t win anything with kids… right?

It could be considered somewhat of a last dance for the Leicester Riders. Patrick Whelan will join CEBL’s Niagara River Lions over the summer, while captain Darien Nelson-Henry retires at the end of this season. We’ve seen this group together for several winning seasons, and they still has weapons that could step up on any given night: Marc Loving not feeling it? Let’s get Zach Jackson going; Carrington Love out of rhythm? Kimbal Mackenzie will be ready; Darien Nelson-Henry in foul trouble? Aaron Menzies can do some damage. Still missing their top guy from last year? Whelan can be the go-to guy. The Riders won the Cup, the Championship and the Play-offs in 2022, and returned 10 of their best players – that has to count for something. 

Not if the Flyers have anything to do with it. Only Corey Samuels, Malcolm Delpeche and Mike Miller are back for Bristol from last year. It’s a good young core that hopes to fly international next season, and coach Andreas Kapoulas has surrounded them with a selection of young talent, such as Jelani Watson-Gayle, Brandon Mahan, Tevin Olison, Thomas Bell III and VJ King. Leslee Smith adds some veteran experience as the lone player over the age of 30, which is partly why the pundits didn’t have high hopes for Bristol to start the season but they have proved doubters wrong.

Key match-ups

On the perimeter: 
Player | Marc Loving | VJ King
PPG | 15.9 | 18.2
RPG | 6.6 | 6.6
APG | 2.6 | 2.0

The smooth, silky style of Marc Loving has caused havoc for BBL teams all season. He has stepped up as the team’s leading scorer (slightly ahead of Zach Jackson), and while the 6’8 forward isn’t always the most efficient, he is always a danger, and opponents treat him as such. Loving is a good passer, a decent ball handler and can rebound well, so if his scoring isn’t on, he can help in other ways and still have enough teammates to pick up the points.

If Bristol Head Coach Andreas Kapoulas can find a way to get VJ King going – who was the fourth-highest scorer in the Championship this season – while maintaining output from the likes of Jelani Watson-Gayle, Thomas Bell III and Mike Miller, that’s a scary quartet to contend with.

Their shot selection and success rate is eerily similar, with Loving being slightly more reliable from three and the free throw line – he has the second best percentage in the league in this latter category – but King gets to the charity stripe more often and still sits in the top ten in efficiency.

Off the bench:
Player | Kimbal Mackenzie | Jelani Watson-Gayle
PPG | 12.7 | 12.6
RPG | 1.8 | 3.2
APG | 3.8 | 3.3

Two of the best Brits in the league this year have to be this off-the-bench duo. 

Kimbal Mackenzie might have started just 14 games for the Leicester Riders, but it is clear coach Rob Paternostro sees him as a more dangerous sixth man. Whether he’s starting or not, Mackenzie gets to the free throw line four times per game and leads the league to make 90% of them. He is also a dangerous shooter from distance, hitting 41%, so when the likes of Marc Loving, Carrington Love, Patrick Whelan or Zach Jackson have the ball in their hands, don’t be surprised if Mackenzie is in the corner, where he hits a whopping 57%.

According to BBL Stats, Jelani Watson-Gayle’s shooting percentage directly correlates with Bristol Flyers’ net rating. He hits more than 41 per cent from three-point territory, so expect Flyers coach Andreas Kapoulas to draw up plays for him to get open on the perimeter. Of the 35 games Watson-Gayle played, he came off the bench for 31 of them – his spark plug offence and energy and strength on defence is a big reason Bristol had their highest finish in BBL Championship history.

Bigs bang
Player | Darien Nelson-Henry | Malcolm Delpeche
PPG | 8.0 | 10.6
RPG | 5.9 | 6.6
APG | 1.7 | 1.1

Over the past four years, Darien Nelson-Henry has been arguably the best big man in the BBL. His skill in the post is underrated, and this season he has been the fourth most efficient scorer in the league for any player with more than 200 field goal attempts. He’s not a player who demands the ball, and quite frankly, the Leicester Riders have enough on the roster who can put the ball in the hoop, but his craft might catch his opponent off guard for some much-needed easy buckets against a good defensive team in the Bristol Flyers.

Nelson-Henry and Aaron Menzies will have their hands full on the other end as well. Melcolm Delpeche has been a scary force this season. The Flyers big man doesn’t create his own shot with an array of footwork, but he sets great screens for the scoring guards and creates plenty of space while rolling to the rim for easy dunks and layups. He does most of his damage on the offensive glass, by crashing the boards and going back up for second-chance points.

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