Plymouth Raiders 91-97 London Lions

The BBL playoffs returned to the Pavilions with a bang Sunday, as the number eight seeded Raiders lost a ferocious battle to the league champion London Lions, 91-97.

Playing in the sides first playoff game after a difficult five season drought, the game seemed lost in the opening minutes of play, but the Raiders fought back valiantly to close the gap ahead of a second away leg.

Despite the loss, head coach Paul James only saw the 24-hour interval between legs as an extended halftime, saying:

“Well it’s just half time in this game, we’re only six points down and that’s the way we’ve got to look at it.

“I thought both teams played really hard tonight, and they threatened to get away in the first quarter and we did a great job of just weathering that storm, fighting back and taking the lead.

“We knew they were going to have a run at some point and what we didn’t need to do was panic, I thought we did that very well and we came back.”

A slow start almost cost the Raiders the game early, and was certainly on James radar to improve on tomorrow:

“I think their first 10 of 18 points were layups and we just weren’t ready to play defence and that’s something we have to address tomorrow, we can’t come out that slowly.

“They’re an excellent team in the open court, they score a lot of points in transition, so we’ve got to do a better job of controlling the ball and controlling how they get those points, so that’s something we’ll have to look at overnight.

“I am happy where we are, it could have been a lot worse, it could have been much better.”

The Raiders came right out the gates with a flourish, aiming to prove they were ready to topple the champions, winning the tip and fighting downcourt for Joonas Jarvelainen hit a three from the top of the arc.

Soon, the early flash was quick to fade, as the Lions struck back, picking up eight in reply through the middle, supported at the other end by a strong Ladarius Tabb block.

A once close score-line would continue to slide downward for the home side, as drive upon drive paid off for the Lions, who found their way to the hoop with ease whether through the break, or through long passes over the defence, causing a 14-2 run.

The Raiders on the other hand, showed early struggles, missing some seemingly certain shots from close range and the subsequent rebounds. With nine points the difference half way through the first, James had no choice but to call the time-out and steady the ship.

For a time the Raiders could keep up with the scoring, but never showed any threat to gouge the lead as the Lions made every loose ball and pass a fight for their hosts to pull off.

Finally, in the closing 90 seconds of the quarter, the hosts found second gear and appeared extremely competitive, racking up seven points at light speed, but left another two on the court with a couple of careless free-throws. With strong defensive plays at the other end, the Raiders overcame an eleven-point deficit to close within four at the first break.

With the second quarter now well underway, the Raiders, fuelled by the large levels of fan energy from a packed Pavilions, continued to grind in the hunt to equalise the score, and the side came agonisingly close on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately, whenever the score closed to a single point, the Lions would display their clinical prowess with quick plays allowing shooters to set, shoot, and score from outside.

The champions defence would now again close up and fortify, with the lanes once enjoyed, becoming non-existent as the Lions only allowed the hosts scraps in the forms of free-throws.

This vitally important stream of points should have been capitalised on more, but lacklustre accuracy from the line, at times, limited any large runs. But despite this, the half would end 61% in the hosts favour, making 13 of 21 free throws.

For the fifth time in the first quarters, the Raiders poised themselves with the opportunity to take the lead for the first time since Jarvelainen’s opening three-pointer, and with 90 seconds remaining, the Raiders looked to mirror their closing opening quarter ferocity.

Then, an achievement that looked unlikely to be made mid-way through the first quarter was met as the city side finally found the lead they’d been fighting for, as Josh Wilcher nailed a three-pointer to lead the Raiders into the lockers with a slim two-point lead.

With a halftime slate of 45-43, the scoring was well spread through both squads with only two players: Wilcher and Tabb, finding double first half digits.

The hard-fought Raiders lead quickly dissipated in the initial Lion second half drives, with the visitors rattling off a seven-point run to gain a five point lead. This lead, though,  wasn’t to stand the test of time either, as the Raiders replied with seven of their own, capped  off by a breakaway Donte Nicholas dunk (the forward would have himself an excellent quarter to lead team scoring by the fourth).

The fast transition game continued to be the Achilles heel for the Raiders who always seemed to be playing catch-up to pin point Lion passing that navigated the court in split seconds. With such an advantage, the visitors once again held the lead at eight points mid-way through the third.

Fouls proved to be a constant blessing for the hosts, who now found increased precision to keep the score line manageable. That, together with some well fought points in the paint, set up a tantalising fourth quarter with both squads well in the hunt.

The fourth indeed opened well for the Raiders who held a strong sense of momentum to run rings around their defenders. Denzel Ubiaro would be the star player from the quarter, drawing fouls and scoring every opportunity afforded to him.

The Lions, on the other hand, began to show cracks allowing poor discipline to drive up the side’s foul counts, ending with three of the starting five sitting on four with substantial game time yet to play.

Lion captain, Brandon Peel called his side into a huddle at mid court, then showed strong leadership to put points in the board and coordinate strong defence.

The score line would continue to see saw between the squads with no team ever getting away from the other as the largest lead held at three.

The final three minutes continued as a strong contest, and it could be said that neither side deserved to be behind with everything being laid on the line by every player on court.

The final stretch was a strong one for Devontavius Payne, who was there to sneak shots in through the backdoor with strong offensive rebounding, but it wasn’t quite enough to topple the Lions who held on tight to escape the Pavilions with a slim six-point lead ahead of the second leg Monday. 

Rob Tunley