LONDON LIONS take on the dominant Leicester Riders at the 02 Arena on Sunday afternoon aiming to take home silverware in the BBL Play-off Finals.
The Lions enjoyed a brilliant start to the season, advancing beyond the first round of the Fiba Europe Cup and working hard to change the narrative around British basketball on the continent.
After an initially promising start in the league things got more difficult for the Copper Box ball club, leading to the departure of iconic former coach Vince Macaulay in January.
While the Lions slipped to a 16-11 record to finish third in the BBL's regular season, the Riders produced an imperious 25-2 campaign to win the BBL Championship at a canter under an iconic coach of their own.
With star players like Geno Crandall, Patrick Whelan and Marc Loving, coach Rob Paternostro inspired the Riders to an incredible season – which would be capped off perfectly by victory at the 02.
On what makes Coach Rob so good, Whelan told SunSport: "To be honest, I would say since college he’s been probably the best coach I’ve worked with. He knows his stuff on the court and he’s a coach you can tell really cares for his players.
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"One thing I appreciate is there’s nothing fake about him. Everything is straight up, everything is real – he tells you how it is, tells you what he expects of you – if you’re under-delivering, if you’re playing well – everything is above board, there’s no games being played there.
"I respect Rob a lot and for me it’s been a blessing to be able to work with him."
Despite their difference in records, Lions guard Isaiah Reese doesn't think the gap between the two teams is as big as would seem.
The confident American, who previously represented the Golden State Warriors' G-League affiliate, told SunSport: "Matchup wise, I think everybody knows this is the two best teams in the league, despite our record – and that’s why we made it to the final, both these teams."
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On why he feels London couldn't get near to matching Leicester's near perfect record, Reese, 25, added: "It’s been kind of a rollercoaster. From coaching changes to players getting hurt – it’s been hard, you know?
"Probably we’ve had the most things to deal with from any team. It’s been up and down, but we’ve come together and I guess we’ve got one more game, so we’ve got to take care of business."
Former 16-year BBL star and current Sky Sports analyst Drew Lasker certainly agrees with the first part of Reese's assessment.
He told SunSport: "That’s exactly what it’s felt like. You’ve gone through the rollercoaster of coaches, you’ve gone through the rollercoaster of play.
"You think about them being in Europe and being successful. Starting off their league campaign pretty well and that dropping off – and now to the point where they’re in the BBL Play-offs with essentially their third coach, so it’s been up and down.
"It’s been long I can imagine for those guys, because they’ve been in the country longer than anybody else because they started their prep in early August I believe – whereas most teams got in late August, early September.
"So yeah it’s been a rollercoaster of a season but we’re here now, all that’s happened before doesn’t matter now, it’s irrelevant."
On his side's keys to victory Whelan, who arrived at Leicester last year from Spain's Real Murcia, said: "Over and above everything else it will be to stay disciplined, stick to the game plan. We know they’re going to go on runs."
The Lions were one of two teams to beat Leicester in the BBL Championship, triumphing 79-77 at the Copper Box back in February under interim head coach James Vear – having also won a BBL Cup group stage match against the Riders while guided by Macaulay in November.
On what they can do to repeat the feat under latest interim boss Nikhil Lawry, Reese adds: "I think both times we’ve beaten them, especially that one time at home, we were just so locked in to the game.
"It’s one game so I don’t see a reason why we wouldn’t be locked in like we were that one game at home."
If Isaiah Reese loses that matchup then the London Lions will lose
Lasker believes that the Lions will have to find an x factor outside of Reese in order to come out on top.
The former Newcastle Eagles, Plymouth Raiders and Guildford Heat star said: "Everybody would want to look at that point guard matchup and that is the case. Geno Crandall and Isaiah Reese.
"However, I think that matchup is more important for the Lions than for the Riders because Geno Crandall can lose that matchup and they could still win. We’ve seen it all year long, Geno does not have to score to win.
"However, if Isaiah Reese loses that matchup then the London Lions will lose – there’s no way they will win without Isaiah Reese having a great game so I don’t think it’s just going to come down to the point guard battle – I think it’s going to come down to who’s going to be the X factor?
"In finals, there’s always an X factor because a lot of times, the star players cancel each other out, you know what you’re going to get from them – but who’s going to be that unsung hero on either side?
"You’ve got a lot more faith in Leicester Riders – you’ve got Zach Jackson, Marc Loving, Conner Washington – those are guys who could play major roles and be unsung heroes who you might not be expecting to be the guy.
Any time we get matched up with another team that is going to compete well with us there’ll definitely be a lot of talking from both sides
"Whereas London? I’m not sure who could be that unsung hero, maybe it’s Julian Washburn. He could be that guy, he’s probably the only guy in London that has that potential to be that X factor on the team."
Whelan believes that Sunday's clash is set to be a feisty encounter, admitting: "Any time we get matched up with another team that is going to compete well with us there’ll definitely be a lot of talking from both sides I’m sure.
"We always have a good gameplan. Honestly though most of all, all the talking aside, I’m just excited to play a high level game of basketball with two good teams, good players, who try and play basketball in a good way."
With no love lost between the two sides, Reese adds: "What happens throughout the game, whether we’re trash talking or not, it’s part of the game – it’s really on us to lock in and do what we’ve got to do. Focus on us."
Drew Lasker’s prediction
Anything can happen on the day. We’ve seen it before, Leicester Riders have come up in these moments and lost.
They lost to Sheffield before in the play-off finals. They’ve lost to underdogs in this environment, it’s not like they’re not susceptible to losing, that they haven’t done it before.
I can see London getting off to a fast start. Maybe getting an early lead. Leicester Riders will crawl back into the game, it'll be nip and tuck for a while.
Leicester Riders will then go on a nice little run and London Lions may panic, and start playing differently from what got them early success.
I then see Leicester pulling away and winning by double figures, 11.
You can hear more from Drew by listening to The BBL Show
The Lions men's team will be hoping to make it a London double at the 02 on Sunday, with their women's team in action first up against Sevenoaks Suns – having gone a perfect 33-0 so far this season in all competitions.
On what it would mean for Mark Clark's side, led by the likes of Kennedy Leonard, Azania Stewart and Jo Leedham-Warner, to win on Sunday, Reese said: "That’s the goal man. If we both get these wins it would just be a special moment for the whole organisation.
"What they’ve done this season is amazing, they blow everybody out, it’s amazing.
"I know the team that they play Sunday is one of the better teams in the league, but I’m really looking forward to that – as I know they’ll get the win."
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