British Basketball’s perennial power faces an up-and-coming contender in what promises to be an enthralling BBL Play-off Final at The O2 on Sunday.
BBL Championship, Cup and Trophy winners, Newcastle Eagles, are chasing a second clean sweep of silverware in four years – in their fourth consecutive Play-off Final – while the hometown London Lions aim to make their mark in the capital.
Expectations were threw the roof at the Copper Box following the summer signing of previous MVPs Drew Sullivan and Zaire Taylor.
Injuries and late arrivals inhibited their ability to build momentum during the season, but the Play-offs have brought out the best in their stars as they overcame holders Worcester Wolves, and Cheshire Phoenix.
“It’s been amazing really, we have been marching with an increasing amount of pressure all season long because of the expectation people have of London and what we had been doing over the summer,” said Lions coach Vince Macaulay.
“We are only two-and-a-half years old, and people do forget that.
“Fortunately, with the veterans that we have on the team, we have been able to put together a run at the most important time.”
Sullivan and Taylor understandably attract focus, but their coach is quick to highlight the contribution of their ‘spiritual’ leader too.
Macaulay added: “Drew Sullivan is your ultimate professional.
“There is nothing on the basketball court, from a fundamental point of view, that Drew won’t be able to do.
“Zaire is the exact opposite in that he is fundamentally talented, and inspirational and a free spirit.
“Those two come with real power and the big thing for me has been the influence of Rod Brown, as a steadying influence for those two.
“People don’t realise how much he does for us as a club, spiritually and in terms of the bond of the players.”
Eagles meanwhile led from the front all season, enjoying two separate win streaks of 19 and 18 games.
But they faced fresh challenges in the closing weeks of the campaign, losing key men to injury, not least their inspirational player-coach, Fab Flournoy, who will miss Sunday’s showpiece with a torn achilles – something that will benefit Lions, according to Macaulay.
“The biggest thing is that Fab Flournoy won’t be on the floor,” he said.
“His influence, his ability to disrupt plays and destroy what the other team is trying to do, that has been the fulcrum of everything Newcastle have achieved in their historic run of trophies.
“What we will be able to do is capitalise on that, put a lot of pressure on them physically.
“We expect them this to be a very physical game, and we have the depth of bench and size of players to really go at them.”
Taylor, in particular, has gone at anybody in his way during the post-season, averaging 28.25 points during the four games to reach his third consecutive Play-off Final, having starred for Wolves and Leicester Riders.
But having shone during Eagles’ impressive eliminations of Bristol Flyers and Sheffield Sharks, point guard Rahmon Fletcher is confident of dealing with London’s threats, despite their big-game credentials.
“They are a scary team from top to bottom,” said Fletcher.
“They’ve got Zaire, they’ve got Drew, they’ve got Rod, who is coming back healthy.
“When you look at them on paper they easily should be top three, and they have shown that all the way through the Play-offs and it should be a good game.”
He added: “Zaire has been in this league for a couple of years so you have to respect him.
“He knows what he is doing, he knows how to get his buckets, but we will be prepared for him.”
Regular season head-to-head results:
London Lions 56 Newcastle Eagles 69 (Copper Box Arena, 26 Oct 2014)
London Lions 82 Newcastle Eagles 99 (Copper Box Arena, 14 Dec 2014)
Newcastle Eagles 94 London Lions 87 (Sport Central, 20 Feb 2015)
Tickets for Sunday’s Final are available from www.AXS.com or call 08448 24 48 24.
Live coverage of the game is available via the BBC Sport website, BBC red button and London Live, Freeview Channel 8, Sky Channel 117 and Virgin Media Channel 159.