For so long National Basketball League easy beats, Taranaki Mountain Airs have drawn first blood in the new-look post-coronavirus competition, claiming a 112-96 victory over Nelson Giants in the opening match at Waitakere Trusts Stadium.
Led by Tall Blacks guard Derone Raukawa, the New Plymouth-based franchise showed they are a completely different proposition to past seasons, where they have been often dominated by big-spending rivals.
With rosters devoid of imports and top Kiwis spread across the seven teams, they got their campaign off to an ideal start, seizing the early initiative, with Raukawa showing why he was the second player taken in this month's draft and former junior star Tai Wynyard establishing his sizeable offensive presence around the basket.
The Airs starting five may be as good as any in the revamped format, with Raukawa and Francis Mulvihill in the backcourt, and Shane Temara and US-born Marcel Jones completing a skilled forward line.
When Wynyard connected from long range, his side had an early seven-point advantage, but the moment coach Doug Courtney began introducing his bench, that lead quickly evaporated.
Playing without their top two draft picks - Tall Blacks legend Mika Vukona still stuck in COVID-19 isolation and former international Mike Karena injured - the well-drilled Giants were competitive for most of the first half, taking the lead late in the opening quarter off a three-pointer Tysxun Aiolupotea three-pointer.
Ryan Laumatia extended that margin to four points, before the Taranaki starters returned to reclaim their ascendancy.
With his team 57-51 up at halftime, Raukawa was well on his way to a 'triple double' with 18 points/five rebounds/six assists.
The Airs rattled in the first seven points of the second half to extend their lead to double figures and while Nelson continued to nibble at the edges, their fate was sealed when they fell 15 points in arrears near the end of the third period.
Raukawa lead all scorers with 28 points, including five three-pointers, but fell four rebounds short of his triple. All the Taranaki starters scored in double figures, with Jones compiling a 13 points/12 rebound 'double double'.
Tom Ingham and Nick Trathen kept Nelson respectably close with 23 points each, but Aiolupotea probably turned on the most surprising performance with his instant-offence 20. Once their studs suit up, the Giants will be much tougher opposition.
While they looked impressive on opening night, the Airs' fortunes will become clearer as injuries and fatigue take their toll through an intense six-week schedule. They face an immediate back-to-back test against Franklin Bulls on Wednesday.
Taranaki Mountain Airs 112 (Derone Raukawa 28, Francis Mulvihill 16, Marcel Jones & Tai Wynyard 13, Shane Temara 10) Nelson Giants 96 (Tom Ingham & Nick Trathen 23, Tysxun Aiolupotea 20)