Freeway Finals: What to expect from the Hawks-Kings matchup
Illawarra and Sydney are set to go to war in what promises to be a classic Finals series. So what are the key battlegrounds and matchups to watch? More importantly, who will win?
Credit: May Bailey Photography
I can’t remember the last time I was this excited for an NBL Finals series that didn’t involve the Breakers (I’m a Kiwi — sue me). Sure, Tassie-Melbourne will be fun, but Illawarra-Sydney is the premier series.
And how could it not be? Between Sydney and Illawarra, we have two elite, evenly matched teams that have dominated the backend of the season. Incidentally, they’ve also got a pretty heated rivalry brewing.
This series also provides a bunch of elite individual matchups across the board. There are around half a dozen All-NBL calibre players, a couple of Boomers, and a bunch of ex-NBA talent between the two sides. Each positional battle promises to be an absolute war. In terms of sheer star power, I’m not sure that the NBL could’ve packed more into one series.
Then there’s the mouth-watering coaching matchup that almost seems too good to be true. On one sideline, you’ve got Chase Buford — a 33-year old outspoken hotshot in his first NBL season after coming over from the NBA with his fresh, modern approach to the game. On the other is the 6x NBL champion and coaching GOAT, who is quite literally more than twice as old as Buford.
The storylines write themselves. One way or another, this will be an absolute barnburner of a series.
With that in mind, this matchup deserves a deep dive preview of epic proportions — here’s my best attempt at figuring out how this series will play out.
By taking a 30,000-foot view of this series, a couple of things become imminently clear:
These teams are both equally freaking awesome.
Despite playing each other four times throughout the 2021-22 NBL season, there isn’t a ton of valuable film to pick through. Their first two matchups were early on during the season when the Kings were going through injury hell, didn’t have Ian Clark, and hadn’t yet settled into Chase Buford’s system. Meanwhile, their final game was played without Jaylen Adams and with Jarell Martin on limited minutes.
The only game in which we got a reasonable representation of what a playoff game might look like between these two sides was their round 20 matchup a couple of weeks ago. That game happened to be an overtime thriller and arguably the best game of the season.
Going back to the first of those two points — these teams seem to be exactly as great as each other. Both sides finished 19-9, each finishing the season on equally impressive winning runs. Statistically, Illawarra project as the slightly better side. According to Spatial Jam, they finished the regular season with the best offensive efficiency in the league, the fourth-best defensive rating, and the second-best point differential at +7.0 per 100 possessions. Sydney had the fifth-best offence, third-best defence, and a net rating of just +3.8. Sydney’s net rating is that of a 17-win team, per Spatial Jam — indicating that Sydney may have gotten lucky to get to 19 victories. In contrast, Illawarra had the point differential of a 20-win squad.
Those numbers, though, are skewed by the 89-47 beatdown Sydney suffered early in the season at the hands of Melbourne United. That game was an aberration for several reasons and should be thrown out when assessing the Kings’ overall strength. Take that game out, and the Kings’ net rating for the season jumps to +6.6, with the 4th-ranked offence and 2nd placed defence. All of a sudden, that statistical gap between these two sides is all but erased.
One could actually make an alternative argument and say that if you discount the early part of the season in which the Kings were banged up and adjusting to Buford’s system, the Kings are the better team. After all, the Kings did rattle off a 13-game win streak once they got humming — over that stretch, they outscored opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. That stretch screamed that they are the undisputed favourites.
Yet, in that same stretch of the season, the Hawks actually had a better point differential — a fact largely influenced by the fact that I put one of the greatest reverse jinxes of all-time on them by writing 2400 words eulogising their season. After writing that article, the Hawks turned into a juggernaut and won 8 of their final 9 games. You’re welcome, Hawkheads!
This is all to say that there’s absolutely no reason to predict that one side will win based on sheer quality alone.
This series stands in stark contrast to the Melbourne-Tasmania matchup — Melbourne are definitely more talented and should roll them. Instead, Illawarra-Sydney will be decided on the margins. It’s going to be decided on how a couple of crucial battlegrounds play out and some ballsy coaching adjustments.
The most integral part of these teams’ offences are their transition attacks.
As Jordan illustrates here, both have above average halfcourt offences, but they are clearly more dependent on transition opportunities compared to the average team.
This series could simply come down to who can limit the other’s transition attack more effectively. Importantly, referring back to Jordan’s graphic above, these two teams are among the best in the league at doing exactly that.
In Sydney’s case, they don’t typically hunt offensive rebounds (9th in offensive rebounding rate) and thus generally prioritise getting back on defence.
Their main job will be to take away Antonius Cleveland’s electric one man fastbreak plays. Per jordanmcnbl.com, Cleveland registered 31 more possessions in transition than any other player in the league. His rebound and go ability is mesmerising, as is his ability to force turnovers. He may take some unwise gambles defensively at points, but most of the time, those gambles make him look like a genius.
Sydney’s collective athleticism and lack of desire to go after offensive rebounds should take away much of Cleveland’s rebound-and-go transition game. They might, however, struggle to limit their turnovers against Cleveland and his elite ball pressure.
During the regular season, Sydney ranked 3rd in turnover percentage. Adams and Cooks both ranked in the top five for turnovers per game. With Cleveland as Adams’ primary defender and Illawarra set to send a second defender at Adams regularly, Illawarra might be able to force the MVP into a raft of turnovers and ignite their transition attack.
On the other side of the ball, Illawarra shouldn’t have any turnover issue against Sydney at all. Illawarra has the lowest turnover percentage in the league, while the Kings own the lowest opponent turnover percentage, per Spatial Jam. That dichotomy is likely the biggest mismatch of the series.
Sydney will have to instead rely on their own rebound-and-go opportunities to stimulate their transition attack. Luckily, in Xavier Cooks and Jarell Martin, the Kings have likely the two best transition bigs in the league. Both can turn a defensive rebound into a one-man fast break, throw a perfect outlet pass, and have the footspeed to beat the vast majority of opposing big men up the floor.
This play encapsulates what makes them such a special transition big man duo.
Illawarra’s bigs will need to be switched on, and hope that Cooks and Martin’s athleticism don’t overwhelm them in transition. Duop Reath, as one of the few bigs in the league with the footspeed to match Sydney’s bigs, is a good starting point.
Their need to limit Cooks and Martin in transition is one of the many reasons that I bet we don’t see more than a few Harry Froling minutes per game in this series. It’s also why I think Goorjian will lean pretty heavily into small ball looks for this series.
It may also mean that Illawarra gives up on attacking the offensive glass for this specific series. Illawarra posting an offensive rebounding rate of just 21.6% across their four games against Sydney this season (around 6 percent down from their season average) indicates that Goorjian is already leaning this way.
Tyler Harvey v Sydney’s drop coverage
A big part of Sydney’s turnaround this season was them becoming familiar with Chase Buford’s defensive scheme. Under Buford, the Kings play drop coverage, with aggressive help defence at the nail coming off of any so-so shooters parked on the wing.
Here, Lachie Barker is chased over the screen by Wani Swaka Lo Buluk with Martin in drop coverage. Jaylen Adams then helps at the nail off Reuben Te Rangi to give Swaka Lo Buluk enough time to get back in front of Barker. The result is that Barker is forced to choose between giving Reuben Te Rangi (a 25% three-point shooter) an open three or taking a contested midrange shot.
Sydney is fine with either outcome. Their scheme is designed to take away the most valuable real estate on the floor — the rim. Per Spatial Jam, opponents took just 29% of their field goal attempts at the rim. No other team in the league allowed a figure less than 38%. Take that for data.
Sydney don’t really go away from this scheme. In a sense, it’s a ‘one size fits all’ game plan that they don’t tend to adjust for opposing personnel. In their minds, the math will always win out.
At face value, this scheme should work well against Illawarra. The Hawks have the types of so-so shooters that Sydney love to help off at the nail — they won’t feel worried about leaving Antonius Cleveland and Xavier Rathan-Mayes open on the wing. Look how little attention Adams gives Cleveland on this play and, perhaps more importantly, how Harvey opts not to give it to Cleveland in that situation.
Illawarra, though, have a trump card that will help tilt the math back in their favour — Tyler Harvey’s lethal floater. Sydney’s defence is designed to take away the rim, but they are generally pretty happy to give up shots in mid or floater range. Generally, the math suggests that those shots are inefficient.
But that’s not the case when Tyler Harvey’s shooting them. Harvey is shooting 51% in the non-restricted paint area — i.e. floater range — this season, per Spatial Jam. That’s a ridiculous 12% above the league average! At 1.02 points per shot, that’s more than a workable number for Illawarra in this series. For context, as Jordan McCallum notes, the average halfcourt play this season scored around 0.92 points per play.
Since Sydney don’t really change their coverages, Harvey knew exactly what type of defence was headed his way in their round 20 matchup and came ready with a deep bag of tricks to get to his favourite floater spots. To get away from Sydney’s help defence at the nail, he often rejected screens or pirouetted away from the help straight into his floater.
He killed the Kings all night long from floater range in that game, en route to a 35 point haul.
Harvey’s floater became such a problem that Sydney altered their normal scheme by bringing the drop coverage big (usually Martin) up higher than usual to contest it with a little more vigour. All this did was allow Illawarra to dominate the offensive glass, as they collected 16 offensive rebounds.
They also switched on a couple of possessions where Cooks was involved as the screen-setter’s man — something Sydney rarely does.
Should Harvey tilt the math in the Hawks’ favour as he did in round 20, we may see the Kings forced to come out of their typical defensive coverage again. Even if those hypothetical adjustments take away Harvey’s floater game, forcing Sydney out of their comfort zone and into unfamiliar schemes they haven’t road-tested would be a gigantic win for Illawarra.
Goorjian’s blueprint to stop Adams
Illawarra’s plan to contain Jaylen Adams was clearly spelled out in this matchup. Goorj was even nice enough to spell it out for the world to hear during a timeout.
Goorjian’s first option for every Adams on-ball will be to ‘stab’ at Adams (or ‘show’ hard) with the screensetter’s man to get the ball out of his hands. Provided they stop Sydney from getting downhill, Goorj then wants to switch at the end of the shot clock.
That game plan provides a logical blueprint for Illawarra. They should want to take the ball out of the MVP’s hands.
On the other hand, showing Adams a second defender can involve giving Xavier Cooks and Jarell Martin 4-on-3 situations in the short-roll game. Martin and, especially, Cooks usually thrive in those 4-on-3 looks against trapping defences because of their dynamic ability to make plays in space. For Illawarra, that’s a problem as they don’t have the strongest collection of help defenders on the back end. Often it’s Tyler Harvey, or Justinian Jessup forced to help from the corners and contest those rampaging bigs at the rim in short roll situations.
However, as Goorjian noted in that timeout, Illawarra want to 'plug the gaps' behind the initial pick and roll action. Essentially, they want to pack the paint behind the initial pick and roll action to close off any open lanes for Martin and Cooks to steam down.
Illawarra did this effectively in their round 20 matchup when Sydney had a non-shooter on the floor to help off. Illawarra showed during the round 20 matchup that they aren’t even really going to acknowledge Wani Swaka Lo Buluk ( 27.1% three this year) or Tom Vodanovich (sneakily just 20% from three this year). With one of them out there, Illawarra can pack the paint with enough bodies to reduce the effectiveness of those short-rolls. Sam Froling will happily tag Cooks in short roll situations like these to let Vodanovich bomb away.
The easiest move for Buford would be to adjust his rotation and get more shooting on the floor. I’d be shocked if we see any Vodanovich minutes in this series, while Wani Swaka Lo Buluk could see his typical minutes load reduced significantly. While Wani serves a role defensively, Ian Clark is a significantly more dangerous shooter and is no slouch as an on-ball defender.
With enough shooting out there for Cooks and Martin to operate effectively on the short-roll Sydney may have what they need to force Illawarra to adjust out of their defensive game plan.
Even if they don’t, Illawarra’s defensive game plan feels vulnerable. Part of the reason why Sydney’s offence could take advantage is that Antonius Cleveland will be guarding Adams all series long. If Illawarra’s plan is to get the ball out of Adams’ hands, their plan is also getting the ball away from by far and away their best perimeter defender. The rest of Illawarra’s perimeter talent are weak defensively at best.
Should they ditch most of Swaka Lo Buluk’s minutes, the likes of the defensively weak Harvey and Jessup will have no place to hide. In particular, Dejan Vasiljevic and Ian Clark should be able to make Illawarra’s weak defensive perimeter pay.
We saw this exact scenario play out in round 20. Vasiljevic cooked all who came his way in that game and dropped a gigantic 33 points, while Clark had a healthy 17.
Still, Sydney’s path to victory being their secondary options carrying a large chunk of the offensive load instead of the MVP of the league is slightly risky. Despite Sydney’s theoretical advantages in this area, Goorjian’s plan could still give Illawarra their desired results.
Illawarra’s late clock switches
The final piece of Goorjian’s timeout message in round 20 was that he wants his Hawks to switch everything late in the shot clock.
Interestingly, Sydney often struggled against switch-heavy defences during the regular season. Collectively, the Kings aren’t great at attacking mismatches. Smalls are usually safe guarding their bigs in the halfcourt. Xavier Cooks and Jarell Martin aren't particularly effective or high-usage post players, nor do they crash the offensive glass at a high rate.
Moreover, the one area of his scoring skill set that Adams hasn’t perfected is his isolation scoring. He scored just 0.63 points per play in isolation this season, per jordanmcnbl.com. Compare that to the league average of 0.84 ppp or Bryce Cotton’s mark of 1.0, and you see just how far off the pace Adams is there. Switching slower defenders on to Adams doesn’t always yield great results for the Kings. He’s far more comfortable attacking in pick and roll rather than mismatch hunting in isolation.
To make things even more interesting, Illawarra don’t have perfect switching personnel by any means. The Froling brothers aren’t particularly light on their feet, and their perimeter players aren’t versatile defenders outside of Cleveland.
But given who they’re going up against, those late clock switches may be an effective way of thwarting Sydney’s halfcourt attack. They could become especially effective if Goorjian leans heavily into small ball looks for this series with Reath as the lone big on the floor.
Small ball offers other benefits too — it would give them more shooting to thwart Sydney’s drop coverage scheme and give them the speed to take away transition opportunities. Goorj’s XRM-Harvey-Jessup-Cleveland-Reath lineup — the Hawks’ third-most played lineup this season — could be their key five-man grouping for this series.
Regardless of what types of lineups the Hawks go with, how effective Sydney is at attacking Illawarra’s switching projects as a crucial battle for this series. The winner of this series may be whoever succeeds in an area of typical weakness in those late shot clock situations.
I’m genuinely torn on this one. The talent level is dead even across the board, and each team's matchup problems seem solvable. The margin for error for both teams in this series feels minuscule. I feel pretty confident that this series goes to a third game.
My gut tells me to take the home team in a game three, yet I feel myself leaning towards Sydney. I trust them more to solve the outlined problems Illawarra presents them than the inverse. Of the four battlegrounds outlined, I think the biggest mismatch on the board is in Sydney’s favour — Illawarra’s defensive game plan seems eminently exploitable by Sydney’s secondary options if they manage to take the ball out of Adams’ hands.
Regardless, this feels like a classic in the making. No Aussie hoops fan should be missing a second of this series.
Final prediction: Kings in 3.