NBL 2013/14: Round 20 Preview

Credit: Joel Armstrong Wollongong Hawks

The top two have virtually been locked away but the battle for third and fourth is just heating up. With the Tigers faltering, the Kings missing opportunities and the Hawks charging home it may well come down to the last games of the NBL season.

New Zealand Breakers vs. Townsville Crocodiles

Thursday, 27th February – 7.30pm (local time) North Shore Events Centre

The Breakers failed to win from two matches in round 19, with losses against the high-flying Hawks and the second-placed 36ers meaning they are now on the brink of elimination with just four rounds to go before finals. Kerron Johnson had a horror weekend and will need to lift significantly if his side is to pick themselves off the canvas and sneak into fourth spot.

Townsville knocked off Sydney at home last week in somewhat of a favour to the Breakers and the rest of the chasing pack, with Brian Conklin leading the way and Todd Blanchfield picking up the slack in the absence of Josh Pace through suspension.

To win, New Zealand must… come out firing. This game is a must-win if the home side wants to keep their season alive, and with their finals aspirations on the line it would make sense for them to come out firing in front of their home fans. Keeping the Crocs out of the game early will make things a lot easier when the clock winds down in the final quarter, so a strong start is critical. Johnson and spiritual leader Mika Vukona need to lift and guide their side to an important victory.

To win, Townsville must… keep Gary Wilkinson quiet. The American has been the star of the Breakers side since arriving part-way into the season and has led New Zealand back into the playoffs picture. While Johnson started off the season strongly and Tom Abercrombie has found form over the last two months, Wilkinson has no doubt been the most important piece of the Breaker puzzle, especially given Alex Pledger’s continued absence. Townsville will need to put plenty of time into Wilkinson and cannot afford a repeat of his 13-14-5 line from last week.

Verdict: The Breakers simply must win this game to stay alive, and in front of their home fans this will be treated like a final. New Zealand found a way to win over the past three seasons on the back of Cedric Jackson and Wilkinson, and the loss of Jackson has cruelled their team beyond what was expected. However re-gaining Wilkinson mid-season has been just the tonic for the Breakers and while it hasn’t always been smooth sailing they remain a strong side when they are on. The Crocs have hit form of late but are essentially playing for pride, so the incentive of a finals spot for the home side should see them get over the line. New Zealand by 7

Wollongong Hawks vs. Adelaide 36ers

Friday, 28th February – 7.30pm (local time) Wollongong Entertainment Centre

Wollongong stunned New Zealand last week with yet another blistering offensive display, propelling them to their fourth straight win and on the verge of the top four. Rotnei Clarke was again the star and has been one of the two best players in the competition across the past four weeks.

One of his opponents, Daniel Johnson, has been the other star of the league and near impossible to contain of late. Last weekend he led his side to a hard-fought home win over New Zealand with plenty of help from Adam Gibson, and in the process seemingly sewed up a home semi final for Adelaide.

To win, Wollongong must… get out and run. The Hawks have found their rhythm on offense and are firing on all cylinders right now. They will need to continue that trend against the Sixers, and the best way to do that is to run and gun all game and break the shackles of Adelaide’s defensive pressure. The loss of Kevin Tiggs did nothing to slow the Hawks, with Clarke in irresistible form right now and leading his side’s charge to the playoffs. It will be tough to win if they get bogged down by the 36er defensive, so out-gunning their opponents, just like they did less than a month ago, is the key to victory.

To win, Adelaide must… use their big men inside. While the Hawks have been hot from outside, they remain undersized in the paint and are coming up against the best centre in the league over the last two months and a seven-footer who is finding form after easing his way into the season. Johnson and Luke Schenscher are Adelaide’s biggest weapons against Wollongong, and pounding the ball inside is the perfect way to combat the hot shooting at the other end. Getting easy deuces inside will put added pressure on the shot of Clarke and co. to drop.

Verdict: This match has ‘game of the round’ potential, with two in-form sides clashing on a Friday night. The Hawks are making a very big push for the finals and sit just two wins behind the Kings and Tigers with a month to play, while the Sixers continue to get the job done and have all but sealed a second-place finish. Given the match is in Wollongong it gives the slightest of edges to the hometown Hawks, but the fact that they are playing for their season and the Sixers are cruising towards a home semi-final also points to the home side taking out this one. Wollongong by 2

Melbourne Tigers vs. Townsville Crocodiles

Saturday, 1st March – 7.30pm (local time) Hisense Arena

The Tigers have lost three of their past four and are in a funk at the moment, with former MVP contender Chris Goulding front and centre. The star guard has had a terrible past few weeks and has seemingly fallen out of contention for top individual honours, but needs to focus and get back to his best if he wants to enjoy more team success before the season’s end.

The Crocs will play their second match in 48 hours after making the trip across the Tasman. Josh Pace will again be missing as he serves his third and final game ban for a drink-driving offense.

To win, Melbourne must… get Goulding into the game. The enigmatic guard led the league in scoring for most of the season but has seemingly lost his shooting touch and is in dire need of a turnaround in form. His team is struggling as a result and rely heavily on Goulding for offense, so getting him going again is the key focus for the ailing Tigers. Finding him some open looks early, in the hope that he starts knocking down shots again, is the key here as Melbourne searches for an answer to their problems.

To win, Townsville must… continue to step up in Pace’s absence. Last week the Crocs got big performances from Brian Conklin and Todd Blanchfield to compensate for the loss of Pace, with Blanchfield in particular coming up big in key moments against the Kings. He will continue to get more minutes in the rotation without Pace and will need to do the same if the Crocs want to continue their fine form and notch another impressive win in Melbourne

Verdict: The Tigers need to start winning if they are to hold onto third place, with the Kings challenging and holding the season series. Further on and the chasing pack, led by Wollongong, is also closing rapidly and Melbourne may be in danger of missing the finals all together if they can’t get back to their winning ways soon. A tough run home hasn’t helped, but after beating the Wildcats in Perth they haven’t been at their best. The Crocs have already beaten the Tigers in Melbourne once this season, but the home side is sure to bounce back eventually with a win. Melbourne by 5

Cairns Taipans vs. New Zealand Breakers

Saturday, 1st March – 7.30pm (local time) Cairns Convention Centre

Cairns have dropped from fourth all the way to seventh after a horror stretch of results. The one-time finals contenders are on their last legs and may have already burnt their bridge to the finals. Demetri McCamey has hit a form slump after a strong mid-season run, while the loss of Cam Tragardh has seemingly finally caught up with them.

The Breakers will face yet another must-win scenario when they roll into Cairns to tackle the Snakes, with Tom Abercrombie looking to continue his recent good form.

To win, Cairns must… run the floor and find their shooting form. The Taipans have been at their best when they are creating open looks for their shooters to knock down. Stephen Weigh, Clint Steindl and Alex Loughton are three of the best pure shooters in the league when they are on, and the Snakes need to create plenty of opportunities for those guys if they want to keep their slim finals hopes alive. Considering the visiting Breakers will have played two days ago, pushing the ball up the floor and finding open looks early in the offence is the way to go for Cairns. The more open looks they get, the more likely their shooters will regain their best touch.

To win, New Zealand must… control the tempo. Despite scoring very well over the past month, the last thing the Breakers will want is to get into a shootout against the Taipans in their own gym. Kerron Johnson will need to play the smart game and dictate the pace against McCamey and Jamar Wilson. If the match becomes fast-paced then the Breakers will be relying on out-shooting a team full of shooters, away from home and in their second game in 48 hours.

Verdict: Cairns are due for a good performance and will treat this match as though it is an elimination final. The Breakers, however, will be in a similar frame of mind and will know that a win here, as well as one earlier in the weekend, will breathe new life into their season. If, and it’s a big if, Cairns can find their rhythm from the perimeter then the Breakers may be in trouble, but if recent form is any indication then the visitors will sneak home in a tight one to keep their season alive for at least one more week. New Zealand by 1

Sydney Kings vs. Perth Wildcats

Sunday, 2nd March – 2.00pm (local time) Sydney Entertainment Centre

Sydney suffered a shock loss to Townsville last week after disposing of the Taipans a night earlier in Cairns. While splitting their double was not ideal, it did move them level on losses with the Tigers and into a strong position to nab third spot. Jesse Sanders will take to the floor for the Kings after returning last weekend to replace fellow American Charles Carmouche.

Perth won a scrappy match against the Tigers last weekend to move closer to sealing the top seeding for the finals. James Ennis struggled but Damian Martin picked up the slack, with his 20 points setting a season high.

To win, Sydney must… re-adjust to Sanders immediately. Since the arrival of Sam Young the Kings have been without a pure floor general like Sanders. While he will bring more to the table than Carmouche did in the role, the Kings will need to re-adjust to the different style of his game and don’t have an abundance of time to do so at this stage of the season. To beat the Wildcats they will need to be tight and on the same page with their returning point guard from the opening tip, meaning the likes of Young and Ben Madgen may need to play without the ball in their hands more often.

To win, Perth must… weather the Kings storm early. Sydney will be fired up for a big showing with Sanders returning at home against the best side in the league. Finals spots are still on the line for the Kings, so keeping focused for the much safer Wildcats is key to their chances. Their away form has been suspect of late and they will need to match the intensity of Sydney, especially in the early stages, if they want to leave the Kingdome with a win and march on towards cementing top spot on the NBL ladder.

Verdict: While the return of Sanders will grab all the headlines, there is plenty more to look forward to in this matchup. Young v Ennis is perhaps a contest between the two biggest names in the competition, and arguably the two most explosive as well. The return of Matt Knight last weekend also means his matchup with AJ Ogilvy will be one to watch, while the hot-shooting Jermaine Beal will go head-to-head with the in-form Madgen. On paper these two sides are nearly impossible to separate, but with Sanders, and his team, possibly taking a little bit of time to adjust to the changes the Wildcats might sneak away with a win. Perth by 3