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NBL: Sleeper Snakes poised to strike
Everybody knows championship runs don’t happen in November, and the NBL has proven that time and time again after teams have struggled early only to rocket home and reach the playoffs late.
This season, the highly-touted Cairns Taipans have started slowly, prompting talk of mid-season import changes and perhaps even missing the top four.
However, in the past three weeks the forgotten championship contender has regained some of its better form and looks far from done with yet.
The Snakes currently sit sixth with a 4-6 record after 10 games, which is a few wins under where many expected them to be.
Despite this, they sit equal on losses with fourth-placed Adelaide, having played two less games than the Sixers, and their form on the court, regardless of results, has been clearly turning around.
Since a 23-point belting at the hands of New Zealand, the Taipans have gone to Adelaide and come away with a three-point victory – which could be telling later in the year if both sides are fighting for the final playoffs spot – and a fortnight ago handed Melbourne United their first loss of the season in an 82-70 triumph.
Admittedly, Melbourne is now in the midst of a three-game skid, but at the time was undefeated through nine games.
The Snakes’ two losses in that time have been much improved on their earlier form, with a tight 96-88 defeat at Illawarra coming only courtesy of a 40-15 explosion in the third term by the Hawks, before a tough one-point defeat in Perth last weekend on the back of a last-second free-throw from Wildcats import Casey Prather.
The Taipans could easily have gone 4-0 in the past few weeks and suddenly be the talk of the league, but instead they remain in the bottom half of the table while the light shines on Perth, Melbourne, New Zealand and over-achieving Adelaide.
Even Illawarra, who are stacked offensively but struggling defensively, are gaining more traction with media and fans across the league despite holding an identical record to the Taipans at this stage.
It is easy to forget just how good, and deep, the Cairns roster is.
The likes of Mark Worthington and Cameron Gliddon are the headline acts, with maligned import Markel Starks finding his feet in the past month, fellow American Torrey Craig getting back to his best off the bench, and Cam Tragardh, Stephen Weigh, Alex Loughton and Matt Burston all being worthy starters in almost any side in the competition.
Starks has improved dramatically since talk of him being replaced early, averaging a serviceable 13.2ppg at 44% from the field through the first 10 games after barely making an impact in the first month.
Likewise, early on returning import Craig had failed to reach the heights that many had come to expect from him in the NBL after big production off the bench last season, however is now averaging 10.6ppg – up from 8.9 in 2014/15 – and is roughly matching his NBL career numbers in every other statistical category.
Gliddon is still young but is fast becoming a superstar of the league, while seasoned veterans Loughton, Worthington, Tragardh and Weigh have all had inconsistent starts to the season but are beginning to adapt to their role in the rotation and no doubt will be asking plenty of questions of opposition defenders at the business end of the season.
Many saw the loss of star import guard Scottie Wilbekin at the end of last season as a major reason why the Taipans would – and were – struggling, however after picking up Worthington ahead of this season, along with Gliddon’s growth and Starks’ continued improvement, they look as though they will be able to patch up the sizeable hole with a more balanced effort across the board.
Cairns are the sleepers of a very tight and tough competition right now.
Like a Taipan in many ways, the Snakes are stalking their prey and will be poised to strike when it matters most.
On paper, their roster will give any team nightmares in a playoffs matchup, and if the Snakes do sneak into the top four by season’s end, there won’t be a single finals competitor happy to see them there.