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NBL Winners and Losers: Finals Week One
The NBL Finals have begun. One semi-final series has been wrapped up in surprisingly quick fashion, while another heads to a sudden death encounter in Adelaide on Thursday night. Let's take a look at three winners and three losers from the first week of playoff basketball.
Perth's pick and pop game
The 2016/17 season has been a battle for Matty Knight at the offensive end. It's the first time in his nine-season NBL career that he hasn't averaged double figures in points (9.0 ppg). He also shot a career-low 43.1% from the field in the regular season. Embed from Getty Images
His mid-range jumper hasn't actually been too bad. He made 37.5% of those (from 4m and beyond), right on the league average of 37.4%, per spatialjam.com. Still, with those numbers, that's a shot opposing teams would be pretty happy to concede in most circumstances.
The man backing him up at power forward, Jesse Wagstaff, tends to to pop to the three-point line rather than the mid-range. He can be a streaky perimeter shooter, and this year has seen more downs than ups as he finished the regular season at 29.8% from deep - his worst clip since his sophomore season in 2010/11.
Bryce Cotton's offensive explosion in the first half of Game One of the semi-final series in Cairns forced Taipans coach Aaron Fearne to go to Plan B, trapping the dangerous guard in order to force the ball out of his hands. Sure, it meant Perth's bigs were going to get some open looks, but, given the aforementioned shooting woes, that seemed like it could be a successful strategy. It was not.
Knight went 7 of 13 (53.8%) from mid-range, while Wagstaff drained 7 of 16 (43.8%) from downtown across the two semi-final games (again, thanks to spatialjam.com). It's the kind of defence-stretching threat that Perth have been lacking most of the season, but it appears to have arrived at the perfect time. It killed the Taipans, and if it continues for 3-5 more games, it might just carry the Wildcats to back-to-back championships.
Mark Worthington would've preferred to go out with a championship. It wasn't to be, but that didn't stop this icon of Australian basketball from going out in style.
A West Australian that never played for the Wildcats, Wortho is an adversary that the Red Army has loved to hate over the years. When it counted though, his hometown crowd farewelled him with the respect befitting a 335-game legend of the league.
"What Perth did afterwards was really special. The last time I heard a Wortho chant, it went with 'is a wanker'," he said, beer in hand at the post-game press conference. "It was nice to get on the other end of it for three seconds."
Although he said it hadn't sunk in that it wasn't just the end of another season, he offered some fascinating reflection on his NBL journey.
"To get the opportunity to play with some of these guys, like who would've thought that Alex (Loughton) and I would be on the same team after all the elbows to the head we gave each other? And Stevie (Weigh), I used to give him shit too when he played in Adelaide. But I think it's like all sport, you start to play with these guys, you form bonds and you get to see the real side of people. They probably hated me too. But I think that's what makes it more enjoyable, when you go through those struggles, relationship-wise, team-wise."
An NBL champion and four-time All-NBL First Team member, Wortho has been a star on the court. But just as importantly, he has been a player that hasn't been afraid to show his personality to the Australian basketball public. That's something this league needs. Let's hope others follow in his footsteps.
A little more conversation, a little more action
Speaking of personality, ladies and gentlemen, how about those trash-talking Adelaide 36ers? Embed from Getty Images
Jerome Randle got the ball rolling last week, when he called the Hawks "dirty players". He went as far as to say, "I don't like anything about none of the guys on the team. I'm just being honest."
His captain, Mitch Creek, doubled down after the 36ers convincingly took care of business in Game One. "They're a dirty bunch of players who can't play our level so their only chance is to try anything but basketball."
Look, the idea that the Hawks are an especially dirty team is pretty laughable. Sure, they have a couple of defensive specialists who like to niggle - I'm looking at you Kevin White - but so does every good team.
The point is this: the truth should not get in the way of spicing up a playoff series. The justifiably offended Hawkheads created a wild atmosphere at the Sandpit in Game Two, and you can bet the 36ers' fans will respond in kind on Thursday night. It will be an electric, heated, sudden-death contest and that makes us all winners.
The Taipans, uncomfortable favourites
Cairns had been underdogs all season. Wooden spoon favourites in preseason, they lost their first three games and only edged over .500 wins in the last round. Embed from Getty Images
"No-one gave us a chance outside of Cairns, and even within our playing group and our coaching staff and all that, we were supposed to win the wooden spoon this year, " said Mark Worthington.
"Even in the last round, people were saying, well, Cairns will be the team that will probably get knocked out."
Yet, when they snatched the second seed and home court advantage in the semi-finals, there was a palpable shift. There were murmurings that maybe this could be the year that the men in orange finally break through.
Way, way back in preseason, on the Aussie Hoopla podcast, Mark Worthington said, "I think we’ve got a real chip on our shoulder this year. We didn’t have a chip last year." Wortho saw that chip as a key to the Taipans' playoff aspirations.
Clearly, that chip wasn't there in a 22-point loss at home in Game One. By Game Two, it was too late. Maybe, just maybe, there was a feeling among the group that by making the playoffs, they had already proved the doubters wrong.
The busy NBL Game Review Panel
Eric Jacobsen, A.J. Ogilvy and Matt Knight have all landed themselves in hot water for incidents over the first weekend of finals basketball.
Thankfully, all avoided suspension. But the last thing anyone wants is for the outcome of this incredible season to be decided by a player missing a game for doing something 'stupid' - which, apparently, is precisely how Matt Knight and his counsel described his behaviour to the NBL Tribunal.
Please, please, be smart, lads.
The Hawks, even if they win
The two alternative Grand Final series fixtures have been published, and it's rough reading for Illawarra. If they manage to upset the 36ers on Thursday night, they'll need a quick refresh in time to battle the Wildcats at Perth Arena less than 72 hours later. It's a brutal schedule, and would surely make Perth red hot favourites.