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NBL Winners and Losers: Round 19
After each round of the NBL season, I’ve been taking a look at three ‘winners’ and three ‘losers’ from the events of the preceding week. Heading into the final round of the regular season, there were six teams battling for three remaining finals spots. Three teams made it, and three missed out. Let's just say, I decided to keep it simple in choosing the winners and losers for this final regular season edition.
The Taipans finished 5 of the 19 rounds of the 2016/17 season on the bottom of the table. They were propping up the ladder as recently as the first week of January, after ringing in the new year with a 93-76 loss to eventual wooden spooners, Brisbane. That result saw them slump to 7-10, with a playoff berth a long shot, and hopes of a top two finish pure fantasy.
Six weeks later, and the preseason underdogs have earned the right to host a semi-final series on the back of an 8-3 finish, with a little help from the NBL's 'mini-table' system to split teams who finish with the same record at the conclusion of the regular season.
The Taipans got a little lucky in Round 19, facing a home-away double against a 36ers side that had locked up the minor premiership. With top spot secured, Adelaide coach Joey Wright was juggling conflicting interests, wanting to take winning form into the playoffs, while presented with a rare opportunity to rest his star players.
Joey erred well on the side of rest during their Thursday night clash in Cairns, with newly-crowned NBL MVP Jerome Randle playing just a tick over 11 minutes and most of the starters resting in the fourth quarter. The Taipans took advantage, overcoming a four-point deficit at the final break to clinch the win.
Saturday's night's return bout in Adelaide was a different beast. The 36ers came out swinging in a bid to avoid taking a four-game losing streak into the finals. The men in orange, with semi-final home court advantage beckoning, absorbed the pressure before unleashing a devastating 33-17 third quarter to lock up second spot.
The streak lives on! Rejoice, Red Army!
Perth had more on the line than most heading into Round 19, with an unfathomable 31st straight playoff appearance in jeopardy. That they were able to secure two vital wins under such pressure should come as a surprise to nobody. The manner in which they did it, on the other hand, was rather unexpected.
The Wildcats, dead last in offensive rating prior to Round 19, were a scoring juggernaut over the weekend. Posting totals of 101 and 96 against Sydney and Melbourne respectively, the Cats' logged their second and third-highest offensive outputs of the 2016/17 season.
Casey Prather was otherworldly, as he rediscovered his early season MVP-calibre form with 29 points and 6 rebounds against the Kings, followed by 26 and a career-high, equal NBL season-high 11 assists. All that came at the expense of just three turnovers across the two games, noteworthy for a player who sits top three in the league in turnovers (3.3 per game).
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Perth was Prather's breakout road performance in Melbourne. He has generally struggled without the boisterous support he receives at Perth Arena. His 26-point outing was the eighth time he had scored 25-plus in an NBL game, but the first time he had done it on the road. With the 'Cats needing at least one road win in Cairns to progress to the grand final, they'll be hoping Casey can back it up against the Taipans.
Illawarra sealed their finals spot in style with a ruthless demolition of the Bullets on Saturday evening in Wollongong. It was clear early on that Brisbane would provide little resistance to the Hawks' onslaught, and the Sandpit went into party mode.
Like any party that's threatening to get out of control, shots were being lined up at a frightening rate. Oscar Forman led the charge on his way to matching a career-high eight triples. His 26 points were the most he had scored in a game in almost three years.
The Hawks could have been bigger winners if other results had fallen their way. In the end, they landed in fourth spot, with a poor 1-3 regular season record against the Taipans proving costly in the mini-table tie-breaker.
Nonetheless, they've made the postseason and will be full of belief that they can go further. They won't fear a semi-final match-up with Adelaide, having won three of four contests between the two teams in 2016/17.
New Zealand Breakers
If ever a team landed in the losers section and didn't deserve it, it's this New Zealand Breakers squad. Their horrendous run with injury continued right to the final hurdle, as a knee infection forced Mika Vukona to watch on from a hospital bed as his teammates battled to stay alive. That's not to mention the absence of Akil Mitchell, who returned to the USA for specialist treatment on his injured eye. The Breakers frontcourt was decimated.
Enter, Finn Delany.
The 21-year old had a breakout game, posting career highs in points (13) and rebounds (9) and dunking on anything and everything in sight. The Breakers out-hustled Melbourne at every turn, and finally found a way to look after the basketball, giving up just 7 turnovers (way down from a league-worst 16.3 per game).
Ultimately, the 88-70 win wasn't enough to snatch a playoff spot, but their final game was a microcosm of the character that has delivered them sustained success in recent seasons, and the young talent that they hope will continue to bring it for years to come.
Watching Melbourne push the Wildcats all the way on Sunday, while playing for nothing but pride, one couldn't help but wonder where that kind of intensity and desperation was two nights earlier in Auckland. Embed from Getty Images
Sure, the Breakers were never going to make it easy for them. As Chris Goulding said, when asked to reflect on how Round 19 unfolded, "New Zealand in New Zealand, for the past however many years, has been a hell of a tough game to get." While that's true, United should've been able to take advantage of a frontcourt battle that pitted David Andersen, Josh Boone, Majok Majok, David Barlow and Tai Wesley against Alex Pledger, Rob Loe and Finn Delany, with Tom Abercrombie and Paul Carter masquerading as stretch fours.
Yet Melbourne gave up 17 offensive rebounds to the Breakers small-ball crew. On top of that, their usual offensive suspects, Goulding and Ware, went cold from the perimeter at the worst possible time (a combined 3-14 for 21.4%).
For a team that was highly-fancied leading into the season, it was a disappointing way to go out.
The Kings faced an uphill battle to sneak a top four spot, travelling to Perth to take on a desperate Wildcats team in enemy territory. They hung tough for a while, but Perth always looked on top. When a double-technical foul sent Greg Whittington to the locker room late in the third quarter, things unraveled quickly for the men in gold. Embed from Getty Images
Andrew Gaze was his usual open, honest self in the post-game press conference.
"Our last half of the season was nowhere near as good as the first half." 10-6 start, 3-9 finish. Hard to argue with that.
"Clearly, we need more depth in the backcourt." The team that travelled to Perth featured 3 guards, 7 forwards and 2 centres. That's not ideal.
And later, "We've got to build our depth, get better balance in our team." Sydney had four players with an average of 30+ minutes per game. No other team had more than two. That would seem to indicate an unhealthy reliance on your starters.