NBL Winners and Losers: Round 4

After each round of the NBL season, I’ll be taking a look at three ‘winners’ and three ‘losers’ from the events of the preceding week. Anyone, or anything, is eligible; from individual players to entire teams, coaches to mascots, on-court strategies to off-court distractions and more.


WINNERS

The Taipans, breaking zones (eventually)

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Coaches around the league took note when the Taipans jacked up 40+ three-point attempts in their loss to Adelaide in Round 3. The strategy was clear; make this team beat you from the perimeter because they probably can't.

In Round 4, both Dean Demopoulos and Rob Beveridge sought to test Cairns with extended periods of zone defence. At first, it looked a winner for Melbourne as they charged back from a 12-point three-quarter time deficit to level the game. To their credit, the men in orange turned the tide by exploiting the zone with some aggressive offensive rebounding. Four offensive boards in three minutes triggered a 9-4 steadying run that was enough to hold United at bay.

On Monday night, the Hawks turned to the zone in the third quarter, and again it looked to be causing the Taipans trouble as their lead was trimmed to four. This time, offensive rebounding was unnecessary as they found their range from the perimeter. Triples to Edwin (x2), Worthington and Gliddon sparked a 17-8 run to shut the door on the home team and take Cairns to their first road win in almost a year.

Newley vs Craig: Taller, better, faster, stronger

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In recent seasons, the NBL has revolved around mostly ground-bound guards. Since 2009, all but one NBL MVP award has gone to a backcourt player that has relied on some combination of skill, shooting, quickness and smarts to dominate. We're talking the likes of Gary Ervin (2011), Kevin Lisch (2012 & 2016) and Cedric Jackson (2013). A supremely talented bunch, but not the kind of players that rely on athleticism to be effective.

That's not to say we haven't seen impactful athletic wings. James Ennis is the standout exception, and 'role player' certainly undersells Thomas Abercrombie's work over the years (more on that shortly). Casey Prather has taken his game to another level this season. Nonetheless, for the most part, high-profile guard battles have taken centre stage in this league.

That changed on Sunday afternoon at Qudos Bank Arena, as Brad Newley and Torrey Craig reminded us that sometimes, there is no answer for pure athleticism. They relentlessly attacked the rim, the glass and each other, imposing themselves on the contest with the kind of force and physicality more commonly associated with that other basketball league over in the States.

Newley emerged the narrow victor, his 29 points and 8 rebounds edging Craig's 22 and 14. But both players put themselves firmly in the MVP conversation.

Jerome Randle's worst nightmare, Thomas Abercrombie

New Zealand's offensive explosion (119 points on 57% shooting) will rightfully garner most of the attention, but the game wasn't just won at that end of the floor.

Paul Henare cleverly deployed his best defensive stopper on the dangerous 36ers point guard and it worked a treat. With his 20cm height advantage, Abercrombie was able to give himself a greater cushion to prevent Randle's penetration, using his length to discourage and trouble Randle's jump shot.

Randle still accumulated 20 points and 4 assists, because he's a very good player. However, 9 of those points came in 7:41 when Abercrombie was on the bench. He was held to just 11 points in the 22:01 that Abercrombie was draped over him. If you're Paul Henare, you'd have to be satisfied with that.


LOSERS

Clarity

Last week, it looked like a bit of separation could have been forming between the top 5 and the bottom 3 on the ladder. Well, the bottom 3 all picked up wins in Round 4 and now we're no closer to knowing who is a legitimate threat to the obvious championship favourites, the Sydney Kings. Wait, what did I just write?

Melbourne's free throw catch-22

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Melbourne did not miss a free throw in Round 4. That's fantastic, especially for a team that entered the weekend shooting a league-worst 59.8%. So what's the catch? Well, that unblemished shooting came about because they only earned a paltry four free throw attempts (no matter how many times United coach Dean Demopoulos screamed "That's a foul!" at the officials).

Sitting at the bottom of the ladder in free throw percentage is one thing, but Melbourne's 13.7 free throw attempts per game is also worst in the league.

United farewelled their two most frequent free throw shooters from last season (Hakim Warrick and Stephen Holt), and the third (Chris Goulding) is currently sidelined with injury. With two pivotal games coming in Round 5, they need someone to step up the aggression and get to the line.

Fuquan Egwu and Nnanna Edwin

Fox Sports commentator Matt Russell had a nightmare of a time up in Cairns on Thursday night as he continually messed up the names of Taipans import duo Fuquan Edwin and Nnanna Egwu. He must have been thanking his lucky stars to have a chance to make amends on Monday night, backing up for the Taipans' game in Wollongong. Unfortunately, the poor guy still couldn't untie his tongue in the second bite at the cherry for the round.

Hopefully he is spending the week in front of a mirror doing some Ron Burgundy-style warm ups, in preparation for his shot at redemption when the Sydney Kings visit Far North Queensland on Saturday night.