The leaders in the NBL award races continue to live out the highs and lows of basketball as the season nears the home stretch. Bryce Cotton played reasonably well in a loss, Casper Ware had a rough night in a win, and Mitch Creek and the South East Melbourne Phoenix found themselves near the foot of the ladder after another close defeat. All of that leaves eight teams still in with a chance to play finals basketball, and plenty of players on this list will have a huge impact on who hangs around and who heads home.
MVP: Bryce Cotton
Vs BRI: 24 PTS, 6 REB, 9-22 FG
Per-game stats: 22 PTS, 4.1 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.6 STL, 43.1% FG, 38.8 3PT
Most basketball minds would agree that starting well and finishing well are crucial when trying to win games. Unfortunately for the Perth Wildcats, Bryce Cotton could do neither as they slumped to a surprising loss against the Brisbane Bullets.
In a vacuum, his whole game looks fairly standard-- he scored just above his season average for points and shot just below his season percentage from the field. When broken down further, though, it was a patchy performance that saw the Wildcats drift in and out of the contest before ultimately falling short. In the second and third quarters, Cotton added 16 points while shooting 7-11 from the field. In the first and fourth, he had just eight points on 2-11 shooting, with his lone field goal in the last term coming when the game was essentially over.
That timeline matches the up-and-down performance of the Wildcats as a whole. They fell behind by eight points at quarter time, won the next two periods by a combined six points, then lost the fourth by seven. There's plenty of talent around Cotton, but he is still the engine that makes this team go.
MVP honourable mentions
Vs ADE: 12 PTS, 2 REB, 6 AST, 4-16 FG
Per-game stats: 20.4 PTS, 2.8 REB, 4 AST, 38.5% FG, 29% 3PT
Casper Ware looked to have fully recovered from his slow start to the season, but the holiday season hasn't been kind to him. He's struggled in three of his last four games, and over that span he has averaged just 15.5 points per game while shooting 33.3% from the field. That's including his 33 point outburst against the Wildcats last round; he had nine, eight and 12 points in the other three games.
No matter how bad his shooting woes get, though, it's become clear that Ware won't stop firing them up. The fact that he's leading all players this season in three point attempts isn't all that surprising. The fact that he's the only player in the top 20 to be shooting worse than 30% is a little more unexpected. Still, the Kings managed to cling onto top spot with their win over the Adelaide 36ers, despite Ware's latest cold game. That snapped a mini-slide and a two game losing streak for the Kings, but he'll need to be better if they want to stay ahead of the pack.
Vs BRI: 16 PTS, 3 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL, 8-14 FG
Per-game stats: 16.1 PTS, 3.3 REB, 8.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 44.3% FG, 39.2% 3PT
After tallying 49 points across two games in round 13, Scott Machado took a back seat shooting the ball against Brisbane. In fact, this was one of his quieter overall games in recent weeks, with his six assists below his season average and offset by four turnovers.
With Cam Oliver (21 PTS) and DJ Newbill (28 PTS) both firing, and with Mirko Djeric (6 AST) a surprise secondary facilitator, Machado did exactly what he needed to do. When your star player can have 16 points shooting above 50% in a win, that's a successful outing in any context. There's an argument to be made that the Cairns Taipans have the best import trio in the NBL this season, and when Oliver and Newbill are both at their best there's no need for Machado to force the issue. If one or both of his fellow Americans struggle next time out, he'll undoubtedly step into the void in whatever way is necessary.
Vs NZ: 11 PTS, 4 REB, 1 STL, 3-9 FG
Per-game stats: 21.6 PTS, 7.1 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 49.7% FG, 37.5% 3PT
We'll keep this short and sweet; this was Mitch Creek's worst game of the season, and it came in yet another tough loss for the South East Melbourne Phoenix. They now sit ahead of only the Illawrarra Hawks with an 8-11 record, and their finals aspirations are fading fast. Against the New Zealand Breakers Creek struggled to get anything going-- his shot wouldn't fall, his playmaking efforts produced one assist and four turnovers, and his rebounding was well down from his usual output.
This was the worst possible time for Creek to struggle, but it's still hard to hold it against him too much when it was his first "bad" game of the season. For the first time some of the team's struggles could be attributed to him, but on the whole he's still the least of their concerns.
Vs SEM: 19 PTS, 3 REB, 6 AST, 1 BLK, 9-15 FG
Per-game stats: 18.8 PTS, 6 REB, 3.8 AST, 50% FG, 38.3% 3PT
"Down game" is a relative term when it comes to Scotty Hopson's recent form. In round 14, it meant his first game with less than 20 points in his last five. It also meant he was the second leading scorer for the New Zealand Breakers in their fifth straight win, as he matched his season high with six assists.
He was still their go-to option in isolation, as the majority of his baskets came off the dribble. On a night where Tom Abercrombie (24 PTS) and Finn Delaney (18 PTS) were both knocking down shots, that kind of offence was needed a little less than usual. In the second quarter, as the Phoenix caught fire and threatened to build a sizeable lead, his nine points and four assists kept the Breakers in the contest. He took a back seat in the second half, but it was still another impressive showing in another big win for New Zealand.
Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball
Per-game stats: 17 PTS, 7.5 REB, 7 AST, 1.7 STL, 37.3% FG, 24.4% 3PT
Did not play in round 14 (foot injury).
Rookie of the Year honourable mentions
Per-game stats: 11.4 PTS, 6.8 REB, 1 AST, 42.9% FG, 34.8% 3PT
Did not play in round 14 (ankle injury).
Vs SEM: 11 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 4-11 FG
Per-game stats: 9.6 PTS, 3.9 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 41.6% FG, 32.4% 3PT
After missing six games with a hip injury, round 14 was a successful return for RJ Hampton. The young point guard is reportedly on a minutes restriction, but he still managed to hit double figure scoring in his 16 minutes on the floor. His first basket was a promising sign looking forward, as he drove hard to the rim and finished through some heavy contact. One of Hampton's flaws to this point has been his avoidance of such physicality inside, but his attack on a rim protector such as Dane Pineau was a good start in his first game back.
There were some concerns about how the Breakers might reintegrate Hampton into the rotation, but one game in there were no obvious issues. They're rolling right now, and if he can continue to fill his role Hampton could be a big x-factor in their finals push.
Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau
Vs NZ: 17 PTS, 20 REB, 7 ORB, 1 BLK, 6-9 FG
Per-game stats: 8.3 PTS, 8 REB, 3.7 ORB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 1.1 BLK, 66.3% FG
Where did this come from? After eight straight games without hitting double figure rebounds, Pineau set the league's season high with 20 boards in a huge performance against the Breakers. That's the biggest rebounding game in a non-overtime contest since 2009, as per The Pick and Roll's own Matt Hickey. Eight of those boards came the hard way on the offensive glass, a category where he still sits second in the league behind only Shawn Long.
It's hard to count the number of times that a shot goes up from the Phoenix and, as it comes down off the rim, Pineau somehow has the inside position for the rebound. He seems to have an innate sense for where to position himself in between the shooter and his man.
That has started to translate to the other aspects of his offensive game too. When teammates drive into the paint and draw a help defender he positions himself to catch and finish in an instant. Add in his growing confidence in the post, and he's becoming more and more of a scoring threat. With Keith Benson departing and their finals hopes slipping away, the Phoenix will need every bit of improvement Pineau has left.
Most Improved Player honourable mentions
Vs CAI: 14 PTS, 8 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 5-8 FG
Vs PER: 7 PTS, 9 REB, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 3-5 FG, 1-3 3PT
Per-game stats: 8 PTS, 5.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.5 BLK, 48.1% FG, 17.4% 3PT
As Magnay has expanded his offensive game, chatter about a future in the NBA has grown a little louder. He may not be lighting up the scoreboard every game, but he's adding wrinkles to his scoring that could certainly come in handy down the road, once they're a little more refined. It's still not falling consistently, but his three-point stroke is as smooth as any guard's, and he's starting to shoot the ball with a little more confidence from across the floor.
Defensively, he's still the same disruptive presence that he has been all season. Almost all of his four blocks were highlight-worthy plays, and it's his efforts around the rim that grab the attention. The only concern from this round was that opposing big men performed quite well against Magnay and the Bullets-- Cam Oliver (21 PTS, 12 REB), Nate Jawai (12 PTS, 14 MIN), Nick Kay (18 PTS) and Dario Hunt (12 PTS) all outperformed their season averages. Blocks don't always equal good defence, but Magnay certainly looks like a player having a positive impact despite the weekend's results.
Vs MEL: 9 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 1 BLK, 4-9 FG
Vs ADE: 16 PTS, 2 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 6-14 FG, 2-6 3PT
Per-game stats: 8.6 PTS, 3.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 39.2% FG, 30.9% 3PT
The integration of Darington Hobson into the Illawarra Hawks rotation has certainly lightened the load on Sunday Dech. In the first five game's since LaMelo Ball's injury, Dech averaged 12.2 field goal attempts per game. In the last three games, that has dropped to 9.3. With less ball handling duties, he's also had just two turnovers in those three games, compared to 11 in the previous five contests.
He was limited somewhat by foul trouble against Melbourne United, but he played a role in Melo Trimble's 4-15 shooting night when he was on the floor. He was much more prominent against the Adelaide 36ers, as he was aggressive from start to finish but never reckless in his shot selection. A clean triple opened the scoring for the Hawks, and a beautiful wraparound pass to Boone kept them in the contest late but ultimately proved to be their last bucket. In between, he chipped in all across the box score with impact plays in big moments. It was hard to imagine Dech as the second option on a competitive team before the season, but that's sure what he looked like on Monday night.
Vs MEL: 10 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 4-6 FG
Vs ADE: 1 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL
Per-game stats: 5.7 PTS, 1.5 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 51.7% FG, 39.3% 3PT
He wasn't quite as prolific as during a breakout round 13, but the Illawarra Hawks continue to compete when Emmett Naar spends time on the floor. They pushed Melbourne United for three quarters before falling off late, then found themselves in with a chance right up until the final minute against the Adelaide 36ers. That might not seem like much, but given their injuries and inexperience it should be all about the little wins.
Even when he is quieter, Naar typically plays within himself and doesn't make many mistakes. Against Melbourne he was efficient in adding ten points, his fourth straight game in double figures. He was scoreless against the 36ers, but he took just two shots and only committed one turnover in more than 20 minutes. There were times across the round when the Hawks looked lost offensively, and it felt like Naar could have provided some sort of system if given the ball a little more often. Still, it's hard to deny his overall impact on the team.
Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin
Vs SYD: 12 PTS, 5 REB, 1 BLK, 3-8 FG
Vs ILL: 15 PTS, 9 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 5-9 FG
Per-game stats: 15.2 PTS, 6.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.4 BLK, 54.5% FG, 34.9% 3PT
It was a tough night out for Eric Griffin against the Sydney Kings, as it was for most of his teammates. He played less than 18 minutes, and on a night where Adelaide shot 32.9% from the field and just two 36ers hit 50% shooting, he went 3-8 for his 12 points. On the road and up against the league's best defence, Adelaide slumped to a big loss and Griffin struggled to have his usual impact.
He had much more success in the win against Illawarra, even if the stats might not necessarily suggest it. The big men of the Hawks found themselves in foul trouble throughout the night, thanks in part to Griffin's aggressive play off the dribble and in the paint.
It was the second half where he really made an impact, starting with a steal and slam to open the scoring. That defensive intensity was visible from that point on, as an Adelaide team that gave up 61 points in the first half held Illawarra to just 35 points in the second. Griffin made plenty of effort plays to help turn things around, from contesting the red-hot Todd Blanchfield on the perimeter to consistently fighting hard around the rim. That's still where his biggest value lies for a team that can be up and down defensively.
Best Sixth Man honourable mentions
Vs CAI: 3 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 1-6 3PT
Vs PER: 12 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST, 4-7 3PT
Per-game stats: 11.1 PTS, 2.2 REB, 2.4 AST, 43.6% FG, 43.8% 3PT
It was a mixed bag for Jason Cadee in round 14-- one game of good and one game of bad saw him finish 5-13 from deep for the round, not too far off his season success rate of 43.8%. It's telling that the Bullets lost the game he struggled and then won on the back of a better performance.
Against the Wildcats, as the Bullets saw a big lead evaporate in the second quarter, Cadee knocked down back-to-back triples to turn a tied game into a four point lead. It's amazing that Cadee is still knocking down threes at such a high clip and in big moments, given opposing teams must know the threat he presents by now. He's still hitting on 43.8% of his attempts, despite taking more than three times as many threes (121) as twos (35).