Taipans' rise rests on Scott Machado and Kouat Noi

A fourth quarter Taipans fadeout allowed the Sydney Kings to pinch a round one win on the road in Cairns. Despite the single-digit loss, the local crowd were given a good taste of what to expect this season, on the back of two eye-catching debuts from Scott Machado and Kouat Noi.

In their club debut, both players displayed the strengths that will make Cairns a dangerous outfit this season. Machado was proficient as the Snakes’ playmaker, setting the table for various players, while Noi showed exactly how he aims to be the best rookie since Joe Ingles with strong rebounding, active hands and an ability to create quality spacing for shots.

Cairns took a six-point lead into the final term, highlighted by exceptional passing and relentless movement without the ball. Their long-range shooting was manifest, and it’s an area that could prove to be a reliable tool for Cairns this season. Each of Mirko Djeric, Noi and DJ Newbill made at least 40% of their shot attempts (7/14) from deep. As a squad, Cairns finished the night 34% from three, compared to Sydney’s lowly 22%.

An early season favourite for Rookie of the Year honours, Noi helped spark the Taipans crowd early in the contest. He impressed on the defensive end with active rebounding and hustle plays, paired with constant off-ball efforts which resulted in valuable offensive opportunities for Noi and his teammates. The Newcastle-raised Noi finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds (six offensive), becoming the first player in Taipans history to record a double-double on debut.

Noi’s debut was supported - but certainly not overridden - by the work of Machado, who was tasked with the difficult assignment of guarding Casper Ware. Both Machado and Ware came into this season with plenty of experience playing in the States, and as predicted by The Pick and Roll’s Jacob Doole, Machado showcased why he is the perfect piece to fit around an energetic supporting cast, finding the open man in transition and constantly attacking the interior with speed.

With both Noi and Machado playing the most minutes for head coach Mike Kelly, Cairns’ offence came out firing against the Kings, pushing the game speed with end to end passing. Machado --who has plied his trade with the South Bay Lakers (NBA G League) the past two seasons-- displayed a willingness to make the correct play following a Kings miss or turnover. With less of a reliance on DJ Newbill’s offensive arsenal, the Taipans exhibited an exciting, fast-paced style with Machado as the primary ball-handler. The American-born Brazilian finished with a team-high eight assists, setting a new record for any Taipans player on debut.

Cairns weren’t complacent in the open court. They did not settle for tough jump shots; the ball would nearly always find its way into Machado’s hands as the floor general. With a bunch of flashy no-look passes and patient movement, Machado seemed to consistently find an orange jersey cutting inside. To remain competitive this season, a relentless Machado and energetic Noi will need to continue to act as the building blocks for coach Kelly.

A combination of Machado, Newbill and Noi gives Cairns offensive consistency, and blending them with hometown hero Nate Jawai allows Cam Oliver to play at the four rather than as an undersized centre. This five offers serious strength on defence, and players from one to four are all capable of spreading the floor with great speed in transition - expect to see more of this combination as the season unfolds.

Like performances from last season when they lost 14 consecutive matches, the Taipans struggled to match the opposition’s intensity when it mattered late. In what was a pattern throughout the game, Cairns’ mid-range shooting was poor, only making 1/7 from the area outside the key and inside the arc, per Spatial Jam. At stages, reigning defensive champion Andrew Bogut didn’t even both getting a hand up to contest off the high screen, and it allowed Ware to chime in on the other end for a reasonably quiet (by his standards) 23 points, as he pegged back the lead. Noi began to tire, likewise Machado, and an injury to import big Cam Oliver (sustained in the final quarter) also contributed to the Taipans’ eventual loss.

Despite even a 13-point lead deep into the third quarter, there were still areas and plays Cairns would like to take back. Coach Kelly stated that he enjoyed most of what his side produced in the season opener, but ultimately it was an opportunity gone begging.

“Sydney’s a very good team so it was hard to keep them at bay, they kept coming and they made plays down the stretch,” Kelly explained post-game. “Experience definitely helps and they’ve got it in spades with a really good squad, you can tell they are pros. So that experience does make a difference and we need to continue to gel and get used to each other because we do have a couple of experienced pros as well.”

Addressing fourth-quarter struggles will be the team's key focus heading into this weekend’s double header, with state rivals Brisbane Bullets to kick off round two on Friday, followed by a second road game against the Illawara Hawks on Monday evening.

It’s still tough to get a read on this new-look Cairns team from just one game, but after the way they opened proceedings against Sydney –who are touted as genuine title contenders – it appears coach Kelly has more tricks up his sleeve as he harnesses the brilliance and tenacity of both Machado and Noi.