It certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Sydney Kings are 4-0 after their 76-66 triumph over the New Zealand Breakers on Sunday. In what was the lowest-scoring game of the season to date, Will Weaver’s Kings showed just enough on both ends of the court to survive.
Here’s what I learnt from an enjoyable evening at Spark Arena.
The Kings can win games in so many different ways
To win the NBL title you need to be able to win in any set of circumstances, regardless of the adversity you may face. The ability to adapt on the fly is fundamental to any championship side. With Kevin Lisch out, Andrew Bogut and Didi Louzada both banged up, and Casper Ware failing to fire, Sydney had to show this ability and did so on Sunday.
As noted in my pre-season piece, this iteration of the Sydney franchise is designed to be a pace-and-space machine who feast at the rim and from deep.
During their first pair of games (against the Taipans and 36ers) Weaver’s squad took over 48% of their field goal attempts from downtown. In almost complete contrast, in the two games against Dan Shamir’s Breakers, only 30% of Sydney’s shots came from the arc.
Yet, despite playing without much pace or space on Sunday, Sydney somehow managed to find enough on offence, especially when New Zealand’s shot-making dried up. The Kings shifted their focus away from the three-point line and instead bullied the Breakers inside — Ware bodied RJ Hampton on multiple occasions, Jae’Sean Tate couldn’t be stopped down low, and Bogut was a consistent force in the paint.
The Kings showed their versatility on the defensive end of the court as well. Sydney displayed their switching ability more than they usually do and afforded the likes of Corey Webster and Scotty Hopson little space to operate whilst doing so. On other possessions, the Kings were equally strong when employing their usual pick and roll defence with Bogut dropping away and patrolling the rim. This defensive scheme predictably coaxed the Breakers into a bunch of inefficient mid-range looks for Webster and Hopson.
Their aptitude in terms of toggling between styles on both ends of the court makes the Kings even scarier than I imagined. No team is safe from them matchup-wise — they will generate and prevent baskets effectively regardless of what variation of basketball you force them to play.
Brandon Ashley is the real deal
Breakers fans were quietly getting worried about Brandon Ashley. I think it's fair to say that he proved the large majority of doubters wrong on Sunday. A team-high +7 plus/minus in a 10 point loss is all you need to know about the quality of his performance.
Ashley displayed an impressive all-around frontcourt package which gave the Kings fits. He was a walking mismatch for both Bogut and Daniel Kickert – his floor-spacing was a problem for the former to deal with and his raw power became an issue for the latter.
Ashley’s diverse skill set allows him to have an impact in a variety of different lineups, too. Playing next to Tom Vodanovich in the early second quarter allowed for Ashley to put his stamp on the game as a rim protector and as a roll man after setting a screen. Later, in the third quarter, he was insanely good whilst playing next to Rob Loe and being asked to defend on the perimeter. Ashley found a lot of success switching on to Casper Ware and shutting down his perimeter game in the third. His work helped contribute to Ware’s measly 2 point contribution after halftime.
Of course, Ashley was limited to just 18 minutes of game time due to ‘new import foul syndrome’ rearing its ugly head once again. If he manages to adjust and stay out of foul trouble, he’s the exact frontcourt piece the Breakers need going forward.
The 'Next Stars' are definitely promising, but have a lot of work to do
There were moments on Sunday when both RJ Hampton and Didi Louzada looked as good — if not better — than advertised. Hampton looked like a long-limbed terror in passing lanes at times and ran pick and rolls with confidence and poise. Louzada looked borderline unstoppable driving to the rim in the opening frame and worked his ass off defensively for most of the contest.
However, those moments were too few and far between for either to make a hugely positive impact. Hampton got pulled for Sek Henry less than four minutes into the game because of his struggles to match up physically on defence. Shamir also preferred the Henry-Webster backcourt combination in crunchtime because of this. Hampton’s distribution and penetration would’ve been welcomed in the final frame as New Zealand’s offence fell to bits, but Shamir clearly doesn’t trust Hampton's defence just yet.
Louzada looks to be a dynamic scorer but his shot-selection is worrying. Those in attendance at Spark Arena were treated countless possessions where Louzada took the very first shot that came to him rather than being patient. One has to wonder if Weaver will choose to bring him off the bench once Kevin Lisch returns from injury and use him as a game-breaking threat off the pine should his warts continue to show through.
The Breakers' off-court struggles are getting better...sort of?
Despite the loss, Breakers fans should be buoyed by the fact the team managed to hold their own in back-to-back encounters against the team who should be considered championship favourites.
There are definitely problems which need to be addressed. For one, the inequality in shot distribution — Corey Webster and Scotty Hopson combined for 42 of the team’s 79 field goal attempts — sticks out like a sore thumb. Nevertheless, for a squad likely still feeling the consequences of their return trips to Memphis and Oklahoma City, this is a genuinely good start.
Aside from the on-court optimism, the much-maligned game day experience from last season at Spark Arena has been tweaked and is undoubtedly better now. The fan base is back in full force for the first time since the three-peat days — being a Breakers fan is cool again! — and the Barstool Sports logo is gloriously absent from the jersey. Off-court problems still plague the club every week, but the improvements are good steps for an ownership group struggling to please anyone.
The fiasco around Brandon Ashley wearing CJ Bruton’s retired number, however, didn’t do any good for anybody:
Breakers fans have every right to be mad about this one — CJ’s importance to the club’s history and values should never be overlooked. His 2012 Grand Final MVP performance will remain the stuff of legends for eternity.
Hardcore supporters were already peeved at Mika Vukona’s soon-to-be-retired number being pawned off to RJ Hampton; other Breakers fans are confused as to why Kirk Penney’s legendary #6 still hasn’t been raised to the rafters yet. Add in the constant exodus of Breakers stalwarts (players, coaches, and front office folks alike) and it seems like this ownership group is doing everything it can to reject the tradition and history of the club.
The on-court product is getting better, Dan Shamir knows what he’s doing, the game day experience was legitimately good on Sunday, and the big crowds are back. That’s all good stuff! Still, there’s a lot that needs to be mended in Auckland.