FOR the second consecutive year, the best basketball players Australia has to offer made their way to the United States to take on the best teams in the world. After the great success of last year, seven games were played across two weeks as both leagues prepare for a huge season ahead. Australian National Basketball League (NBA) stars, Ben Simmons, Joe Ingles and Dante Exum featured against their home country’s teams, while National Basketball League (NBL) stars hoped to gain recognition from NBA scouts and general managers.
Philadelphia 76ers (104) defeated Melbourne United (84)
The pre-season kicked off with the defending NBL champions, Melbourne United taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the city of brotherly love. Reigning NBA Rookie of the year, Ben Simmons led his 76ers into battle, looking to make a statement against his hometown team, and that he did! Simmons was spectacular with eight points, eight rebounds and 14 assists, putting on an absolute show for the home crowd and providing a huge amount of optimism heading into the regular season for Philadelphia and for Australian basketball in general. Melbourne United fell behind by 13 at the first break and never recovered, ultimately falling 104-84. United star, Casper Ware was held in check by the 76ers’ ferocious defence, something that became a staple of theirs late last season, shooting just 27 per cent from the field. The big man Alex Pledger impressed, registering a double-double with 13 rebounds to go along with his team-high 19 points. The sheer star power of the 76ers proved to be too much for Melbourne, however there were huge moments for Australian basketball, as Melbourne United was able to share the court with a team who is expected to feature deep into playoff action.
Utah Jazz (130) defeated Perth Wildcats (72)
Perennial NBL Championship contenders, Perth Wildcats took to the floor on a Sunday morning in Salt Lake City to battle the exciting Utah Jazz. Despite not playing in the game, Utah and Australia’s cult hero, Joe Ingles is expected to have another huge season for the Jazz after rising to prominence throughout Utah’s unlikely playoff run. The Melbourne-born Dante Exum will be hoping for a bounce-back season as he seeks to overcome a horrendous run of injuries and live up to the potential that saw him become the fifth overall draft pick just a few short seasons ago. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the fast-paced attack of the Utah Jazz would prove to be too much to handle as the Jazz cruised to an astonishing 58-point victory. The Wildcats shot just 27 per cent from the field with the Jazz’s number one defence from a year ago smothering them at every turn. Last season’s NBL Most Valuable Player (MVP), Bryce Cotton struggled on the big stage, sinking just four shots from 16 for a total of 11 points in a performance he would like to forget.
Los Angeles Clippers (110) defeated Sydney Kings (91)
The Kings and the Clippers opened their pre-season schedules in Hawaii with a tough contest from start to finish. The Sydney Kings’ roster is headlined by former number one NBA overall pick, Andrew Bogut, who returns home to Australia after over a decade in the NBA, which saw him feature in two NBA Finals series, including a championship victory in 2015 with the Golden State Warriors. One of Australia’s greatest basketball players of all time-turned Sydney Kings coach, Andrew Gaze led his team into battle and produced a sound game plan to slow down the Clippers’ prolific offence. The NBL’s leading scorer from a season ago, Jerome Randle put on a show with a game-high 25 points, in what was the best performance by an NBL star thus far, to go along with the 16 points of shooting guard, Kevin Lisch, as the two combined for almost half of the Kings’ points. The Clippers starters proved too much for the Kings, however they more than held their own against LA’s second unit, even cutting their margin to single figures early in the fourth before falling 110-91. Another strong performance from the NBL side.
Phoenix Suns (91) defeated New Zealand Breakers (86)
WHAT A GAME! The New Zealand Breakers almost pulled off a monumental upset against the Suns as they announced themselves on the global stage. In what was without a doubt the best game of the pre-season, the Breakers gave the Suns everything they could handle. Despite only holding the lead for small periods of the game, the Breakers stayed within striking distance the entire time before finally making the late surge we were all hoping for. Down just four points with under a minute to play, the Breakers had several opportunities to cut into the lead and potentially steal the ball game but unfortunately were unable to execute. Corey Webster, who had been spectacular all game, missed a three-point shot that would’ve brought the Breakers back within one in the final seconds, however it just fell short as the Suns were able to pull out the narrow win. Webster dominated, playing 40 of a possible 48 minutes, scoring 27 points and doing everything he could do drag his team over the line. The close game, along with the great individual performances from both sides provided fans with a great ball game and something that should excite all Breakers fans for the upcoming season.
Toronto Raptors (120) defeated Melbourne United (82)
In its second and final pre-season game in the United States, Melbourne United took on another title contender in the form of the new-look Toronto Raptors. Despite missing their two stars, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors were able to take care of Melbourne United comfortably en route to a 38-point win. The Raptors’ elite defence was too much for United, which was a common theme among the NBL teams playing, as the Raptors constantly cut off United’s penetration into the paint, forcing tough passes and contested jump shots, which helped them hold Melbourne to just 34 per cent shooting from the field and 82 points. Chris Goulding and Casper Ware produced strong outings despite the poor shooting, each with 17 points as well as logging heavy minutes to help prepare for their title defence.
Denver Nuggets (96) defeated Perth Wildcats (88)
The Wildcats took part in their second pre-season outing at the Pepsi Centre in Denver and put on one hell of a performance. Playing in one of the toughest buildings in the NBA for away teams, the Wildcats kept the contest close throughout and gave themselves every reason to believe they could walk away victorious. After his poor performance in the opening game, Bryce Cotton exploded with an NBL pre-season high 33 points, including five threes. Having cut the lead to just six points with less than 10 minutes to go, the Nuggets turned to Miles Plumlee and Trey Lyles to put the Wildcats away and secure a well-earned victory. Despite the loss, the Wildcats impressed many, including the Denver Nuggets broadcasters, who were very complimentary of not only the Wildcats but Australian basketball in general. A huge win for Australian basketball despite the loss for Perth.
Utah Jazz (122) defeated Adelaide 36ers (99)
Last year’s NBL runners-up, Adelaide took on the Jazz in Utah for the final NBL pre-season game. Similar to Utah’s performance against the Wildcats, the NBA side showed no mercy, with another dominant 30-point win, running its record against NBL teams to 2-0 by a combined margin of 88 points. The 36ers led at the end of the first quarter and looked to be on track to compete with Utah before star, Donovan Mitchell took over the game and helped Utah build what would prove to be an insurmountable lead. Nathan Sobey put together a strong game, stuffing the stat sheet with 23 points, four rebounds and four assists as well as four steals as he constantly got into the passing lanes and created fast break opportunities for Adelaide.
Despite the NBL going 0-7 against the best teams in the world, the past two weeks were a huge success for the national league. Five NBL teams were given the chance to share the court with the best players in the world and many flourished, perhaps even getting on the radar of some NBA teams as the season draws near. A big few months ahead for both leagues as basketball season begins!