AN eight-game round across four days tips off in a blockbuster National Basketball League (NBL) weekend starting tomorrow. Across Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, double-headers will be played at John Cain Arena in Melbourne, allowing fans to make the most of their trip to the basketball. We take a look at each of the clashes below.
CAIRNS TAIPANS vs. ILLAWARRA HAWKS
Saturday, February 20 @ 3pm
Tipping off the huge weekend of action is Cairns Taipans going head-to-head against Illawarra Hawks in what should be a fascinating contest. The Hawks bounced back from consecutive losses to defeat Sydney Kings and remain on track for a finals spot under new coach Brian Goorjian. Illawarra sits second on the table with five wins from seven games, while the Taipans have conversely struggled this season after entering 2021 with much optimism after last year’s finals showing. Having played seven games at home and only winning two of them is not crash hot, while the Hawks lost their only game to Melbourne United, but have a 5-1 away record having been well versed at travelling thus far.
The Hawks’ back court has worked really well this season with a trio of imports, Tyler Harvey, Justinian Jessup and Justin Simon making life difficult for the opposition. Harvey (21.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists) and Jessup (14.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists) have started every match, while Simon (9.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.9 steals and 1.0 blocks) has been a third playmaker, starting in five of the seven games. For the Taipans, it means a lot falls on the shoulders of Scott Machado (17.0 points, 9.8 assists and 4.0 rebounds) to match it with them, while Cameron Oliver (17.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks) is a man on a mission this year once again as the premier big man heading into this contest.
The Hawks will be favourites given their depth, though the Taipans have shown in glimpses they still have what it takes to pick off a big scalp.
MELBOURNE UNITED vs. PERTH WILDCATS
Saturday, February 20 @ 5.30pm
In the second game tomorrow, rivals Melbourne United and Perth Wildcats go head-to-head in what is always a fascinating battle. United are yet to lose this season, winning six on the trot and now facing an extended stint at home with the NBL Cup at John Cain Arena. They take on the team that got the better of them two years ago and always provide a challenge in the Wildcats, who have had their worst start to a season in some time, winning two of five games to start the season and languish in seventh spot. Luckily, a trip away could see them reinvigorate themselves and with the tightness of the ladder, quickly put themselves back in contention for a three-peat.
The question mark over the Wildcats is what it was in the preseason – support to help Bryce Cotton – and that is what Perth will need to get the job done. Cotton was the best player in the NBL last year, and has arguably been for a number of seasons now, but with so many of his teammates departing, he needed to find some scoring options to take the pressure off him. Import John Mooney has been a terrific addition at the five, with 16.8 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, while Todd Blanchfield has come across to be another contributor with 13 points, 3.6 rebounds and two assists per game. Unfortunately the reigning premiers have struggled elsewhere, while United have depth up every sleeve. Big man Jock Landale (15.2 points. 7.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.8 blocks) has had the impact he was expected to this season, while Chris Goulding (16.8 points, 3.0 rebounds) has controlled the back court. Most impressively though, United has eight players with nine points or more per game, using the rotation options to perfection.
United are yet to loses in season 2021, and it is hard to see it happening here. In saying that, if there is a game the Wildcats are likely to get up for, it is this one.
SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE PHOENIX vs. BRISBANE BULLETS
Sunday, February 21 @ 3pm
Two teams that have been up and down this season in the mid-table logjam are South East Melbourne Phoenix and Brisbane Bullets. The pair face off in the earlier game on Sunday, with the Phoenix playing their fourth home game having started the season with a 2-1 record in Victoria. They will be favourites up against a Brisbane team that has been shaky despite six home games, finishing with two wins from those matches, though the Bullets won their most recent clash on the road against the Adelaide 36ers to give them confidence here.
With news that the Phoenix have lured NBA talent Ryan Broekhoff back from the United States, it transforms the league’s newest side from being a solid mid-table team into a genuine contender, if not favourite alongside Melbourne United. The Phoenix already had a couple of prolific scorers up both ends of the court in guard Keifer Sykes (18.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.1 steals), as well as forward Mitch Creek putting in a typical performance of 18.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.0 steals. Add in Broekhoff who is the most deadly of three-point shooters (averaging 40 per cent from long-range in the world’s best league albeit from limited minutes), and the Phoenix have so many deadly shooters. The Bullets have their own homegrown volume shooter in Nathan Sobey (24.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.0 steals), while import Victor Law has been a welcome addition with the departure of Lamar Patterson, stepping up with 20.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.0 blocks this season.
The Phoenix will be strong favourites, especially if Broekhoff takes the court, while the Bullets will be hoping to build on their last win, with an all-round team performance.
SYDNEY KINGS vs. ADELAIDE 36ERS
Sunday, February 21 @ 5.30pm
In the final match of the regular weekend, Sydney Kings and Adelaide 36ers face-off in their first of two games for Round 6. The 36ers have had a remarkably good season, with five wins from nine games, but will be ruing their loss to the Bullets at home last start. After a quick trip away to Brisbane they toppled the Bullets, then fell themselves at home in a shock loss. They sit pretty in third on the table, but have played more games than any other side, so will be wanting to quickly rack up some more wins early in the season. For the Kings, they are at 3-4, and still trying to find their feet, having lost at home against Illawarra last start, and sit fifth with a very winnable chance against the 36ers on Sunday evening.
The Kings have certainly found a standout import in Jarrell Martin (18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds) to take the load off known volume shooter Casper Ware (20.0 points, 3.3 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals). Ware has been more prolific than his first season with the Kings, but it has been the back court duo of Ware and Dejan Vasiljevic (17.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists) which has really kept the Kings in the mix for a top four spot early in the season. They come up against a 36ers side that has come on in leaps and bounds since being smashed by Melbourne United on opening night. They could certainly still improve their consistency, but the duo of Isaac Humphries (17.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 blocks) and Daniel Johnson (21.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists) has been sensational and is one area where they will have the advantage and look to really control the airways close to the basket.
Adelaide 36ers will be favourites, but the Kings have enough strength in their back court to be a worry for the third placed team, both will be keen to start the NBL Cup off well.
ILLAWARRA HAWKS vs. NEW ZEALAND BREAKERS
Monday, February 22 @ 5pm
The first team to play two games this round will be Illawarra Hawks, triggering another six teams to double-up over the weekend. For the New Zealand Breakers, they could have the weekend resting up for their sole Round 6 game, and will have had plenty of time to plan for the Hawks in this one. The Breakers are 1-4 from the season and desperate to grab a second win, yet to play at home, and not looking likely on the horizon for some time. Despite the challenges, they have the talent on their list, the Breakers just need to keep battling away.
Tai Webster has been the standout performer for the Breakers, putting up team highs in points (19.6), rebounds (7.2) and assists (5.0) to be a crucial inclusion in the back court. His brother Corey (13.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals) has been pretty solid himself coming off the bench, while Finn Delany (14.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks) continues to come of age. The big question mark remains with last year’s MVP contender, Lamar Patterson who languishes with just an average performance of 10.4 points. 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The American imports for the Hawks in Tyler Harvey, Justinian Jessup and Justin Simon have been terrific, while Sam Froling (11.1 points, 7,6 rebounds) and Cameron Bairstow (11.0 points, 7.8 rebounds) have been the size the team needs near the basket, and allowing their smaller teammates to go to work.
Illawarra will be favourites in the clash, but a trip away in the one place for an extended time could be what the Breakers need to kick-start their season.
MELBOURNE UNITED vs. CAIRNS TAIPANS
Monday, February 22 @ 7.30pm
Getting stuck straight into the analysis, these two teams are coming off early games on the weekend and will be keen to put on a Monday night show. United will be favourites thanks to an unbeaten run, while the Taipans will be keen to turn their early season form around during the NBL Cup. If they can start firing here, it will give them confidence going forward. The must-watch matchup is clearly Jock Landale up against Cameron Oliver in a huge battle of the big men, and despite Scott Machado’s elite passing and some good solid scoring options across the court for the Taipans in Kouat Noi, Majok Deng and Mirko Djeric, they do not have the same depth as United, who outside Chris Goulding and Jack White (10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks), the ladder leaders still have the likes of former Breakers, Scotty Hopson and Shea Ili, and back court scorers, Mitch McCarron and Yudai Baba putting up strong scores.
United will remain favourites regardless of the earlier results on the weekend, but the Taipans have the talent to give it a shake.
SYDNEY KINGS vs. PERTH WILDCATS
Tuesday, February 23 @ 5pm
A 2019/20 NBL Grand Final rematch between the Kings and Wildcats will tip-off Tuesday night’s action with both teams in very different circumstances to 12 months ago. The Kings sit fifth just outside the top four, winning three of seven games, while the Wildcats are seventh hoping to turn their form around. The Kings trio of Jarrell Martin, Casper Ware and Dejan Vasiljevic provide the majority of the points for last year’s runners-up, though Brad Newley (10.9 points. 5.3 rebounds) comes off the bench to have an impact. They will need some big efforts from the depth however, because that will be the key in this match. As already mentioned, Bryce Cotton is an immense talent, and John Mooney has been great support with Todd Blanchfield a good third shooter. It will be up to the likes of Luke Travers and Mitch Norton as the other starts to really put some heat on the opposition early, and provide other options.
It is hard to pick a winner in this one, Sydney seem to be travelling better, but the Wildcats destroyed the Phoenix two starts ago, so anything could happen in this game.
ADELAIDE 36ERS vs. SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE PHOENIX
Tuesday, February 23 @ 7.30pm
The final match of the round will be the third meeting between Adelaide 36ers and South Melbourne Phoenix. In a twist of irony, the 36ers are playing at “home” at the Phoenix’s home court, for a blockbuster 7.30pm match. The return of Ryan Broekhoff will mean the 36ers will have their work cut out for them, with fellow Boomer Josh Giddey getting another taste of what some of his more experienced teammates can do. The future NBA talent has been doing well at NBL level, with a strong 9.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. Along with Tony Crocker (10.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.0 steals), the pair will look to provide support to the damaging duo in Isaac Humphries and Daniel Johnson. The Phoenix trio of Broekhoff, Mitch Creek and Keifer Sykes will be a delight to watch, but even the likes of Ben Moore (9.3 points, 8.5 rebounds) and Kyle Adnam (13.8 points) coming off the bench will mean the “visiting” team will have plenty of depth.
The Phoenix will be favourites for the clash, as they look to continue to move up the ladder, and they are only a couple of wins away from being outright second if results fall their way in Round 6.