THIS round of the National Basketball League (NBL) begins back in Melbourne, with United hosting their first game in a while against Illawarra. The Australian Open (AO) Game (where a ticket acts as a ground pass to the Australian Open too) was a special occasion last year, and Basketball Australia and Tennis Australia have done wonders to form this alliance again. Cairns will again be out to spoil the makings of the top four as it takes on New Zealand, while Sydney and Brisbane will be a battle that will be looked back on at season’s end. The 36ers have two good chances to stamp their claim on making a surprise return to finals, with match-ups against Perth and Melbourne. The Wildcats will also be tested when they travel to meet ladder-leaders Sydney. The NBL returns to the nation’s capital for the first time in 10 years with Illawarra striking a deal with the Canberra Government, and will therefore play Cairns on Australia Day.
Melbourne United v Illawarra Hawks
Wednesday, 7:50pm at Melbourne Arena
The key match-up: Mitch McCarron v Todd Blanchfield
McCarron was a great performer for United in their loss to Perth, shooting a season-high 21 points, along with nine rebounds and five assists. McCarron usually comes up clutch for Melbourne, and last week was no different. If United are to win, they need players like McCarron stepping up. Blanchfield has been well held against Melbourne this season, shooting a combined 22 points in two games at a an average of 44 per cent. Against New Zealand last week, he was on song with 21 points, seven rebounds and two assists so he’s one that also wants to end the season well, but will have a lot of focus on him.
Last time they met: Illawarra Hawks (87) defeated Melbourne United (81)
Melbourne led for a large portion of the first quarter, but Illawarra got out to a game-high lead of 15 points within the third quarter, enough of a lead that United, although gallant, couldn’t recover from. The Hawks had 39 bench points, as they were led by David Andersen who scored 18 points at 70 per cent along with four rebounds. Brian Conklin was also a major reason for the Hawks’ win with 15 points and eight rebounds. For United, Josh Boone was the standout with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Season so far: United had a shock loss to the out-of-sorts Wildcats and gave up a chance to clinch top spot at the end of the round. Illawarra won against the Breakers and sit sixth.
The game: These sides have good history, with Melbourne holding a 2-1 lead over the Hawks so far this season. However, recent form is different. United have won three of the last five, and Illawarra the same, averaging 98 points in its last three matches. The Hawks have shown recently they can beat the top teams (Sydney and Perth in the last six matches) and are more than capable of beating United. United have the star power that makes then legitimate finals contenders with Casper Ware and Josh Boone always combining with each other. The Hawks have changes since their last meeting and don’t fall out of games nearly as much now, something that undid them earlier in the year. United should blast out early under the open Melbourne sky to avoid any catching up. United shouldn’t rely on their stars like in previous weeks though, with Illawarra boasting some good talent especially with silky players Jordair Jett and AJ Ogilvy off the bench. Melbourne hasn’t played at Melbourne Arena in some time but the fans will come and with eight wins from the last nine games at home, it should be a happy time.
New Zealand Breakers v Cairns Taipans
Thursday, 5:50pm at TSB Stadium
The key match-up: Tai Wesley v DJ Newbill
Wesley had six points against Illawarra last weekend, but 20 points in the match against Cairns. He ran all around the Taipans with six rebounds and four assists too. Wesley is a pillar in defence when he needs to be, averaging 1.6 blocks a game (second in the league). Often unnoticed, Wesley should have plenty of attention on him and his opponent, Newbill will stick to him like glue. Last round, Newbill had 16 points and four rebounds and he’s draining threes like there’s no tomorrow. He needs to be better within the arc, not going over 50 per cent in his last six outings.
Last time they met: Cairns Taipans (106) defeated New Zealand Breakers (98)
This was a game that couldn’t be decided after 40 minutes, as Cairns, who had only led six short times, were the better team in overtime to get the win. Cairns had one of the best games of the season, as Melo Trimble (32 points, five rebounds, five assists) and DJ Newbill (16 points, four rebounds) were good in extra time with Nate Jawai bouncing back strongly with 18 points and seven rebounds. For New Zealand, Shawn Long and Tai Wesley each had 20 points with nine and six rebounds respectively, and the former with four assists and three blocks too.
Season so far: Cairns was outclassed by Brisbane, before beating the Breakers at home to sit with a 4-17 record, albeit last. The Breakers endured a horror week, losing to fellow dweller Illawarra and Cairns, ending most hope at four games behind in seventh.
The game: It was only last round that these two met, and seventh versus eight could be a good watch. The Taipans will want to claim another scalp as they end their season on a high for the fans. The Breakers will probably be low on confidence after disturbing losses last week that put them way behind. They hold the home court advantage but have a 4-5 win-loss ratio at home this season.
Brisbane Bullets v Sydney Kings
Friday, 7:43pm at Brisbane Entertainment Centre
The key match-up: Cameron Bairstow v Brad Newley
Bairstow, despite a 20-point game in Round 13, has scores of eight and nine, and before that, he was cruising with six double-figure games in a row. With plenty of fire power in Brisbane’s starting five, Bairstow still deserves to be there (51 per cent from the field, and leading three pointers with 61 per cent). His rebounds are big (5.2) and he needs them against the mighty Kings. Newley too has fluctuated recently, but he’s never been about big numbers. He’s had two consecutive games of six rebounds and three assists, so his talent lies there, with an ability to create turnovers and steal the ball away.
Last time they met: Sydney Kings (75) defeated Brisbane Bullets (68)
Not exactly a game that was too exciting, but although Sydney led from the fourth minute, Brisbane tied the game twice in the third quarter. Sydney was just more dominant from the field and deep, as Andrew Bogut had a double-double with 14 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Jerome Randle also had 17 points including 66.7 per cent from outside to go with four rebounds and two assists. Brisbane had Lamar Patterson continually keeping them in the contest as he ended the game with 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Cameron Bairstow also had 17 points and eight rebounds.
Season so far: Sydney was outclassed by a clinical Adelaide outfit but managed to stay in first at the completion of the round. Brisbane was too good for Cairns and remain fourth.
The game: A tough assignment for the Bullets as they look to compete with the best ahead of finals. A win here would see them leapfrog Perth into third, with a bit more relief over their aspirations to playing in the post-season. The Kings have every incentive to win too with Melbourne breathing down their neck for top spot. Sydney will know past history is out of the question (winning the past four against the Bullets), as much is on the line. Both of these teams’ fringe players will be just as vital as the big men and huge scorers. Bogut was fouled out early last week and if the Bullets get on his nerves again, they could do what the 36ers did last week,.
Perth Wildcats v Adelaide 36ers
Friday, 9:43pm at RAC Arena
The key match-up: Terrico White v Nathan Sobey
White is often in the shadows of likes of Cotton and Nicholas Kay but the 28 year-old is leaving nothing on the court. Before the Melbourne match-up, he was averaging 17.7 points in the six games prior, including two games over 60 per game. Against United, he shot at 20 per cent for nine points, but it’s known he gets back up quickly with his good vision of passing and intercepting. Sobey is a master across the court, as his eight assists last week as good as anyone else. He knows how to fill the stats column, but puts his body on the line for his team. He’s gone one for nine outside in his past three games but still fires on multiple other cylinders.
Last time they met: Adelaide 36ers (97) defeated Perth Wildcats (84)
A third quarter 23-14 lead to Adelaide put all doubt beyond the Wildcats, given the slump they were in. Since the seven-minute mark of the first quarter, Adelaide never surrended the lead. Adelaide had plus 16 in rebounds, with Harry Froling bringing down eight, while many others had seven including Daniel Johnson (17 points, four assists). Terrico White made four of seven from deep for Perth as he top-scored with 24 points with five rebounds.
Season so far: Adelaide had a lot of success last round, beating Perth first of all and then the Kings later in the round. The 36ers sit fifth, but aren’t too far away from entering the top four. The Wildcats lost to the 36ers, but backed it up with a win over United to keep themselves in the third place.
The game: Perth fans will still be nervous heading into this game despite a win over Melbourne last weekend. The Wildcats can’t afford anymore hiccups from here, and would be keen to continue along on a winning path yet again. The 36ers are dangerous and their starters are probably the best in the league in terms of how much they wok together. It’ll be telling for the 36ers too as they want to win to put a bit more pressure on the Bullets. Perth needs to make use of the home court advantage, but expect a scare from the 36ers since they’ve won four of their last four on the road, putting up over 100 points in each instance.
Illawarra Hawks v Cairns Taipans
Saturday, 2:50pm at AIS Arena
The key match-up: Jordair Jett v Melo Trimble
These are two pocket-rockets of the competition, and they had a good battle the last time these teams met in Round 8. Jett has dropped less than 10 points in three of his last six games, and two of those were below 29 per cent. Jett is usually what the Hawks need off the bench and has relished the last two weeks (30 points at 61.8 per cent). He averages 1.7 steals, which Trimble will need to be careful of, as he averages 3.4 turnovers a game. It’s hard to put forward any argument against Trimble given his recent form (30.2 points in the last five, dropping below 50 per cent once in the last six). When he is on, he’s hard to stop but it’ll be a mammoth effort from the Hawks.
Last time they met: Illawarra Hawks (95) defeated Cairns Taipans (84)
This game was a lot closer than it shows, with the Taipans leading for most of the first quarter. The Hawks then took the lead and led by five at that break, never breaking stride after that. Cairns shot a whole 9.9 per cent less than the Hawks, attempting more shots but to no avail. Illawarra wasn’t throwing it all away, keeping composed, with Todd Blanchfield ending with 20 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Melo Trimble had 19 points, three rebounds and five assists in his side’s loss.
Season so far: The Hawks kept themselves with a chance of a playoff spot with a win over New Zealand, but still need some big wins. Cairns is progressing late, going one win and one loss last week, but will remain last.
The game: These two sides’ record against each other isn’t too exciting, with just one game in the last four having a margin of under five points. But the Taipans are the biggest improvers in the league, as they both look to build into next season. There could be some experimentation but overall, it’s a chance to see some confidence heading into the off-season. Hopefully this will be a good contest in Canberra that can have some bearing on how locals perceive basketball in that area of the country.
New Zealand Breakers v Brisbane Bullets
Sunday, 12:20pm at Spark Arena
The key match-up: Jarrad Weeks v Jason Cadee
Weeks has been largely unnoticed by opposition teams, but more should be seeing what he’s doing. He’s regularly getting good scores (including 22 points against Illawarra). He collected eight assists (a season-high) against Cairns in a sound game the Breakers had to win, but couldn’t. Cadee is also highlighting the part of his game which sees him provide good looks to his teammates. He averages 4.2 a game and like Weeks, he isn’t afraid of shooting anywhere on the court, being a headache for the opposition team, especially when shooting at 77.8 per cent like last round.
Last time they met: New Zealand Breakers (85) defeated Brisbane Bullets (84)
Adam Gibson‘s two free throws with 14 seconds to go were big in helping the Bullets claim an unlikely win. But Tom Abercrombie had other ideas, nailing a jump-shot with three seconds on the clock. Abercrombie had 15 points overall, as well as five rebounds and three assists. Patrick Richard was the best with 21 points, six rebounds and three assists. Gibson for the Bullets had 17 points, a four rebounds and assists apiece.
Season so far: The Breakers aren’t out of the question but devastating losses last week would’ve hindered their spirits sitting seventh. Brisbane is holding onto fourth spot, with a big win last week helping.
The game: The Breakers get another home game this round, and need their inside team to fire. This is a huge test for the Bullets if they’re serious about playing finals, they need to win this important game and when they’re on a roll, it’s hard to stop them banging in threes to extend their leads. Given the Breakers’ losses last week, they’ll want to show the league they can still play.
Sydney Kings v Perth Wildcats
Sunday, 2:50pm at Qudos Bank Arena
The key match-up: Andrew Bogut v Angus Brandt
Bogut was found out against Adelaide last week, fouled out of the game early, meaning inexperienced pair Dane Pineau and Ray Turner had to try to step up in that centre position. Bogut won’t want a repeat situation, but against Perth, he’ll know he needs to stop their crashing of the rim, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of him fouling. Bogut is lauded for his blocks still (at 2.9) and this is a key component of his game. Brandt knows Bogut well from this season but has been off in the defensive department lately. He’s still pulling down big rebound numbers (5.2), but hasn’t had a block seven games.
Last time they met: Sydney Kings (98) defeated Perth Wildcats (97)
The Wildcats built themselves up all game and had a 15-point lead towards the end of the third quarter. Jerome Randle (22 points, three assists) saw the result even with 33 seconds to go before Bryce Cotton (26 points, five rebounds, five assists) converted two free throws at the death. Then, David Wear (18 points, six rebounds) came up clutch, netting a three for a special win away. Angus Brandt was good for Perth with a double-double, collecting 12 points at 85.7 per cent, with 11 rebounds and two assists.
Season so far: Sydney slipped against Adelaide but didn’t give up its spot on top, while Perth’s run is still on the downward despite a win over last year’s champions.
The game: Even with Perth’s recent troubles, this game should still be touted as the match-up of the round. The Kings fans will certainly rally behind their team in this contest. These teams are two of the worst shooters in the league but are somehow first and third, so this game will be solely relying on defence.
Adelaide 36ers v Melbourne United
Monday, 7:50pm at Titanium Security Arena
The key match-up: Nathan Sobey v Casper Ware
These two are very similar in that they like to take the game on. Expect plenty of drives to the bucket, shooting from deep as well as run and vision to spot teammates in good positions. Sobey is electric on court, averaging 16.3 points at 46 per cent and a 5.2 average in both rebounds and assists. Rarely been shut down this year, Ware will be on him and will hope to limit Sobey’s impact. Ware himself has had a stellar season averaging 19.8 points and 4.8 assists a game. He had a minor hiccup last week in not converting a lay-up to give United the win, but it shouldn’t be dwelling on him as he knows he can come back from it.
Last time they met: Adelaide 36ers (103) defeated Melbourne United (101)
United had the three-quarter time lead but a 28-19 final quarter from the 36ers allowed them to snatch defeat. Both teams shot at over 52 per cent from the field and were evenly matched throughout the statistics. Casper Ware was the play-maker in the last minute for United, but missed a lay-up. He still scored a massive 26 points with three rebound and five assists. Six Adelaide players all scored double-digits with Ramone Moore the best of the bunch with 18 points at 77.8 per cent, five rebounds and five assists.
Season so far: Adelaide went two from two last week and remain a chance for finals, whereas United had a chance to get top last week but lost to Perth unexpectedly.
The game: This game will have plenty of attacks from the 36ers with their classy passing and leading assists. The defensive prowess of United will be in play as well in stopping a lot of shots or gathering loose balls. The fleet of 36ers’ starters might be too hot for United to handle away but they need to trust in their team and the fact they’ve kept heir last three opponents to under 96 points, although have lost two of those games. United need to make sure of their chances and take their time, otherwise the result will get away from them.