HERE we are, the final round of the 2018/19 National Basketball League (NBL) season. We arrive at this point knowing three teams are locked in, but fourth position is still up for grabs for Adelaide and Brisbane, as is the top three order, as Perth, Melbourne and Sydney vie for a home court advantage first up, locked on 17 wins apiece. A Valentine’s Day double-header fronts Round 18, but with the Breakers and Hawks out of finals contention, they will be keen to finish the season strongly, while there might not be any love for Cairns as United make their mark. The Wildcats and Kings have good games this weekend against the 36ers and Taipans respectively, before the final game of the round on Sunday between Melbourne and Perth will allow fans to gaze into the future, where these teams could meet again the following week.
New Zealand Breakers v Illawarra Hawks
Thursday, 5:20pm at TSB Arena
The key matchup: Tai Wesley v Brian Conklin
Wesley has had his best year in the NBL with the Breakers this season, and his season-high 23 points last week highlighted just how much he has improved. His points are up 2.3 on his best year (2015/16), with 3.5 assists while going at 1.2 blocks a game too. Those numbers are not dissimilar to star Shawn Long, which is why Wesley is so important to the makeup of this New Zealand team. Conklin has been a delight to watch for Hawks fans, averaging 16.7 points in the last 10 games, averaging 5.3 rebounds across his 27 matches. Not one to be on the outside (he is only attempted eight three pointers this season for one made), inside the paint he can lay it in, or can use his jumpshot to effective use, but can pass the ball around well with 2.2 assists.
Last time they met: New Zealand Breakers (96) defeated Illawarra Hawks (81)
The Breakers never gave up a lead, especially after being up eight points at the first break, and 17 points halfway through the third quarter. Shawn Long (24 points at 66.7 per cent, 11 rebounds) and Tai Wesley (23 points at 71.4 per cent, seven rebounds, two assists) were running riot for the Breakers. For the Hawks, it was all Brian Conklin, scoring 20 points, and gathering four rebounds, helped by Jordair Jett (14 points, six rebounds).
Season so far: Both these teams will say they have had underwhelming seasons, but both have been close at times. The Breakers lost a close one to Adelaide, ruling them out of finals, a win over Illawarra not enough to do more. The Hawks lost between the Bullets and Breakers in another end to their season.
The game: With both these teams out of finals contention, they’ll be playing for pride in a season where both should have been better. New Zealand were among the contenders for quite some time before a fall, and Illawarra were always in and out of games. The key to this game will be how they both hit the three point shot. When they met last round, Ilawarra shot at 26 per cent outside, whereas the Breakers were magnificent at 54 per cent from the field.
Melbourne United v Cairns Taipans
Thursday, 7:50pm at Melbourne Arena
The key matchup: Casper Ware v Melo Trimble
The matchup most fans will be there to see are between two of the best point guards of the competition. These two will be running off their feet at Melbourne Arena, and everyone can expect a tantalising battle at the buckets. Ware has impressed this season after taking a few game to get to his best, now averaging 19.3 points a game and in 26 games this year, 13 have been 2 plus. Trimble is second in the league for points at 22.6 per game, and his records across the last months are well documented – 26.3 points over the last 10 games. These two guys are second (Ware with 4.9) and third (Trimble with 4.5) for assists across the league. Either way this game pans out, Ware and Trimble will be at each others throats, in the good way.
Last time they met: Melbourne United (99) defeated Cairns Taipans (89) in OT
United took this one into overtime thanks to a spectacular 22-11 run from the within the final minute of the third quarter, until the end of the game. United then shot the first 12 points of the extra period as Cairns only managed to score eight in the five minutes. Casper Ware was electric with 27 points, six rebounds and five assists, as was Josh Boone with 15 points and 15 rebounds. David Barlow also chimed in with 24 points and five rebounds. But a mammoth effort by Cairns’ Melo Trimble in which he scored a league-high 42 points was a special sight to behold to all those in attendance.
Season so far: United won against Adelaide after losing to the Kings earlier in Round 17, but are second on the ladder. Cairns surprised Brisbane with a 79-68 win for their fifth of the year, taking away a large chunk of Brisbane’s finals chances.
The game: Melbourne have already secured a home final, but it remains to be seen who they’ll play. It’ll be a see-sawing affair in parts but the strength of United might prove too much for the Taipans. United have the capabilities to take the game on, or at the very least, silence the opposition with clutch plays. United have scored 24 points or more the last quarters in three of their last five games, and need big quarters like those to stop the Taipans. The Taipans will know this year hasn’t been their year but will take solace in the fact that they’ve pushed many teams, and could do so again with United in an effort to ride into the off-season on a good note.
Perth Wildcats v Adelaide 36ers
Friday, 9:50pm at RAC Arena
The key matchup: Bryce Cotton v Nathan Sobey
Cotton has once more chance to prove why he could be the MVP, while Sobey will showcase why he should be in the talks a bit more. Cotton is rarely letting his team down, and so too Sobey. If one thing doesn’t succeed for Sobey, he makes up for it in other ways like 5.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists. He can shoot the ball at a good percentage too when he’s on song so the 36ers will be hoping for that this time too. Cotton will work rings around Sobey, but the level-headedness of Sobey will see he wont take any games. Cotton is leading the league for points (22.7), but all these high scores are coming at dwlindling percentages, so watch out for when he could fire.
Last time they met: Perth Wildcats (100) defeated Adelaide 36ers (81)
A 29-11 third quarter was everything the 36ers didn’t want as that set the Wildcats up for a win. Perth were 50% from the outside as Clint Steindl went five of seven from range on his way to 19 points with four rebounds and a steal. Nicholas Kay was also had 16 points, along with eight rebounds and assists each, along with a block. Jacob Wiley did a lot for Adelaide where he contributed 18 points and six rebounds, and Majok Deng played the game of his life when he netted 19 points and four rebounds off the bench.
Season so far: Perth beat the Kings last week to cement top spot, but have Melbourne and Sydney breathing down their neck. Adelaide are clinging to fourth spot, with a win over the Breakers and loss to United last week.
The game: Adelaide need a win but it won’t come easy in Perth. Thanks to Wildcats’ perfect start to the season, they’ve only lost two at home by a combined three points. With a five game winning streak, Perth win when it matters and to them, this game matters in regards to where they finish within the top two and who’ll they’ll play the first week of finals. Adelaide have won three of their last five over Perth, but haven’t scored over 200 combined points in eaither of those games. Both teams have a strong core, with young players coming off the bench, as well as experienced heads that know the game. Adelaide will be lead by Nathan Sobey who will create as much chances as he can, as he’s instrumental all around the court, and with so much on the line, he’ll be edging his teammates on to get the job done.
Sydney Kings v Cairns Taipans
Saturday, 2:50pm at Qudos Bank Arena
The key matchup: Jerome Randle v Melo Trimble
Not all of Sydney’s scoring this year has been on Randle, who is fourth on the league’s scoring (18.7), as handy contributions by Kevin Lisch (14.0) and Andrew Bogut (11.6) have helped the Kings. But Randle has averaged 24.0 over the last three games and had nine assists too against Perth. Both these players are speedy and move the ball well in tight situations, but Trimble can shoot freely too, which is what Randle has to be careful of. Trimble had 11 assists in Round 16 and regularly gets the ball off of his opponents to create a fast break chance.
Last time they met: Sydney Kings (86) defeated Cairns Taipans (82)
Sydney were given quite a scare at times late in this game, especially when the Taipans hit the lead twice throughout the fourth quarter after being down by 14 points in the third. Within the last two minutes, Kevin Lisch (18 points) and Jerome Randle (16 points, four rebounds, five assists) were important in the Kings’ 9-0 run. Andrew Bogut was a monster all-round with 15 points, 17 rebounds and three assists. Cairns were competitive through Melo Trimble (22 points, six rebounds, five assists) and Nate Jawai (16 points, eight rebounds, seven assists).
Season so far: The Kings won over United but then lost to Perth, meaning they can’t finish above their placing of third anymore. Cairns won their fifth game of the year against Brisbane as they look to end the season on a good note despite a last placing.
The game: Cairns will be hoping for two wins to end the season, dashing Sydney’s momentum heading into a finals series. With Cairns finishing last anyway, they’ve been using their bench a lot, but big name players are still the forefront of the team. Sydney have had a 62.5 per cent success rate at home this year, losing to the Hawks and 36ers along the way, while being pressed by Cairns in overtime back in Round 3. Cairns’ use of the ball as a team, where every player gets responsibility is a large part of why they’ve remained competitive, and a need to be at the post when on the offensive end is what the Kings will be wary of.
Brisbane Bullets v New Zealand Breakers
Saturday, 7:50pm at Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre
The key matchup: Matthew Hodgson v Shawn Long
While not at the heights of Long, Hodgson has performed well in his fourth year of NBL action. He’s got career-best averages in points (9.7), rebounds (6.2) and assists (1.0) and is shooting well at 64 per cent. Probably the in-form player of the competition at the moment, Long has averaged 26.7 points in his last three games, and 18.0 overall this season. In the last three games also, he is gathered 12.7 rebounds, and has 9.1 as a season total so far. The big man who’s become known for his blocking too, had five in the one game against Illawarra last round.
Last time they met: New Zealand Breakers (109) defeated Brisbane Bullets (96)
Brisbane shot the first four points of the game, before the Breakers piled on the points. The Bullets led another two times but by no more than three, as the Shawn Long downed 23 points with six rebounds, assisted by Patrick Richard (16 points, 10 rebounds, three assists). Lamar Patterson (18 points, five rebounds, two assists) and Cam Gliddon (16 points, three rebounds, two assists) were good for Brisbane.
Season so far: Brisbane’s latest run of games has not been the makings of a team destined for finals, but they have still got a chance from fifth after a win and loss last week. The Breakers were also one and one in Round 17 and are seventh of the ladder.
The game: Brisbane are not all done, relying on the Perth and Adelaide result and can do well against the Breakers, but need to fire on all cylinders for a side that is won two of their last four at home. They’ve won one of their last five first quarters, whereas the Breakers have won six first quarters from the last eight games. Brisbane will want to take their time and not rush too much, as they’re shooting percentage needs to be high, or rather have plenty of attempts to put the pressure on the Breakers. The Breakers will contend strongly with Shea Ili and Shawn Long there to stop the offensive run, but Brisbane have shown all this year that they have shooters in all the right places.
Melbourne United v Perth Wildcats
Sunday, 2:50pm at Melbourne Arena
The key matchup: Josh Boone v Angus Brandt
While a lot of attention will be on the scorers Casper Ware and Bryce Cotton, both these teams in order to win will need to be able to defend exceptionally well, and it comes down to these two men. Boone has been getting the job done for United week-in, week-out. He’s averaging 8.8 rebounds a game with a season-high of 16 earlier in the season. In seven of the last nine games, he’s score 10 plus rebounds (six being double-doubles). It’s down on his previous season-averages but his blocks have become more prominent (1.5) and steals are at 0.7. Boone’s assists are up to 1.5 and is scoring well too (11.6). Brandt hasn’t had a great impact this season but he had 19 points and nine rebounds against the Kings last week, so could be riding high. He’s averaging 6.0 rebounds a game this season, which is an improvement on his previous years within the NBL. Shooting 55 per cent from the field, but for an average of 7.9 points, Brandt will be looking to help his team enter the finals on a good note.
Last time they met: Perth Wildcats (84) defeated Melbourne United (79)
A 13-point quarter-time lead to Perth, was improved upon by United, but they couldn’t get a proper lead as Bryce Cotton scored 27 points with six assists. Nicholas Kay also provided some great moments for Perth with 18 points and 14 rebounds. Melbourne’s five were firing, but it was Mitch McCarron (21 points, nine rebounds, five assists) who was steering the ship for the defending champs.
Season so far: Perth’s five-game run of wins see them atop the NBL ladder heading into the final round, but with a 17-9 record (prior to the round) the same as United, it’ll be a close finish. United, after losing to the Kings and winning against the 36ers, are second.
The game: The final game of the regular season and it couldn’t be matched any better. The top two teams at the beginning of the round, each will have played a game until this point, meaning that this game has serious implications on where they will finish. With the same record heading into this round, and Sydney close by (but without the extra game in hand), these two quality sides will prove they’ve got the best teams in every position on the court. Perth haven’t won in Melbourne since 2016, but a lot can change. The raucous crowd will be getting behind United, in a masterful fixture where both teams contend with the championship in their sights. These two are matched on the defensive end, except when it comes to blocks (Melbourne leads 4.5 to 1.6) so Perth shouldn’t take too long to decide to put up a shot.