R10 Preview: Brisbane Bullets v Illawarra Hawks

When: 8pm (AEDT), Saturday 7 December

Where: Nissan Arena, Brisbane

Broadcast: ESPN; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand

The last time

Brisbane 83 (Sobey 18, Cadee 16, Hodgson 15) d Illawarra 69 (Ball 19, Blanchfield 10), Round 5, AIS Arena, Canberra

The Bullets had this one done and dusted before Illawarra even knew the game was underway. Brisbane’s lead hit double figures in the first term, past 20 in the second period and was never closer than the final margin. Nathan Sobey and Jason Cadee did as they pleased, while Matt Hodgson cashed in on his guards’ aggressiveness and the Hawks’ lax defensive intensity in the opening half to have a throwdown party.

The now

It’s been two weeks since the Bullets have cashed in and right now it’s money time. If Andrej Lemanis’ men drop two this round to Illawarra and New Zealand is it all over? Maybe not quite, but they might need to win 10 of their final 14 to make the post-season from that point, and with six of those 14 against Sydney, Perth and Melbourne, that would be a tough ask for a team that has won consecutive games just twice so far.

The Bullets couldn’t have welcomed Illawarra to town at a better time, however, with LaMelo Ball sidelined, new import Darington Hobson not yet in town and no confirmation of the rumoured injury replacement for Sam Froling. The Hawks were thoroughly outplayed in Auckland last week, but in a heartening sign for their fans there was no capitulation as there was in blowout losses to New Zealand and Perth earlier in the season.

The stats

- Illawarra trailed by an average of 15 points at half-time in their first two double-figure losses of the season and lost by 29. In their previous two, they’ve trailed by 15.5 at intermission and lost by an average of 13

- In the Hawks’ past four games they were +14 with Ball on court and -13 with their Next Star resting. Over the opening eight games they were -83 with Ball and -12 without him

- Brisbane have leaked 107ppg in their past three games, allowing 59 per cent shooting inside the arc and 10 triples at 43 per cent outside

- The Bullets have won just one of their past six third quarters, with a points differential of -52 in those periods

The match-ups

Lamar Patterson v Todd Blanchfield – Incredibly, Vinnie has only shot double-figure field-goal attempts four times this season, three of them coming on the trot in a recent hot streak. Last week he jacked it up only five times as he watched Ball hoist 28. However, with Emmett Naar running the point this week there is no excuse for Todd not to work his tail off away from the ball, because the high-IQ Naar will find him in good spots.

In contrast, Patterson hasn’t failed to fire at least 10 FGA once this season, and while initially that was a positive for Brisbane, recently it’s become a serious concern. Lamar has landed just 29-of-86 (34%) in the past five games, of which unsurprisingly four have been losses. He’s also connected on just 5-of-22 trifectas in that span, and unless the Bullets’ superstar can regain his touch then his team’s slide will likely continue.

Nathan Sobey v Sunday Dech – There haven’t been too many positives for Illawarra so far this season, but Dech’s recent form is possibly the best. In his past four games, the combo guard from Perth has averaged 15.3ppg at 48 per cent from the field and 53 per cent from distance. Add to that 5.5rpg and 3apg and this kid is playing like a star, and that’s not even taking into account his spark at the defensive end.

His desire and athleticism will be important on D against Sobey, who for all his intent is suffering a similar malaise to Patterson. While his past four games have delivered 18ppg, 4rpg and 4apg, he has made just 17-of-51 from the field and 3-of-18 from deep in Brisbane’s past three losses. In their only win during that stretch he shot 60 per cent and 71 per cent respectively, and the Bullets desperately need his shooting game on song.

The quotes

It was the obvious question to ask, given in recent weeks Brisbane have been to opposition teams what English bowlers were to Steve Smith in this year’s Ashes series.

Like David Warner on home soil, the bats have been raised regularly by Bullets opponents, who have reached triple figures in the past three games.

“We forced them into 16 turnovers, so it’s interesting you say our defence was a problem,” coach Lemanis said to veteran scribe Greg Davis after his team’s loss to the Phoenix.

“We were able to be disruptive at times, it’s the consistency and effort of that, and our application to that over the course of 40 minutes.”

Lindsay Gaze might call forcing 16 miscues while leaking 110 points and losing a case of operation successful, patient died.

For Lemanis and Co, however, it’s a puzzle they need to solve, because at the moment they are opening up too many scoring opportunities through over-enthusiasm.

With a team that lacks athletic advantages at both ends due to their unbalanced line-ups, they need to be a little funky in how they defend and how they generate flow into offence.

There are two key reasons for that imbalance. The first is Lamar Patterson’s poor conditioning, which has taken him from a player able to exploit either four-men or small forwards to someone struggling to find a position.

The second and most important is the off-season injury to Mika Vukona, from which the legendary 37-year-old has not been able to recover his old form.

Vukona’s effective absence leaves Brisbane without a genuine four-man and, as they did extensively last season to make the playoffs, without someone who can compete as a mobile centre, something SE Melbourne exposed brutally last Saturday.

“We’re still just finding our rhythm and our way with that, what’s our best four-man rotation?” Lemanis said.

Vukona, Patterson, Taylor Braun, Reuben Te Rangi and EJ Singler have all spent time at power forward, but recently only one has been effective in more than spot minutes – Singler.

“EJ does a lot of things for us that sort of just make things happen that you don’t notice. At the defensive end certainly there’s the scrapping and doing a job on someone like Creeky,” Lemanis said.

“Offensively, (it’s) moving and getting to the right spots. We talk about the ball sticking a little bit, I think EJ’s ability to slash and read and be painful to guard makes a difference for sure.

“He got that fourth foul early on in the third quarter and I think that may have coincided with them starting to get back into the game.”

Singler was +1 against the Phoenix and is +45 on the season, while Brisbane have been outscored by 86 points with their unassuming import on the bench.

In reality, to be a successful disruptive team you need two quality, mobile defensive four-men to carry it off.

Under Lemanis, the Breakers had Vukona and Dillon Boucher, the Wildcats had Shawn Redhage and Jesse Wagstaff, and now Nick Kay, while this year’s Kings have Jae’Sean Tate and Craig Moller.

If Vukona can’t make a regular contribution, the Bullets have some decisions to make about what kind of defensive team they want to be over the rest of the season.

Whichever approach they take this week they simply cannot afford Illawarra a fast start.

The Hawks have regularly dropped behind the eight-ball early, including being down 12 to the Breakers last week, but in their three wins over Cairns they’ve been +21 in first halves.

“They jumped us at the start,” coach Matt Flinn said post-game in Auckland.

It was a similar feel last time against Brisbane, when they trailed by 20 less than 14 minutes into the contest.

“They jumped us at the start and we just didn’t come out ready to go,” Flinn said.

“We won the second half and kept them to 30, that was something we discussed at half-time, we tried to change a few things up a little bit … it was really disappointing again, the slow start and giving up 27 in the first quarter.”

In that first quarter Brisbane went wherever they liked, usually straight to the rim, as they racked up 14 points on 7-of-10 from inside and got to the free-throw line six times.

The same defensive malaise struck the Hawks last week in Auckland, and Flinn knows they must fix it to have any chance in Brisbane on Saturday.

“It was a pretty simple game plan, it was just lot of dribble penetration and a lot of points in the paint,” he said.

“We’ve got a bit of a catch cry here, we like to defend the two dribbles, I just thought at times they were able to get downhill a little too much on us and put scoreboard pressure on.

“Whenever teams do that, on the road it’s hard and it puts a lot of pressure on your d-trans, then it puts a lot of pressure on you at the other end and you’ve got to execute and make shots on the road to win.”


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