R11 Preview: Illawarra Hawks vs Cairns Taipans

When: 5.30pm (AEDT), Saturday 12 February, 2022

WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong

ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sports NZ

Who won last time?
Illawarra 94
(Harvey 24, Jessup 17, Cleveland 15, Reath 15) d Cairns 75 (McCall 19, Pinder 15, Ngatai 12) - Round 9, Cairns Convention Centre

After a tight first half the Hawks’ class shone through, a 14-6 run to start the third creating the buffer, then a 19-5 burst ending the game with Tahjere McCall fouled out. Tyler Harvey, Antonius Cleveland and Justinian Jessup combined for 29 points in those two runs, while Jessup and Sam Froling combined for 23 rebounds as the visitors dominated the glass.

What happened last start?

The Hawks did plenty right against South East Melbourne last Monday but couldn’t come up with a much-needed win as poor decision-making down the stretch took its toll. Brian Goorjian’s men led by three with 40 seconds remaining, but overly-enthusiastic plays from Cleveland and Xavier Rathan-Mayes allowed the undermanned Phoenix to claim the road W.

Cairns claimed their first away triumph of NBL22 in Brisbane to move to 3-4 and stay in touch with the top four. In a game played at high speed the Taipans managed the madness better, finding open men in transition and dominating the offensive boards against the Bullets’ scrambling defence. Having a rookie drop eight trifectas was also mighty helpful.



Who’s in form?


Bul Kuol – That rookie was Kuol, who came into the NBL as a shooter, quickly earned his reputation as a defender, then hosted his coming out party at Nissan Arena. Bul constantly found open spots on his way to 8/10 from range, and has hit 13/23 the past three games while averaging 15.7ppg to show he must be respected, especially by the Hawks’ zone.

Tyler Harvey – Kuol will lock horns at times with Harvey on Saturday, who has downed 61 points in the past three games on 9/21 from range and 48 per cent overall. Pleasingly for the Hawks, who feel they haven’t got much love from the whistle, Harvey got to the foul line nine times against the Phoenix, his total free-throw tally from the previous six games.

Who needs to be?

Sam Froling – In the Hawks’ past three wins Froling has averaged 18.7ppg and 10rpg, while in the past four defeats those numbers slump to 8.0ppg and 5.5rpg. The good news for Illawarra is Sam got his offensive game going against South East Melbourne, scoring 17 on 7/9, with 12 of those from the restricted area. He needs to punish Cairns’ aggressive D inside.

Tahjere McCall – There is a lot to like about McCall, who ranks sixth in the NBL in plus-minus differential per 36 minutes. His past three games have produced 18ppg, 7.0apg and 6.7rpg, but he has coughed the ball up 20 times. With Illawarra reliant on opposition errors to generate their offence, McCall needs to curtail his offensive enthusiasm just a touch.

Who’s statting up?

 - McCall leads the Snakes in points, assists, steals, free-throw attempts and ranks second in rebounds

 - In losses, the Taipans average 74.3ppg and have not scored above 78 points. In wins they average 88 and have only once scored below 93

 - In four games in December the Hawks forced 16.8 turnovers and pinched 10.5 steals per game. In the new year, they’ve forced just 12 cough-ups and averaged 6.5 thefts per night

 - Statistically, Illawarra rank third offensively (109.6) but third-last on defence (110.1), while Cairns rank fourth defensively (104.6) but ahead of only the JackJumpers on offensive rating (101.5)

Who’s matching up?

Duop Reath vs Majok Deng – Things are turning for Reath, with 40 points, 20 rebounds, seven assists and seven blocks across his past three games, and importantly 3/7 from range against the Phoenix. Duop hit 10 triples at 38 per cent across his first six NBL games, but just three at 27 per cent in his next five. When he’s stretching the floor, the Hawks are hard to guard.

The same is true of Deng, whose NBL teams have been 9-3 when drops three or more triples. He’s only done that once this season, but in the win over Brisbane found other ways to contribute, shooting 6/8 from two-point range and 8/8 from the foul line, those 20 points from ‘ones and twos’ the second most of his career behind the 24 against Perth in Round 5.

Who’s talking the talk?

Don’t think Brian Goorjian and the Hawks will be taking Cairns lightly on Saturday evening.

“This team presents a lot of difficulties,” he said after his team’s Round 9 win in the far north.

“Athleticism, coach has them playing so hard on the defensive end of the floor, switching, in the lanes, pressuring.”

That relentless ball pressure gave the Hawks plenty of issues two weeks ago, shooting 38 per cent in the opening 28 minutes, with only their offensive rebounding against the rotating defence keeping them in a winning position.

But as the game wore on Illawarra gained composure, Tyler Harvey, Duop Reath and Co exploiting switches with penetration from the top of the key.

“We played better, we moved the ball better, we rebounded better, and not only did we win but I thought we played well,” Goorjian said.

“It’s handling their pressure and getting a good shot. I thought as the game went on we started to work it out and get good shots with ball movement.”

In the final 12 minutes, the Hawks scored 35 points at 65 per cent to ease away to an ultimately comfortable win.

It started with three-straight triples to finish the third term to spread the D, then in the final stanza the visitors scored 20 of their 26 points from ‘ones and twos’ as the bite went out of the undermanned Taipans.

“It's nothing to do with the personnel, because we’re not a team of plumbers and electricians,” coach Adam Forde said afterwards.

Early on the Hawks could not defend their ball-screen action, be it McCall spinning to the basket or Keanu Pinder and Stephen Zimmerman rolling to the hoop.

Cairns scored 40 of their 56 points from the paint or free-throw line in the opening 28 minutes to cause Goorjian some serious concern.

“They really hurt us with Pinder and Tahj and the roll-outs from the on-ball and I thought we did a little bit better as the game went on,” he said.

Eventually though, the lack of offensive punch from a backcourt lacking Scott Machado and Mirko Djeric took its toll as points from on-balls dried up.

“Illawarra’s a very dynamic team, they’ve got a very mobile four and five combo with Sam and Duop out there,” Forde said.

“They posed some challenges for us, looking to the bench knowing we could match that level of athleticism, especially when they were getting after the on-ball screens.”

The Taipans found a nice balance in their win over Brisbane, scoring 44 points in the paint, 39 from the three-point line, 15 at the charity stripe and 16 on the break.

It was Cairns’ best offensive performance of the season, but it had to be.

“We couldn’t defend, we couldn’t protect the paint very well,” coach Forde said.

“Thankfully we made a whole bunch of shots too. If you told me we’d have to roll in here and score 102 points to get the win I would have been nervous, but I’ll definitely take it.”

For Illawarra, the prospect of McCall and possibly a returning Machado in the middle on-ball is another big challenge for their inconsistent defence.

“We came out and really struggled in the same areas, the defensive area,” Goorjian said after the loss to SEM last round.

“That first quarter I don’t know that we got a stop. Then we mixed up our defence, got some stuff out of our zone, out of our 1-2-2, but struggled all night with Xavier (Munford), zone or man, in the middle pick-and-roll.”

In a league of great guards they need to fix that issue. With nine of their final 15 games after Saturday on the road, this is a must-win game, and Hawks fans are about to find out what this year’s incarnation is made of after a Cinderella run in NBL21.

“We’re definitely not having fun right now, but I'm saying that’s not a bad thing,” Goorjian said.

“It’s part of getting tough, getting nasty, going to some place where we haven't been before. We’re playing under pressure, and there wasn’t a lot of that last year.”


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