Who: Sydney Kings v Illawarra Hawks
When: 7.30pm (AEDT), Saturday 9 January
Where: Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre
Watch: Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ; NBL Live App
Last time they met: Illawarra 102 (Lisch 23, Penney 21, Ogilvy 17) d Sydney 83 (Carter 17, Garlepp 17, Thornton 17), Round 11, WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
THE MATCH-UP Josh Childress v Kirk Penney – This battle is a mismatch at both ends in man-to-man defence, with Penney too slippery off the ball and Childress too long and athletic with it. Expect both teams to mix up their D, but this pair is also the key to busting zones – Penney from outside, Childress at the hoop.
THE STATS Sydney have given up 100, 96 and 102 points in their three games against the Hawks. The Kings are 0-13 when opponents score more than 85 points, with 12 of those losses by double-figure margins.
Illawarra have dished out 58 assists and coughed up just 31 turnovers in this season series. In contrast, the Kings have recorded 39 dimes and 45 turnovers.
Thursday’s second half against Melbourne was like a microcosm of the Hawks’ season.
In the third term they watched as United piled on 36 points – including 24 at 73 per cent in just over five minutes to finish the quarter – giving up everything from dunks to wide open threes.
Coach Rob Beveridge made some changes at the break and his team emerged a different defensive unit, holding Melbourne to nine points in the opening seven minutes on 2-of-8 shooting.
“Being a veteran group we actually respond and evolve on the fly quite well,” forward Oscar Forman said.
“Bevo throws a lot of stuff at us at training. We will run something once and then in a game he’ll say remember we did this, go do that. To the group’s credit we usually do it quite well.”
They have also grown into a quality defensive side over the first three months of the season.
In their opening nine games the Hawks forced 15 or more turnovers just twice. Since then only Cairns and Melbourne have coughed up less than that figure, with Illawarra forcing an average of 17.9 against other opponents.
“We have evolved, we worked out pretty quickly that if we’re a team that likes to score and shoot the ball we’ve got to have the ball,” Forman said.
“It took a few games for that to click for us, but we worked out if we play hard D - and we’re a group who can do that - playing hard D’s going to allow us to get the ball and shoot it more often.”
The key has been buy-in to Beveridge’s trademark pressure defences, and with two games inside 48 hours the Hawks’ boss said their recovery will be crucial to playing at high intensity again on Saturday.
With Josh Childress back in purple and gold, and guards Jason Cadee, Rhys Carter and Marcus Thornton at their best in the open floor, tired full-court defence will likely be punished by the Kings.
But Beveridge is adamant he won’t be adjusting his style because of fatigue or fear that Childress may unleash in transition. “We play a style of game that we have to play, it requires us to run up-and-down the floor so it’s a mental game as well,” he said. “We will be doing that, I won’t be saying play it in the half-court because Josh Childress is good in the open court. We’re playing our way.”
Beveridge described his team’s third quarter against Melbourne as bone-headed, a particular concern their cheap fouls which put United to the charity stripe and allowed them to break the Hawks’ flow.
Sydney shot 22 free throws to nine against Cairns, and if they can similarly force Illawarra to advance the ball against set defences they are in with a shot, but if Kirk Penney and Kevin Lisch can regularly flow into offence, the Kings’ ball-screen and rotation defence will be sorely tested.
Last meeting against Illawarra Cadee produced five points on 2-of-7 shooting and had more turnovers than assists, the Kevin White led defence rushing the 24-year-old to create the fast-paced tempo the Hawks thrive in.
A composed Cadee is a different proposition, running sets to find Childress in preferred spots and create shots for Tom Garlepp, Angus Brandt and Jeromie Hill that drag AJ Ogilvy and Co away from the hoop. Without that the Hawks’ interior defence becomes a tough nut to crack.