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R14 Preview: The Warm Up

The Cairns Taipans and Illawarra Hawks tackle crucial doubles in Round 14 with the Snakes needing to stay in touch with the top four while the hot Hawks can further consolidate their spot. The Taipans are in danger of falling out of the semi-finals hunt coming off a minor premiership and Grand Final appearance leading into the home double in Round 14 at home to the Perth Wildcats and Townsville Crocodiles. Meanwhile, the Hawks are a far cry from the wooden spoon team of last season with their big three on fire under the coaching of Rob Beveridge. Road wins in Round 14 against Melbourne United and the Sydney Kings will go a long way to securing their top four position. Round 14 starts on Wednesday night in Cairns when the Taipans face a must-win match up against the league-leading Wildcats. The 'Cats remain atop the ladder at 14-7 despite losing their last two games of 2015 on the road to the Crocs and United. With Perth Arena unavailable due to the Hopman Cup, the Wildcats are playing their last of a five-game road run. While the Wildcats need to win to remain on top by the end of Round 14, the Snakes just need a win to stay in touch for the playoffs. Cairns is 7-11 so can't afford too many hiccups. The Taipans have been good at home this season six of eight and they need that form to continue this weekend starting against Perth. The Snakes will be sweating on the fitness of key players Markel Starks and Stephen Weigh as they attempt to stop Nathan Jawai from having a second memorable return to Cairns this season. Next up on Thursday is the only contest of the round featuring two teams inside the top four when Melbourne brings basketball back to The Cage to host the on-fire Hawks. The winner will go a long way to securing a playoff berth while the loser will leave themselves vulnerable to the chasing Taipans and Sixers. United hit back with crucial wins prior to the New Year over Sydney and Perth following a three-game losing run, but the challenge against Illawarra is the biggest in the league right now. The Hawks enter 2016 in stunning form with AJ Ogilvy teaming with Kevin Lisch and Kirk Penney to form a potent big three. With a strong band of role players, they won seven of the last eight games of last year to improve to 11-7. In those eight games they averaged almost 102 points a game with an average winning margin of over 20 points. Not only have the Hawks been offensively dynamic, their full-court pressure defence has made life difficult for the opposition and that's something Melbourne will need to counter to win Thursday. Friday features a massive double header starting in Auckland with the Breakers hosting the 36ers in a must-win for both as well. New Zealand has lost a bit of momentum losing two of its last three to slip to 11-7 and to be just clinging to fourth spot ahead of the 36ers and Taipans. The Breakers will be banking on the return of Tom Abercrombie who missed the New Year's Eve loss in Cairns but Mika Vukona could miss after a nasty fall at practice on Tuesday. If Vukona does play, he will notch his 350th appearance in the NBL. Adelaide, meanwhile, will be playing for the first time since beating Melbourne on December 23 and need to keep winning to remain a chance of making the playoffs again having lost in the semis last season to the Breakers. The second half of the Friday double is the third Reptile Rumble of the season as Cairns hosts Townsville. The Taipans will not have fond memories over the last meeting when the Crocs started 25-2 before winning 90-76. The Snakes will be backing up hosting the Wildcats on Wednesday while the Crocodiles are looking to hit back from a 24-point loss at home to the Hawks on New Year's Eve. Chris Cedar is set to replace the injured Corey Maynard for the Crocs in what will be his first NBL appearance since March 2013. It's then on to Saturday night for the final game of the round at Sydney Olympic Park Centre as the Kings host the Hawks in the fourth and final NSW derby of the season. Illawarra has won the previous three meetings by an average of 13 points but Sydney has been in some encouraging form of late. ROUND 14 NBL FIXTURES (local times) WEDNESDAY Cairns Taipans v Perth Wildcats (Cairns Convention Centre) – Fox Sports 3, 6.30pm THURSDAY Melbourne United v Illawarra Hawks (State Netball & Hockey Centre) – Fox Sports 3, 7.30pm FRIDAY New Zealand Breakers v Adelaide 36ers (North Shore Events Centre) – Fox Sports 3, 7.30pm Cairns Taipans v Townsville Crocodiles (Cairns Convention Centre) – Fox Sports 3, 6.30pm SATURDAY Sydney Kings v Illawarra Hawks (Sydney Olympic Park Centre) – Fox Sports 3, 7.30pm
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