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R18 Preview: New Zealand v Cairns

Who: New Zealand v Cairns Taipans When: 3pm (AEDT), Sunday 7 February Where: North Shore Events Centre, Auckland Watch: 9GEM; Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ; NBL Live App Last time they met: Cairns 90 (Gliddon 23, Starks 19, Bruce 14) d New Zealand 87 (Abercrombie 23, Cedric Jackson 20, Pledger 12), Round 16, Cairns Convention Centre THE MATCH-UP Cedric Jackson v Markel Starks – It’s no surprise Jackson’s horror run coincided with the Breakers’ down patch, nor a shock his return to form has his team winning again. Starks is starting to rediscover his best after injury, seven straight games in double figures including a stunner against New Zealand a fortnight ago. THE STATS Jackson has averaged 18.8 points and 1.8 turnovers in his past five games, compared to 9.6 points and 4.4 miscues in the previous five contests. Cairns concede 87.9 points per game on the second leg of double headers, compared to just 81.8 in their first game of a round. THE STORY Cedric Jackson is undoubtedly one of the greatest point guards to set foot on an NBL court, having led the Breakers to an unprecedented three championships in his first three years, and on Wednesday in Adelaide it was clear he’s not ready for that streak to end. But the signs of a Jackson-led revival have been surfacing for the past three rounds, and they were obvious for keen observers against Townsville last week. After a torrid first half, the Breakers players trudged slowly to the changerooms with their heads down, in stark contrast to their opponents who quickly cleared the court. The defending champions looked like a team on a six-game losing streak, but not Jackson. Despite carrying an obvious injury he jogged to every teammate and gave them ‘five’ to lift their spirits, before chatting strategy with coach Dean Vickerman. The former league MVP then opened the second half with a trifecta, knocked the ball away from Mitch Norton, stole an errant Clint Steindl pass, swooped on a Corey Webster deflection and fed Alex Pledger for a fastbreak lay-up, forced Jordair Jett into a travel, and took a charge on a Clint Steindl drive as the Breakers pulled clear. “Ced just drove us tonight, it was really important,” coach Dean Vickerman said. “His attack on the rim, it was just outstanding play to get Charles Jackson that dunk down the stretch.” The story was similar on Wednesday in Adelaide, Jackson breaking the 36ers’ hearts with seven triples. While his perimeter outburst caught many by surprise, he has shot the three-ball at 38 per cent over the past eight games, including 4-of-9 against the Taipans two weeks ago. “I’ve just been taking what the defence gives me and just shooting the ball with confidence. My shot was falling tonight and we definitely needed a big spark up,” he said. Cairns take Jackson on at the other end, Shaun Bruce scoring 31 points at 63 per cent in the teams’ past two meetings, including a crucial burst that got the Taipans back into the contest in Round 16. Import Markel Starks also took his turn testing Jackson’s defence, finishing with 19 points in that game, punctuated by some big plays down the stretch. While the Breakers will want Jackson at full throttle on Sunday to exploit the Taipans’ fatigue, he’ll have to be more switched on the other way or else Starks could be the circuit breaker again. “He’s great in transition and that’s what we need him to do,” captain Cam Gliddon said. “I don’t think many of our guys come down and shoot early shots, but that’s something we want Markel to do, to come down there and probe and then reverse the ball. “He took some great shots at the end and made some huge plays.” THE WRAP It’s almost mission impossible the Taipans, who have less than 42 hours between crucial games played in Cairns and Auckland, but if they are to make the Finals they must beat the Breakers and then hope they end up in a three-way tie on 14 wins with New Zealand and Adelaide. Torrey Craig, Cam Gliddon and Mark Worthington have been standout contributors of late, Matt Burston rock solid, and the Taipans are starting to get more regular cameos from Starks, Cam Tragardh, Stephen Weigh and Alex Loughton to punish the help defence. New Zealand copped a big break facing Adelaide without Jerome Randle, and if they can capitalise on Cairns’ tough schedule the defending champs will be back in the top four by Sunday night. Jackson, Corey Webster and Tom Abercrombie are starting to roll again, while Alex Pledger is looking like the pre-injury Pledgehammer around the basket. The Breakers’ depth is their weakness, but do the Taipans have the legs to constantly attack the rim and get their stars into foul trouble?
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