R20 Preview: Illawarra Hawks vs Sydney Kings

When: 7.30pm (AEST), Thursday 14 April, 2022

WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong

ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sports NZ

Who won last time?

Illawarra 97 (S Froling 27, Harvey 23, Rathan-Mayes 16) d Sydney 89 (Martin 23, Swaka Lo Buluk 17, Cooks 16) – Round 7, WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong

The last Freeway Series clash was way back in Round 7 and it was one of the most remarkable roller-coaster rides of NBL 22 as Sam Froling and Jarell Martin put on a frontcourt show. Sydney led 11-0, but the Hawks were six up by quarter-time.

The Kings moved seven clear early in the second, but Illawarra were up 10 three minutes into the third. Sydney got five ahead early in the fourth on a big Xavier Cooks jam, but Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Sam Froling sparked a 20-4 run that sealed the deal.

What happened last start?

The Hawks sealed the deal very quickly in Brisbane last week, the frontcourt of Antonius Cleveland, Duop Reath and Froling scoring their first 13 points as they race to a 32-15 quarter-time lead, and were 22 ahead by midway through the second. The Hawks scored 58 points in the paint and won possession points 32-21 in an ominous pre-playoff performance.

The same couldn’t be said of Sydney, who were outscored 60-52 in the first, third and fourth terms by a plucky New Zealand. While they impressively held the Breakers to 10 second-quarter points to secure the W, with Ian Clark sidelined and both Adelaide and the Breakers finding ways to slow Jaylen Adams, the Kings’ offence has stalled and needs a jump-start.

Who’s in form?

Duop Reath – His past two have been impressive – 23.0ppg at 61 per cent, 10.0 rebounds and 4.5 o-boards – but Duop’s been in it for the long haul, with double-figure scoring in 15 of his past 16 games and five or more boards in 14 of his past 15. His first meeting with Sydney produced 27 points and five o-boards, but the second just six points and four boards in total.

Xavier Cooks – Reath scored 24 of his 28 points against Brisbane from inside five feet, but that won’t happen on X’s watch, setting up a great battle of post-ups and pick-and-pops. At the other end Cooks will attack the hoop early and often, having scored 52 of his past 56 points inside the paint, and all 30 against Illawarra this season from the key or foul line.

Who needs to be?

Sam Froling – Samson has quietly developed into a high-class ball-screen defender, and that will be key against Jaylen Adams, who if given time can make plays for himself and others and make it look easy. In two meetings with Sydney, Froling has averaged 18.0ppg, 11.5rpg, 2.0apg, 2.0spg and 1.0bpg, and the Hawks have been +19 with him on the floor and -3 without.

Sydney’s shooters – The past two games were anything but pretty offensively for the Kings, failing to reach 85 points for the first time in eight weeks as their marksmen struggled to fire in the absence of Clark. While they still squeaked out wins over New Zealand and Adelaide despite firing plenty of blanks, those misses will be like outlet passes for Antonius Cleveland and Co.

Who’s statting up?

 - In their past two games, Sydney averaged 80 points on nine made triples at 30 per cent. In their previous seven wins with Clark playing they scored 95.9ppg on 11.3 triples at 41 per cent

 - In those seven games with Clark in the line-up, Jaylen Adams averaged 22.4 points at 55 per cent from the field. In his other 12 outings, Adams has scored 18.3ppg at 37 per cent

 - In wins, Illawarra are +12.4 per game with Antonius Cleveland on the floor, but just +0.9 with him resting. In losses they are -6 per game with AC on the floor and -3.5 with him on the bench  

 - When Cleveland dishes three assists or more the Hawks are 8-0 and averaged 94.3 points. Across the rest of the season they are 9-8 and score 86.6ppg

Who’s matching up?

Antonius Cleveland v Jaylen Adams – Bryce Cotton has been the NBL’s best across the full season and Adams the standout from Round 12-18, but with the Kings’ star cooling off without Ian Clark and Shaun Bruce, the competition’s hottest performer right now is Cleveland, whose defence, rebounding, scoring and playmaking is the complete package.

AC has delivered 19.2 points at 56 per cent, 7.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.8 o-boards in his past five games, but where he’s really changed the Hawks is his tiger-like defence on opposition play-makers. Whether Cleveland goes to Adams at tip-off or mid-game, this battle will have the biggest say on who sits in second place on Thursday night.


Who’s talking the talk?

The Kings were flying. Back-to-back wins where they finished off quality Perth and JackJumpers sides before they even got going with two of the best opening quarters seen in NBL22.

But not anymore. While Sydney built their streak to 12 – and their road run to eight straight – there was not a lot to love about their wins over cellar-dwellers Adelaide and New Zealand.

“I don’t want to say we've turned it off, but our switch hasn’t been as turned on as we were the previous few weeks, both in practice and in games,” coach Chase Buford said.

“I think we have to know we've got to stick to what got us here.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to come out and be up 15 in the first quarter, but it means we've got to stay true to our principles, stay true to our habits and I think if we do that a little bit better to start games we’ll be in a better position.”

Illawarra have faced a similar challenge, with a pair games against Brisbane over the past two rounds, but they’ve kept the foot to the floor.

“They were on all cylinders and understood the importance,” coach Brian Goorjian said after his team wiped the Bullets 108-77.

“To hold Patterson to three points, to hold Cadee to three points, that puts them in a situation where they're not going to win. The guys did a really good job there.”

Perhaps the reason there is no let-up is the fact their master coach is never content.

“There’s little things we can improve on,” he said post-game.

“I thought we got a little sloppy with the ball, we got in foul trouble in the second quarter with a lot of time left.

“Guys got a lay-up and you foul him, he puts it in and gets to the foul line, and now you’re in the foul count with four minutes to go.

“We had little patches at the end of the second quarter, end of the third quarter where we were sloppy with the ball.

“We won the game by 30, but it’s just trying to get ready for what’s ahead and getting better.”

And what’s ahead has Goorj bubbling with excitement.

“To be honest with you there’s another feel now,” he said.

“You got into this stretch and we've got Phoenix twice who was top (two) at the time, we've got Melbourne on their home court twice, those are huge games, we lose any of those games we’re not secure in this thing, you might not make it.

“Now we've moved to a point where now we’re playing for positioning … we’re playing with that money, let’s see how we roll and where we roll. We've got the playoffs coming up, I’m excited, chest to the wind, head up.

“We've got a beautiful game at home against the Kings, the best team in this thing, then we've got that (Perth-Sydney) double on the road, we’ll be hardened going into the playoffs no matter which way they go.”

It's a similar scenario for Sydney, who are expected to take care of Cairns and the 36ers on the run home, but their two clashes with Illawarra we’ll likely decide whether they have home-court advantage in the semi-finals.

The match-ups are breathtaking in what some are describing as a potential game of the season on Thursday night.

Duop Reath has the ability to stretch Xavier Cooks away from the glass, but does he have the speed to stay with him going the other way?

Antonius Cleveland is the best perimeter defender in the NBL – will his length trouble Adams and force him to non-preferred spots of the floor, or will Jaylen’s much-lauded composure allow him to get to the other side of the ball-screen?

Will Ian Clark play? And if he does, who gets the better of the battle of the sharpshooters between he and Justinian Jessup?

Can Wani Swaka Lo Buluk keep a leash on Tyler Harvey? Can Sam Froling limit Jarell Martin? And will Angus Glover get the job of shadowing Xavier Rathan-Mayes off the bench?

If any team has the length, athleticism and open-court prowess to match Sydney it’s the Hawks, and Chase Buford is well aware of that.

“They're playing terrifically right now, they're playing better basketball than we are the last few weeks for sure,” he said.

“It’s going be a heck of a game, we’ll have to be ready, we’ll have to be turned on ready to guard them, ready to attack when we can.

“They're the only team we haven't beaten this year so we’ll be fired up trying to get some vengeance.”


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