R21 Preview: Cairns Taipans vs Sydney Kings

When: 7.30pm (AEST), Thursday 21 April, 2022

Cairns Convention Centre

ESPN; Kayo; Sky Sports NZ

Who won last time?
Sydney 86
(Adams 24, Martin 15, Vasiljevic 13) d Cairns 77 (McCall 21, Deng 20, Kuol 15) – Round 15, Cairns Convention Centre

After Cairns hit the opening five points, Jaylen Adams scored eight of the next 13 to spark a 32-10 run bridging quarter-time that effectively ended the contest, Ian Clark and DJ Vasiljevic adding 15 of their own in that burst. The Snakes got the margin within single figures on four occasions but weren’t good enough at either end to make a real charge.

What happened last start?

It was a similar story for the Snakes in Melbourne, where they briefly sneaked away in the second term and made the champs work throughout, but despite the staggering play of Ben Ayre, they were never really a chance to win. It was improvement for Adam Forde’s men, however, who let it run down their leg in a 29-point loss to United eight days earlier.

That would be an apt description for Sydney’s performance against the plucky 36ers, blowing any chance of claiming the minor premiership with their inability to stop Dusty Hannahs or keep Daniel Johnson and the Sixers’ backcourt off the offensive glass. Now the Kings must topple the Taipans, or be in danger of slipping to third or fourth by Sunday.

Who’s in form?

Ben Ayre – When you’re a member of a club that includes only Bryce Cotton and Jaylen Adams you must be doing something right. That’s the NBL22 club Ayre entered last round when he dropped 20 points and 10 assists, and more impressively he did it on the league’s best defence, shooting 4/8 from deep, 6/7 from the stripe and having just one cough-up.

Jarell Martin – Rell was unreal against Illawarra last round, running up 21 points at 78 percent, including 3/4 from range. Not surprisingly, Sydney were a game-high +10 in his 31:36 and -5 in the rest. It’s also no surprise that with Martin sidelined last Sunday, the Kings’ winning streak ended, and now they must beat Cairns without him to stay clear in second.

Who needs to be?

Tahj McCall – The Snakes’ unorthodox import sizzled last time against Sydney with 21 points on 4/9 from range, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals, the all-around brilliance he showed early in NBL22. Last round he dished 14 dimes to 3 turnovers, and a repeat of that efficiency will give Cairns a chance, while his D on Clark will be crucial with Jaylen Adams out.

Ian Clark – You shouldn’t give a sucker an even break, and some soft Clark defence allowed Hannahs to get started. Once Dusty had popped, he couldn’t be stopped and Sydney need their prize recruit playing on both sides of the ball, or else Bul Kuol could add to his rookie record of three-pointers made, given he’s already dropped 8 triples in two Kings clashes.

Who’s statting up?

 - Cairns average 82.5ppg against the Kings, third-highest of any opponent, and 70 shot attempts, second highest. That is because Sydney have forced just 11 turnovers per game, whereas the Snakes cough it up 15.3 times against the rest of the NBL

 - The Kings have grabbed 70 percent of available d-boards against Cairns, compared to 75 percent against all other teams. Last Sunday against Adelaide they pulled in just 62 percent and were beaten 23-6 on second-chance points

 - Keanu Pinder has averaged 18.2 points at 62 percent, 9.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists in his past six games

 - Xavier Cooks has averaged 17.3 points at 65 percent, 10.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.5 blocks in his past four contests

Who’s matching up?

Keanu Pinder v Xavier Cooks – Kez is making headlines lately, but when he had his chance to step up against Cooks and Martin in Round 15, he produced just 2 points and 2 rebounds in 17 minutes. He’s scored in double-figures in his past six, and his ability to exploit Cooks’ tendency to help on penetration is a key for Cairns to spoil the Kings’ party.

It’s rare Pinder faces a big who matches his energy, but Cooks is that man. In the final 11 minutes in Wollongong, when others were running in mud, X had 7 rebounds, including 2 o-boards, to own the possession game. It’s no surprise a sizeable chunk of Sunday’s Sydney crowd was chanting MVP when the league’s best two-way player was at the foul line.

Who’s talking the talk?

Do you think Ben Ayre is looking forward to taking on the mighty Sydney Kings?

“I look forward to every game to be honest, I just want to get back out there and hoop,” he said matter-of-factly.

Ayre played like a kid with a new toy at Christmas in Melbourne last round, talking trash, firing up teammates and making plays that belied his status as a six-game injury replacement player.

“I'm thankful for Ben going out there and playing the way he did because he led with his energy and enthusiasm and guys followed suit,” coach Adam Forde said.

The pint-sized 26-year-old seems to come out of nowhere, but he’s been on Forde’s radar for a while.

“We would have had him in earlier in the season, at practice we had a really unfortunate accident, him and Keanu in a rebounding contest collide and it ruled him out for two months,” Forde revealed.

“With all the injuries we've had we would have seen Ben out of the floor earlier but it was great, I'm happy he was able to get the opportunity in front of his family and in his hometown, and his hometown was booing it and he loves it.”

Now the Taipans need to take care of their own home crowd, going 4-8 at the Snakepit so far this season, with five double-figure losses including a 29-point stinker in their last turnout.

“I think we need to do a better job than some of the performances we've put on our home floor,” Forde said.

“I think there have been games where we've really let the crowd down so if anything, we want to redeem ourselves to the fan base more than anybody.”

To do that, they’ll need to overcome a Kings team that is mighty pissed about dropping their last home game to Adelaide and dropping any chance of home-court advantage through the playoffs.

“I thought to start the game and to start the second half our starters did a great job of setting the tone, getting us a lead, playing well, then our bench group came in and pissed it away, it was terrible,” coach Chase Buford said.

“Maybe this will refocus us, we’ll try to look at silver linings of ways we could turn it into a positive, but I don’t think it does us any good to lose right now.”

The reality is a loss to Cairns will make Sunday’s clash with Illawarra do-or-die to keep a hold of second place and home court in the semi-finals, while two losses could even see them slip to fourth.

The other reality is they enter this game without Adams and Martin, who between them average 36.2 points, 13.1 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals, while dropping 4.6 triples at 39 percent.

Adams’ absence opens the door for a Ben Ayre encore and allows Tahj McCall to sweat on Sydney’s other guards.

Martin missing sets up a pair of intriguing battles for Next Star Makur Maker with Majok Deng on the perimeter, and later in the game Nate Jawai inside.

Deng has shot 15/27 from range in his past six games and scored 32 points in 58 minutes in two games last round.

Yet while there will be some tough match-ups, with Xavier Cooks, DJ Vasiljevic, Ian Clark, Maker, Shaun Bruce, Wani Swaka Lo Buluk and the returning Angus Glover, there is more than enough talent to win.

Buford believes the 36ers showed them up for desire, however, and his team needs to “get back to that dog in us that carried us so well for a large part of the year”.

“I think we got out-competed. I don’t know if it was tired legs, busy week, we probably could make a lot of excuses, but at the end of the day they just wanted it more than us,” he said.

“It was apparent on the offensive boards for sure, but just 50-50 balls, little plays, they were just the first to it all night and we were second best.”


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