Hungry Jack's NBL
R8 Preview: Illawarra Hawks v Cairns Taipans
When: 7.30pm (AEDT), Monday 25 November
Where: WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
Broadcast: ESPN; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand
The last time
Illawarra 101 (Ball 24, Dech 21, Andersen 17) d Cairns 91 (Djeric 19, Oliver 16, Machado 12, Newbill 12), Round 6, Cairns Convention Centre
If you want to see what the Hawks are capable of, watch this game. While the 10-point margin suggests a competitive encounter, it wasn’t. The visitors were never headed, led by 16 points in the second quarter thanks to an evergreen performance from David Andersen, and had answers to every Cairns mini-challenge thanks to LaMelo Ball and Sunday Dech.
The Taipans didn’t take that inept performance lightly and responded with two emphatic home wins over Brisbane and Perth, their 31-14 final-quarter crushing of the ‘Cats their best basketball of the season. Cairns are now just 1.5 games out of fourth place, but with three of their following four against Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, a win this Monday is vital.
Illawarra won’t be thinking playoffs, but a third straight win over Cairns will move them out of last place, and with only one of their next seven games against the top three they can put their slow start behind them, especially if they can lock in a second import soon to give them more offensive punch. They’ve made huge defensive strides in the past four weeks, with a significant part of that being their improvement in the possession game.
- Illawarra have kept opponents to 86.8ppg in their past four games, with no score above 92 points, compared to 98ppg in their opening six outings with four opposition scores above 92
- The Hawks are +25 in the possession game in two meetings with Cairns, pulling in 17 more o-boards and committing eight fewer turnovers
- In four Taipans wins, they have committed nine less turnovers than their opposition and won points from turnovers by 30. In six losses, they’ve coughed up 44 more miscues and lost points from turnovers by 47
- Cairns are 3-1 against the top three teams, 1-5 against the rest and 0-2 against the last-placed Hawks
Todd Blanchfield v Kouat Noi – While Noi certainly wasn’t the Snakes worst in Round 6, he’s been a lot better since, pounding Perth and Brisbane for 39 points at 61 per cent, 16 boards, 5 assists and nailing 8-of-17 from outside. Blanchfield had just 13 points in total in three straight Hawks losses, but showed signs of life against Brisbane and Cairns, then exploded for 22 points at 64 per cent and 3-of-5 from range as Illawarra almost dethroned the Kings.
LaMelo Ball v Scott Machado – He may be one of the finds of the season, but Machado had no answer for Sunday Dech’s defence two weeks ago, leading to a largely ineffectual game with 2 assists, 4 turnovers and just 5 field-goal attempts. At the other end, he couldn’t find ways to disrupt Ball, who produced his best professional outing with 24 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, 2 steals, 5-of-11 from deep and a game-high +14. Expect Scotty to bounce back.
Illawarra’s Matt Flinn was a proud coach after his team’s performance against Sydney in front of over 17,000 people last week.
“It’s been a whirlwind for us, the start of the year, we played like something like six games in 18 days,” he said.
“Finally, with a young group you get time together and you can put plans in place and they execute the plans.”
And for Flinn, those plans are looking good.
“The more preparation we have with this group the more cohesion you're seeing, and some of the system we’re now running is tough to stop,” he added.
While this main seem a little off the mark for a team that lost – and has dropped eight of 10 – the reality was their second-half defensive performance in Sydney was enough to beat any team in the competition, and they were desperately unlucky not to get the W.
“At half-time I challenged them to dig in defensively and they responded. I think we kept them to 19 and 21 in those quarters, so whenever we do that we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win,” Flinn said.
“The most pleasing thing for me is we’re responding and growing so much defensively and that’s what you’ve got to do to win games.”
Perhaps what really gives Flinn reason for optimism is the Sydney performance came on the back of their stunning road win over Cairns, where their defence went to another level.
“I think everyone saw tonight the level at which we train at, and we spoke about it a lot, we don’t want to see anything on the floor that we don’t see at training. And tonight we saw how consistently competitive we are at practice,” Flynn said post-game.
“We've been leaking points hard, so we've been doing a lot of work in that area just trying to fix our one-on-one containment and some of our schemes.
“We've got a very young group, that’s been well documented, so we've been trying to really apply the attention to detail in those areas.”
For Cairns coach Mike Kelly, it was simply an embarrassing performance at home, highlighted by the visitors grabbing a remarkable 27 o-boards from 45 missed field goals.
“Illawarra came to play and I didn’t think we did, and it was a one-sided game,” he said.
“I really don’t know the reason behind it. They came in and played harder than us.”
The defensive energy from the Hawks, led by Dech and Ball, forced the usually methodical Taipans out of their sets and into an up-and-down game they weren’t equipped to win.
“I think we short-circuited some things, some sets we were trying to run on offence, when they got stops they were able to run freely, and it helped them get a rhythm offensively,” Kelly said.
“There were some things we were trying to get done that didn’t get done, which resulted on quicker shots on our end, and a real flow for them offensively when they got stops.”
Cairns’ two losses to the Hawks – their only triumphs of the season – are the difference between Kelly’s men sitting fourth or seventh on the Hungry Jack’s NBL ladder.
That’s seventh with a bullet, however, after two huge home wins over Brisbane and Perth in the past two weeks in which they have remedied their turnover issues.
Perhaps most importantly, their stunning comeback from 12 points down against the Wildcats showed the Taipans’ recent history of fourth-quarter wobbles might be in the rear-view mirror.
“As far as a half or a fourth quarter, that was big time for us. It’s something I think we can build on for these guys believing in what we’re doing every day,” Kelly said.
“The guys did it with that belief first. You’ve got to make plays, and they kept believing that if we make a few plays one possession at a time we can build on that. We preach that, but until you do it I think it’s harder to believe that.”
So now they front up in the ‘Gong ready for vengeance, but face a fresh and confident Hawks outfit who have won the possession game in their past four outings by a combined +25.
In their two losses to Illawarra, the Taipans have taken almost as many three-point attempts as twos, but Kelly is hopeful their second half against Perth has rid them of that habit.
“First half we weren’t in the paint as much as we needed to be. We do shoot threes and we’re happy with open uncontested threes, but do want to get downhill and get feet in the paint first. We started to do that and guys started to make shots,” he said.
And while a 48-hour turnaround with more than 2000kms of travel isn’t ideal, in their current form the Snakes just want to keep playing.
“The way that everybody stepped up and backed each other that whole fourth quarter, it’s a great time to keep building on what we've been trying to do,” Kelly said.
“They get that opportunity to do it now on the back of a really good fourth quarter. We’ll try to keep that momentum and growth going.”