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Sam Froling on how to beat the Sydney Kings

Written for nbl.com.au by Tom Hersz

It’s a new season in many ways. Every game counts from here on out and starting Friday night in Wollongong, the Illawarra Hawks will be out to do what only one Hawks team has done before – win a championship.

Standing in their way in the semi finals is their in-state rival, the Sydney Kings. It hasn’t always been a super-competitive rivalry as it’s been nine years since both teams were last in the NBL Finals in the same season. However, this year they’ve been two of the best teams in the league and also two of the hottest teams in the second half of the season.

Their games have been great contests with each one decided by 8 points or less and only a total of 24 points separating them across the four contests.

The Hawks have home court advantage in the series by virtue of their win last Sunday on the final day of the regular season. Had they lost, the series would have opened in Sydney, so it was really important for the Hawks to get that game.

“Yeah, it was massive for us,” Sam Froling told NBL Media.

“The fans there are so passionate. And the WEC, I think it’s such a tough place to play for these away teams; the fans are right on top of you. So, to get the first game here and, if it goes to three, potentially the third game here as well, it was huge for us.”

The Hawks had beaten Sydney in two of the three previous meetings this season, but were coming off an overtime loss the previous round.

So, going into that last game on Sunday, the Hawks’ mindset was about building on their great win in Perth last Friday, and they were completely focused on getting the win against the Kings.

“We wanted to win that game,” explained Froling.

“We wanted to finish second. That was the main thing. But, I think just carrying our momentum. Getting back-to-back wins against good teams in Perth and in Sydney and then flowing through into Finals with a win against them will do us a world of good for our confidence.”

The Hawks came out strong with a big first quarter, but had to hang on down the stretch to earn that win. It was an impressive way to close out the regular season.

Illawarra finished the season winning eight of their last nine games and 11 of their final 13. They went 11-3 over the second half of the season, a record that is only topped by the Kings who went 12-2 over that span.

But given their struggles in the first half of the season, where they lost six of nine games at one point, they seem to have found the right balance on both ends of the floor and are peaking at the right time.

“Yeah, for sure,” agreed Froling.

“There was a point in the middle of the season where everyone started to doubt us, and we easily could have crumbled and just let the whole season slip away, but I think AC [Antonius Cleveland] led us there. He brought a different kind of energy from those games and I think everyone bought into it, and we kind of took off and started playing.

“All the chatter of us being a waste of talent and a wasted team disappeared pretty quick. It’s a credit to the guys. There are a lot of guys out there that would have folded under the circumstances and we wouldn’t be where we are today, but the group we have and how we handled it was just … superb.”

Froling is one of 10 Hawks players that were there last season. In NBL21, the Hawks made the Finals for the first time since their Grand Final loss in 2017, taking the Perth Wildcats to three games in the opening round.

For eight of those 10 players, including Froling, it was their first taste of NBL Finals action and Sam certainly learned a lot from the experience that he’ll take into the upcoming series against the Kings.

“I think everyone’s level of play just goes to another level,” he said.

“You can’t leave anything in the tank, because if you do and you lose, then you’re going to have regrets at the end of it and feel like you could have done more.

“I think coming into these games you need to be ready to give it everything you’ve got and leave it all out on the floor, and be ready to handle what the other team does. You’ve gotta be super locked into the scout, they’re going to be just as locked in and there’s not much room for mistakes in these Finals series.

“So, mentally you have to be super prepared to come out and execute what we want to run, execute the scout and take care of business.”

The rivalry between the Hawks and the Kings has grown this season. Not just with the off the court talk, but on the court too.

There have been some great contests, both teams are building up their fan bases after some struggles in year’s past and each time these two teams have met, it’s been very competitive.

That competitiveness has, at times, spilled over into some argy-bargy, but that’s mostly because both teams want to win so badly.

So how do the Hawks view the Kings? Are they a nuisance? Are they just an obstacle in Illawarra’s way? Or is there more to it than that?

“They’re just another team that we have to beat, but you do get a sense of that rivalry,” Froling admitted.

“You learn that from the fans and the people here. The games that we sell out the most are the Kings games and they always tend to be the most fun. And it’s a lot of fun to play in those games when it’s like ‘they’re the team we want to beat’, cos you walk out of the arena and your fans are clapping you on. It’s such a good feeling.

“The rivalry’s not something to be scared of at all. It’s a great thing and it’s a great thing for both clubs to have someone that’s just up the road, but you just want to absolutely beat them every time you play them. And I’m sure they’re the same way about us. They’re super fun games to play in.

“I think that of the games that I’ve played in the NBL, the top three or four would be Kings games.”

Is that rivalry breeding any kind of hatred between the two teams? Do these games mean more?

It appears that way at times as there have been some heated moments this season, and that just makes the wins even sweeter.

“I hate losing any game, but those ones hurt and it was good that we bounced back against them on Sunday,” explained Froling.

“We have to beat them now. If we don’t we’re out, so that’s where our mindset is. But, for sure, they’re games we want to win.

“Even if purely for when we were walking out of the arena on Sunday and all the fans were booing. That got me excited. I was like ‘Yeah, this is fun handing you a loss.’ They’re all getting after you and you’re like ‘Yup, see you later. We’ll see you next week at our place.’

“So winning those games are a bit of fun.”

Speaking of heated moments, when the two teams met back in Round 2, it got a little chippy late in the fourth quarter. Froling and Angus Glover got tangled up, Glover took exception and went after Froling. It earned Glover an early trip to the showers.

On Sunday, Froling and Glover were jawing a little again. Then post-game, Sam’s older brother Harry exchanged some pleasantries with Glover. There seems to be something brewing between Glover and the Froling brothers, but Sam doesn’t see it as much more than some on court fun.

“He just talks a little bit,” Froling said of Glover.

“It was actually my fault after the game. He had a little wave at Harry when Harry air-balled his shot. Waved at him like a little smart-ass. And I was like, ‘Glove, you haven’t scored yet and you’re down 13’. So I had a little word to him after the game. I said ‘Bro, you just look like a bit of an idiot when you do that. Cut it out.’

“And then when I was halfway back to the locker room he turned around and started chirping and that’s when Harry and that got involved. But I mean, Glover’s like … I played with him, I lived with him at the BA CoE. It’s all good off the court.

“It’s just, that competition aspect gets a little heated. There’s no backward step from anyone out there. So, it’s fun while we’re out there, but then off the court we’re all good.”

Froling prefers to let his game do the talking and he’s certainly had another solid season to build on his breakout season in NBL21.

This season, Froling became more efficient offensively, improved on the boards, and maintained his strong defensive rating from last season.

He finished the regular season averaging 9.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. But most impressive has been his improvements offensively, where he set career marks for FG%, PER and offensive rating, plus offensive and defensive boards (per RealGM.com).

With a deeper roster, his usage is down and he’s had to adapt his game, but he’s certainly grown as a player.

“I think last year I kind of had to be a bit more of that third man up in scoring when we lost Bairstow and Adel,” Froling detailed.

“This year we bring in AC, Duop [Reath], Xavier [Rathan-Mays], and so those guys take up that scoring role a bit more. At the start it was a bit like, ‘Okay, what can I do to continue my impact on these games?’ and a big part of that was getting on the boards. Just trying to get every board I can and I have to be a guy that can guard.

“I had a little patch in the middle of the season where I didn’t feel like I was rebounding or guarding that well, but coming towards this back end, I think I’ve taken it up another notch and I’ve been pretty happy. I think Goorj has been happy with it and I just want to keep getting better there.

“But, for sure just getting on the boards and playing some good D. It’s funny, when I focus on that stuff, you find some points just fall your way anyway, whether it’s off an o-board or someone finds you when you’re running the floor, and so you kind of get rewarded for your hard work in all those areas anyway.”

With Froling’s improvement on the boards and his solid defence, his matchup against Xavier Cooks will be a key one in this series. Both he and Reath will have the task of trying to limit Cooks’ impact and Froling knows that’s no simple task.

“I think first and foremost, just keep him off the glass,” Froling explained.

“He’s such a good athlete and he’s such a talented player. If we can limit him to one shot and clean up the boards, or even limit them to one shot – not let him get in and around the hoop.

“Then, we’ll handle him whether we put a guard or we plug up the floor in transition, you know that’s another area [where] he’s really strong and that will be a focal point for us.

“But, I think the big thing with Xav is he’s such a high energy guy. He gets those boards, he pushes out in transition or he gets o-boards and puts them back in. You’ve got to outmatch his energy there and work a little harder to get the d-board and stop him from getting himself rolling and getting others involved.”

Another challenge for the Hawks’ defence, which ranked fourth in terms of points allowed and Defensive Rating in the regular season, is how to stop Jaylen Adams – the newly crowned league MVP.

Adams has struggled against the Hawks this season. In his two games, he’s shooting less than 30% from the field and averaged 15.5 points, 7.5 assists and also 3.0 turnovers per game.

Froling knows that keeping him quiet again will not be easy, but how they defended him has worked, so they’ll likely do the same. They also have the Defensive Player of the Year in Cleveland and he will play a big part in slowing Adams, but it will take more than just Cleveland.

“We’ll stick to our game plan with what we’ve been doing,” Froling explained.

“The showing on the on-balls and trying to get it out of his hands – which is how we’ve been guarding everybody this year. But he for sure is a handful, I mean he’s the MVP for a reason. He’s another super-talented guy that they have. I mean, they’ve got a very talented roster and they’re going to be no cake walk.

“But for him, it’s not just a one guy assignment, it’s a whole team thing. When he comes off on-balls, as bigs you’ve got to be there to help. When he’s iso’ing, we need to take away his three-ball and guys need to plug up the floor and help on his drive. If we’re really locked into the game plan and the scout, then I don’t see why we can’t beat them.”

That game plan is being developed by the most experienced coach in the league. Having Brian Goorjian – with his 6 championships and now, more than 800 games of experience – manning the sidelines in a Finals series helps.

And while the focus this week has been largely on rest and recovery to get the team fresh for this series, they’ll fine tune a few things but, the Hawks go into Game 1 on Friday night knowing they won three of four this season.

So, Froling and his teammates have a pretty good handle on the key things they need to focus on to beat Sydney again.

“We’ve got to slow them down in transition,” explained Froling.

“They have multiple ball carriers, so a little bit of that falls on our guards in the pick up points, but a part of it too is cleaning up the boards. I mean, one through five they’ve got talented players, so there’s no-one out there that can slack off.

“We’ve got to be locked into our game plan and our scout, but I think we’ve got to play hard and outmatch them in their energy and hopefully the cookie crumbles our way.”

It’s a new season now, but the Hawks feel like they have what it takes to advance.

 

The Illawarra Hawks host the Sydney Kings in Game 1 of the Semi-Finals at 7:30pm AEST on Friday night at the WIN Entertainment Centre.

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