Hungry Jack's NBL
Studs and Duds: Round 20
At the conclusion of each round, NBL Media’s Liam Santamaria lets us know who made the grade and who deserves a little shade.
Another tremendous Indigenous Round is in the books – well done to everyone involved.
It was a week where the entire NBL – all the clubs, players, coaches and fans – focused on recognising, acknowledging and celebrating Indigenous culture and basketball across both Australia and New Zealand.
The jerseys looked spectacular, the Welcome to Country ceremonies were terrific and it was great to see recognition throughout the week of some of the deadly Indigenous ballers that have lit up our league over its history; guys like Claude Williams in Sydney, Kerry Williams in Cairns and Michael Cedar in Townsville.
Of course, as Reconciliation Australia’s theme for 2021 states: ’More than a word. Reconciliation takes action.’ Which is why it was even better to see this year’s Indigenous Round highlighted by the debut of the league’s first female Indigenous referee, Jacqui Dover, and the signing by the Sydney Kings of exciting young talent Biwali Bayles.
After all, a key element of the NBL’s landmark Reconciliation Action Plan, launched in November last year, involves developing pathways and opportunities for Indigenous people in basketball. These are really important steps towards a brighter, better future.
These guys are like your favourite barista, they just continue to get the job done.
Four weeks ago the Hawks were two games below .500, on a three-game losing streak and were having all kinds of trouble putting points on the board.
But with the masterful Brian Goorjian at the helm they have worked their way through those problems and are now within a single win of making the finals.
It began by just grinding teams down defensively but, over the past few weeks, the Hawks have become a more balanced squad, peeling off seven wins from their past eight games.
Sure, all of those victories have come against the bottom three teams. And yes, they’re still highly reliant on Tyler Harvey’s offensive wizardry. But they’re also now receiving contributions from right across the roster.
Take Tim Coenraad, for example. That man has stepped out of the coaching staff (!) and onto the roster, and is straight-up making it rain right now. In fact, over their past three games the 35-year-old has knocked down 8 triples at a sizzling 50 percent clip.
Sam Froling is balling, Justin Simon and AJ Ogilvy continue to bring the energy and all their reserves – guys like Emmett Naar and Isaac White – have elevated their production.
All that has brought them right to the precipice of making the finals. A win tonight against Perth – or against the Kings on Thursday – will be enough to lock them in.
Tyler Harvey (Illawarra Hawks)
Before we move on, let’s show some extra love to Harvey as just continues to kill it for this team.
Ranked third in the league for scoring, Harvey maintained his murderous ways in Round 20 as he gave a 30 piece to New Zealand dropped a game-high 23 in a win over Adelaide.
The silky-smooth lefty has now hit at least 2 triples in 14 straight games while leading the Hawks to the brink of the finals.
Couple that with 5 or more assists in each of his past 5 games and you’ve got a guy firing on all cylinders at the perfect time of the year.
With their season on the line, the Bullets brought the juice this week as they knocked off the league’s two bottom teams on the road.
The results were vital but let’s talk about the style of play… as that was just way more like it from Brisbane.
Especially in New Zealand, where there was a real urgency about the Bullets in that game. Defensively they were up the floor and in the lanes while, down the other end, they were crisp with their execution as they scored 54 first-half points and racked up an impressive 24 assists. It was an assertiveness which, frustratingly, just hasn’t been there often enough from this team.
The question is: can they continue to play at that level across a gruelling final week of the season? If they can, they are actually a remote chance to pull off a top four finish.
Think about that for a second… the Bullets IN and two of the Hawks, Kings and Phoenix OUT.
Here’s how they can get it done: if the Bullets win all three of their remaining games – two against South East Melbourne and one against Sydney – and the Phoenix also lose to New Zealand, the Bullets will make the finals. No percentages, no tie-breakers… they’ll make it.
I mean, all four of those results would need to go their way which is highly unlikely. But damn, it’s also not beyond the realms of possibility.
At least, not if they continue to play like they did on Sunday (and SEM continue to play like they did against Cairns).
“We know what we’ve got to do,” Bullets import Lamar Patterson said.
“Everyone wants to win, everyone wants to make the finals and we know we’ve got to win games. Every game matters and we’re just going to take it one game at a time.”
Speaking of winning games, hats off to the Wildcats for their impressive victory over Sydney.
Taking on a desperate finals contender without Bryce Cotton in the line-up, the champs hardly missed a beat as they suffocated the Kings with their trademark defensive pressure.
Mitch Norton was the head of that snake, as usual, as he put Sydney star Casper Ware into, dare I say it, stage 4 lockdown.
“It just reminds us why he should be the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year,” Perth coach Trevor Gleeson said.
“To hold Casper, one of the premier players in the league, to one point on zero-of-eleven shooting is a testament to what he’s done all season.
“That’s just a glimpse of Norto playing his role on the team… he had an outstanding game.”
Norton wasn’t alone, of course. The ‘Cats ran some extra actions for Todd Blanchfield (23 points) who responded with his second-highest score of the season while John Mooney (19 and 10) notched up his twenty-second double-double of the year.
The most eye-catching performance of the night, however, belonged to…
Luke Travers (Perth Wildcats)
When Luke Travers inbounded the ball to Jesse Wagstaff and cut baseline late in the third quarter, the moment that followed was a window into the future of this exciting young talent.
As that Wildcats Twitter post states, Travers put up 16 points, 8 boards and 2 steals on Thursday night – all equal career highs – in a performance that had his coach gushing with gardening analogies postgame.
“Put it this way: it’s like a plant,” Gleeson said.
“If you put a plant in a bowl it only grows a certain way. But if you put it outside and feed it and water it, it’s going to grow a lot bigger than it does in a jar or a bowl.”
My thoughts exactly.
Shaun Bruce, Craig Moller & Tom Vodanovich (Sydney Kings)
It was a topsy-turvy week for the purple and gold but I tell you what: they were all kinds of gutsy in that win over Melbourne.
The best part about it: Casper Ware was finding things difficult, Jarell Martin was limited by foul trouble and Xavier Cooks was banged up, which meant it was up to some of their less-heralded players to get them over the line. And those guys stepped UP!
Shaun Bruce and Craig Moller, in particular, were magnificent. Bruce drained 5 triples on his way to a career-high 21 points and 7 assists while Moller pulled down a career-high 7 offensive boards as part of his own stat-sheet stuffing performance.
But hey, let’s not forget about Tom Vodanovich. The Kiwi drained two huge triples and another bucket inside in crunch time that were enormous in helping his team get the win.
As a result, they’re still in the hunt. I mean, like Brisbane they’re going to need some things to go their way but, for now, they’re still in the hunt.
“We’ve had to fight through stuff all year,” Bruce said.
“We can’t control other results but we’ve just got to keep fighting and keep playing the brand of basketball we know we can play.”
Mirko Djeric (Cairns Taipans)
I don’t know why, but when Mirko Djeric is blowing kisses to a home crowd in Queensland, everything feels right with the world.
Speaking of home crowds, shout out to Breaker Nation for the love and support they’ve shown to the Breakers these past few weeks.
Those Kiwis love their hoops and this week was extra special, with the Breakers playing their one and only game at Spark Arena this season.
Their team went down but man, those fans were going off and the atmosphere in that building was electric.
South East Melbourne Phoenix
Oh my goodness.
Just when everything was starting to point north for the Phoenix they get relocated, are forced to gift a home game to their opposition and wind up dropping a really important game.
After all, a win over Cairns last Friday night would’ve gone a long way to locking the Phoenix into the finals. Heck, it would’ve also put them in pole position to claim third spot.
Alas, now they’re right in amongst the dog-fight that will be an ultra-entertaining final round of the season.
Of course, most of those factors above were out of their control. But not all of them were. Like the way the completely lost their identity in crunch time and started playing iso-ball in the block.
“We became a stagnant, half-court, jam-it-into-the-post team which is not who we are,” Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell noted postgame.
“We are at our best when the ball’s popping, it’s going from side-to-side and we use pick-and-roll at a high level. We went away from that and it bit us in the bum.”
The challenge now for Mitchell & Co is to reload, refocus and get the job done this week. A trip to the postseason depends on it.
The Sixers are undermanned, we know that, but they just didn’t bring it this week against the Hawks.
Energy, effort, focus, decision-making… for most of the guys on that squad that stuff just wasn’t where it needed to be as they notched up their sixth consecutive defeat.
“Another disappointing loss. We’re not playing real well right now, in a number of areas,” head coach Conner Henry said.
“We’ve got to own that, I’ve got to own that and we need to be better.”
On the flip side, it was nice to see Jack Purchase get a little bit of run and that young man certainly made the most of his minutes. More of that, please, in the final round of the season.
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