What a weekend we saw in the NBL with three overtime periods and four thrilling finishes while it’s the New Zealand Breakers who made the biggest statements hammering two previously in-form teams by a combined 61 points to shoot to the top of the standings five rounds in.
Melbourne United earned a reprieve with their double overtime victory on Saturday night that sent the spiralling Illawarra Hawks to a sixth-straight loss while the Perth Wildcats lost again at home as the Breakers, Sydney Kings, South East Melbourne Phoenix and Brisbane Bullets kept winning.
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Round 5 of NBL23 began back on Thursday night with the Brisbane Bullets scoring a second big win over the Illawarra Hawks inside four days, this time winning 86-61 at Nissan Arena.
There was then a tantalising double-header on Friday night which started with the New Zealand Breakers thrashing the Adelaide 36ers 99-70 at Adelaide Entertainment Centre. The South East Melbourne Phoenix then beat the Perth Wildcats 91-90 at RAC Arena.
There were two more matches on Saturday and two terrific contests starting with Melbourne United beating the Illawarra Hawks 106-100 in double overtime. The Sydney Kings then won at the buzzer 106-103 against the Cairns Taipans.
There was another double on Sunday with the New Zealand Breakers scoring another huge win, this time 94-62 over the Tasmania JackJumpers at Spark Arena. It was then another overtime classic with the South East Melbourne Phoenix beating the Adelaide 36ers 103-98.
The round will now wrap up on Monday night with a battle of perennial heavyweights looking for an important win as Melbourne United hosts the Perth Wildcats at John Cain Arena.
CHAMPION TEAM OR TEAM OF CHAMPIONS
Never has a weekend more clearly highlighted that old adage that a champion team will beat a team of champions with the New Zealand Breakers scoring two commanding wins and the Adelaide 36ers suffering two defeats.
Much of the fanfare coming into this season surrounded the 36ers and that went fever pitch when they beat the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
A lot of that was on the back of new import trio Antonius Cleveland, Robert Franks and Craig Randall II joining Daniel Johnson, Mitch McCarron, Sunday Dech, Kai Sotto and Anthony Drmic. That’s a roster full of star power, but right now it’s not clicking.
There was significantly less fanfare surrounding the Breakers and they don’t have the big names, but what they have done is come together tremendously as a team.
As a result, the chemistry is obvious at New Zealand, they are playing tremendous unselfish team basketball and it all starts at the defensive end. They have now won six of their last seven games to sit atop the table and in those six wins have conceded only 66.7 points a game.
In Round 5, the Breakers beat both the 36ers in Adelaide on Friday and then the JackJumpers in Auckland on Sunday by a combined 193-132 in two remarkable performance where the offence did fire, but it was set up at the defensive end.
Adelaide’s imports might have had the buzz around them coming into the season, but New Zealand’s trio have been brilliant. Dererk Pardon is providing the inside presence, Jarrell Brantley making his mark as a four man and Barry Brown is that lethal scoring threat.
Will McDowell-White and Izayah Le’afa are then leading the back court, Rayan Rupert, Cam Gliddon and Tom Vodanovich are playing versatile roles, and Rob Loe is having perhaps his best NBL season.
They are doing it all without captain and four-time championship winner Tom Abercrombie too. While coach Mody Maor likes what his team is doing, he’s far from satisfied.
“We’re very, very far from satisfied and this group knows this. Our expectations from ourselves are high and with high expectations comes high demands,” Maor said.
“Getting Tom back will be awesome and it’s going to be great for him, and our group and I couldn’t be happier.
“This is the team I thought we would be but I wasn’t sure how we would do it without Tom, but guys have stepped up significantly. I still think we can be better. We are far from satisfied and there’s a lot more for this team to get better at.”
Opposed to that, the 36ers lost twice in Round 5 at home to the Breakers and away to the South East Melbourne Phoenix, and the chemistry and willingness to sacrifice for each other hasn’t quite developed yet.
Coach CJ Bruton is confident it will come though despite Randall continuing to wear his heart on his sleeve.
“I asked Craig (Randall) to get everyone involved and he was trying his best to do that. He thought I took him out for shooting the ball but that wasn’t the case,” Bruton said.
“He’s new in this competition and we’re just trying to get him to understand the league, our team and it’s not like we’ve been together three months. We’ve played five games now and it’s early days for us, and we need to continue to get better and keep improving.”
COOL IT ON THE DELAY OF GAME ENFORCEMENT
Ask the players, coaches and even the fans, and frustration is growing throughout the NBL community over the increased focus by the officials in enforcing the delay of game rulings.
The decision has clearly been made this NBL season to clamp down and enforce with a more strict interpretation delay of game warnings.
What that means basically is that when the whistle is blown the ball must be handed directly to the referee, or to the opposition after a basket is scored.
Usually there is a degree of leniency shown, but not right now and players shooting the ball after the whistle is blown has been one of the areas especially cracked down upon after a directive handed down from NBL head of referees Scott Butler.
Cracking down on obvious delay of game infringements is a good idea in theory, but it appears to have now been an overcorrection and the frustration has grown from all involved in the NBL in recent weeks.
The irony hasn’t been lost but by actually calling the delay of game penalty which begins with a warning and leads to a free-throw for subsequent calls actually is causing greater delays than the actual acts by the players.
Cairns Taipans coach Adam Forde had a tongue in cheek way of letting his feelings known when starting his press conference on Saturday night.
“I’m going to be enforcing a hinderance to the running of a smooth presser in the spirit of having an effective and timely press conference,” Forde said while sporting a cheeky grin.
“This is in no way related to anything else and an assumption would be dangerous to do so. I’ll be issuing out warnings and grievances if I feel like it’s dragging on a little bit in the spirit of trying to keep it entertaining and speeding it up.”
Adelaide 36ers star and reigning NBL Best Defensive Player Antonius Cleveland let his feelings obvious on Twitter.
“Nothing delays the game more then the ref blowing the whistle to call “delay of game”.
His former teammate and current Melbourne guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes responded.
“Omg I didn’t wanna say it. They delaying it more then us”
NBL legend and current Sydney Flames WNBL coach Shane Heal didn’t miss in his feelings either.
“This delay of game is getting really bad. It’s supposed to stop delays but actually creates more️.”
BIRTHDAY BOY DELIVERS AGAINST FORMER TEAM
Kouat Noi has never been short on confidence and he showed nerves of steel on Saturday night to deliver a dagger blow to his old team and it just happened to be while celebrating his 25th birthday.
Noi played the first 57 games of his NBL career at the Cairns Taipans and showed a great degree of talent with a mixture of shooting the ball but also taking it inside with a strong ability to create and finish.
However, an unlucky injury run has cruelled his growth the past two seasons and he was after a fresh start. Sydney Kings coach Chase Buford came calling offering him a role with the reigning champions for NBL23.
Noi was motivated to show what he was capable of and transformed his body in the off-season while winning the MVP award in the NBL1 North for his efforts with USC Rip City.
He has now brought that confidence with him into the NBL season at the Kings and played a good role off the bench before his breakout performance on the night of his 25th birthday on Saturday.
It just happened to be against his old Cairns team and he was given two chances to play the hero. The first opportunity saw a play drawn up for him to take the ball inside to attempt to finish and score the winning basket.
That didn’t quite pan out, but with one last chance to avoid overtime, Noi caught a perfect inbounds pass from Shaun Bruce, was left relatively open by the Snakes and drained the three ball as time expired.
It was quite the way to celebrate his birthday by hitting the game winner against his old team and for Noi, it’s a reward for all the work he’s put in and the confidence he’s always had in his ability.
“Man, I’m still speechless. I guess doing it against my old team just makes it even better,” Noi said afterwards.
“This feels great after I’ve had a lot of ups and downs the past couple of years. I always kept on working and coming in day in, day out to try and prove myself.
“I like to thank coach Chase for believing in me and putting me in the right position to go out there and perform. I had a great off-season and definitely worked on my body, and to this day I’m still working on my body and trying to get stronger.”
SELF BELIEF BOOMING FOR RISING AUSSIE STAR
There’s no reason for a ceiling on how far rising Cairns Taipans star Keanu Pinder can go with the NBA or regular Australian Boomers spots within reach, and he sees no challenge too great after frustratingly fouling out in Saturday night’s loss in Sydney.
One of the standout performers so far this NBL season has been Pinder and that’s on the back of already being the Most Improved Player in NBL22.
His growth has been obvious going from averaging 4.8 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting at 41.7 per cent in his first season at the Adelaide 36ers. He went up to 10.9 points and 7.5 boards at 54.8 per cent shooting last season with the Taipans.
Now so far in NBL23 he is delivering 17.0 points and 9.9 rebounds while going at 46.4 per cent from the field to truly be one of the top MVP candidates this season and a virtual lock for a spot in the All-First NBL Team after five rounds.
He was having another strong showing on Saturday night in Sydney where his battle with perhaps his top frontcourt rival in the league right now, Xavier Cooks.
Pinder had 18 points and seven rebounds but then with five minutes to go he fouled out and that did significantly change the complexion of the contest with the Kings ending up winning with that walk off triple from Kouat Noi.
Pinder couldn’t hide his frustration after the game over fouling out but showed just how far his confidence has grown now to where it was almost rock bottom in Adelaide two seasons ago.
Not only did Pinder talk afterwards about how confident he is to go up against any other big in the NBL right now, but he also felt the Taipans would have won the game had he not fouled out.
“I don’t really feel like it’s a challenge for me whoever we go up against, they have some good bigs but I feel like I was holding my own,” Pinder said.
“I don’t really feel like it’s a challenge at all honestly, but I was in foul trouble and didn’t get to play as much. I felt like it would have been a different outcome if I was able to play the rest of the game.”
Pinder is also backing the Cairns frontcourt featuring himself, Sam Waardenburg, DJ Hogg and Majok Deng to be the best in the league this season.
“There’s honestly no other group like us with how deep we are, it’s incredible,” Pinder added.
“Majok came out there and killed it tonight, Sam played awesome, DJ played awesome. All us bigs played well to be honest”
MIGHT BE A MANEK OR BREAK MONDAY NIGHT
All of a sudden with the Perth Wildcats on a losing slide and first-year import Brady Manek struggling, pressure is building and there’s no more important time for him to stand up than Monday against Melbourne United at John Cain Arena.
The Wildcats have now lost their past three matches including the last two at home at RAC Arena and the Red Army is getting restless.
Naturally that means that the first people looked to are the imports. One of them is an all-time great in Bryce Cotton and then big man TaShawn Thomas is building after an injury-interrupted start, the pressure is building on Manek.
The 24-year-old is in his first year as a pro following the finish of his college career at the University of North Carolina where he became a cult figure with the Tar Heels.
He has all the makings of doing the same with the Wildcats with his shaggy hair, long beard and three-point shooting ability, but it’s fair to say it isn’t working right now.
Manek averaged 15.1 points and 6.1 rebounds a game for the 2021/22 season at North Carolina while shooting the three ball at 40.3 per cent so his resume was sound.
However, so far this season he is averaging just 9.0 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting 9/30 from three-point range at 30.0 per cent.
Manek especially struggled in Friday night’s home loss to South East Melbourne with just four points in almost 18 minutes of court time while not adding anything at all in any other statistical category.
Wildcats coach John Rillie will continue to support Manek and help him find his feet in the NBL, but knows eventually he will need to deliver with no bigger game than Monday night against Melbourne United.
“For a guy straight out of college to a professional level, especially the NBL, there’s going to be growing pains,” Rillie said.
“We’re certainly not seeing the best of Brady Manek but unless I didn’t see it correctly, he gives great effort defensively. There is growth there.
“There’s still plenty of that, getting a few rebounds would be good. He comes from a place at North Carolina with expectation so this isn’t anything new to him and he understands how he’s playing.
“He wants to impact our team in a better way, my job is to help him through this tough time because I have belief in him. I’ve seen him produce at a very high level that will help this team.”