Round 6 will now be the last weekend of NBL action before a week off for the FIBA window and with teams desperate to win, players fighting for their lives and other teams just looking to keep firing, there’s plenty on the line over the next four days.
The drama is certainly building around the NBL and with two of the proudest clubs with big expectations for NBL23 under the pump, how the Perth Wildcats and Adelaide 36ers perform in Round 6 heading into the week’s break is going to be especially tantalising.
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Not to mention that Sixers star Craig Randall is sidelined but not biting his tongue on responding to his critics and Wildcats forward Brady Manek under pressure, and a lot of the focus this weekend is on those old rivals.
However, there’s also a huge milestone for a Brisbane Bullets star, the inspirational return of the captain of the league-leading New Zealand Breakers, and then a Throwdown to top it all off.
The action begins with a mouth-watering Thursday night double where the struggling Illawarra Hawks are at home to the under pressure Adelaide 36ers missing their superstar point guard.
Next up and the stakes are even greater for the Perth Wildcats at home to the Tasmania JackJumpers at RAC Arena.
There might be just the one game on Friday night but it should be a beauty with the Cairns Taipans hunting their first home victory against a Melbourne United starting to build some confidence and momentum.
There are two more games on Saturday starting with the Tasmania JackJumpers hosting the Brisbane Bullets before perhaps the biggest game of the season to date with the Adelaide 36ers at home to the Perth Wildcats.
There are two games on Sunday to close this opening six weeks of the NBL season with the New Zealand Breakers playing the Sydney Kings at Spark Arena, and then Melbourne United facing South East Melbourne Phoenix at John Cain Arena.
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WILL THE HEAT BE ON WILDCATS OR 36ERS?
One of the Adelaide 36ers or Perth Wildcats will head into next week’s FIBA break under the gun after the old rivals do battle at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre on Saturday night.
Both teams came into NBL23 under great expectation but so far haven’t delivered with the 36ers having won just two of five games including a 29-point home loss last Friday while the ‘Cats have lost four straight under rookie coach John Rillie.
Both teams open their Round 6 with a game on Thursday night first with the Sixers taking on an Illawarra Hawks team on a six-game losing run in Wollongong, but they will be without import point guard Craig Randall.
The Wildcats have now lost four in-a-row for the first time in four years including the last two at RAC Arena heading into Thursday’s match up with a Tasmania JackJumpers team desperate to bounce back too after having their four-game winning run snapped on Sunday.
There is growing unrest throughout an expectant Red Army in Perth and the pressure could grow to fever pitch with another loss on Thursday night leading into that critical contest with Adelaide on Saturday.
A man understanding the Perth culture as well as anyone is Cody Ellis, the son of the first ever Wildcats captain Mike and who had his own playing career at the Hawks and Sydney Kings.
He expects the Perth fans to react savagely on their team with another poor showing on Thursday night, but it will likely be management their displeasure will be aimed at.
“It’s something that Wildcats fans haven’t really had to deal with in a long, long time,” Ellis said on latest Hoops Heaven’s Basketball Hustle podcast.
“It’s a tough one and Perth fans are used to success, you even go to the footy with West Coast and now Freo, and they are used to success.
“For a team to be so successful in the past and now be on a bit of a slide, I think if they do drop this one there will be some moans and groans as the team walks off the floor.
“That obviously doesn’t help anyone, especially the players. There’s such a proud history that’s tough to uphold but it’s a massive game for them.”
Then there is the 36ers. They put together a superstar roster featuring new imports Craig Randall, Antonius Cleveland and Robert Franks, and then went and beat the NBA’s Phoenix Suns to build their expectations.
So far, things haven’t clicked and they sit at 2-3 including having lost twice at home by a combined 54 points. Similarly to Perth, their fans could turn on their team if they don’t deliver in front of them on Saturday against the Wildcats.
“When you go over and beat an NBA team you are going to come back with lots of expectations, and even with the team they are putting on the floor, they should be top of the ladder right now,” Ellis added.
“They have all the pieces that you need to be successful including defensive guys but it’s just not clicking for them yet and that Saturday night game is going to be very interesting for them.”
THE TALE OF THE IMPORT POWER FORWARDS
Most NBL teams this season have opted for import power forwards and what a fascinating ride it’s been to follow their journeys over the opening five rounds of the season.
You have DJ Hogg, Jarrell Brantley and now Alan Williams more than holding up their ends of the deal while Robert Franks just hasn’t been involved enough at Adelaide. Then there’s Jordan Caroline and Brady Manek who are either on their last legs, or we’ve already seen the last of.
In many ways, the fortunes of teams have gone hand-in-hand with how their import four men have gone and now this weekend is going to tell a lot about if we see some of them again after next week’s break for the FIBA window.
Let’s start with those who are delivering and there’s none more so than Hogg at the Cairns Taipans. Sure, he might be spending a lot of time in the three spot just because the Snakes have Keanu Pinder and Sam Waardenburg, but his game is all about being a power forward.
Hogg arrived with a reputation as a flat out shooter and scorer out of Texas A&M, and he’s delivering averaging 18.1 points a game to go with 5.4 rebounds while nailing the three ball at 34.9 per cent.
He hit seven of them on Saturday night against Sydney and he’s everything the Snakes hoped he would be.
The same can be said for Brantley with the Breakers. He is averaging 13.9 points and 5.5 rebounds, is shooting 52.6 per cent from the field and 45.2 per cent from three-point land, and is the perfect four man on a team playing exactly like that – as a team.
Williams had a somewhat slow start at the South East Melbourne Phoenix, but so did his team. Since they’ve got their full squad and have now won four straight, he’s been delivering the perfect output for what they need as that powerful four man.
He’s averaging 13.6 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting at 54.1 per cent and that’s exactly what the Phoenix need him to continue providing.
Those are the positives, but some of the import power forwards haven’t had the starts they would have hoped.
Let’s begin in Adelaide with Franks. He is averaging 13.0 points and 4.2 rebounds, both well down on what he produced at the Brisbane Bullets last season, but it’s not necessarily his fault.
He isn’t playing badly, he’s just not being used to his full potential and the same could be said for Daniel Johnson, but that could change without Craig Randall this week.
You then have Caroline, who likely already has played his last game with Melbourne United. You couldn’t fault his effort, but 5.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 27.5 per cent shooting was never going to cut it. United have made it clear they have already been hunting his replacement.
Manek is playing to save his Wildcats career in Round 6. The rookie forward out of North Carolina had the chance to be a cult hero in Perth, but it hasn’t worked. He looks out of his depth so far putting up just 8.4 points and 4.7 rebounds.
With the Wildcats having lost four straight, in an ideal world they need a four man providing double those numbers and with him shooting 28.6 per cent from downtown, he hasn’t delivered on what should have been his great strength.
It wouldn’t be out of place to say that unless he does something remarkable against Tasmania and Adelaide this week that the Wildcats will look to move him on next week.
One team who didn’t go for an import power forward are the Illawarra Hawks. Maybe they should have, and maybe they still will if they again struggle on Thursday night against the Adelaide 36ers to find some more support up front for Sam Froling.
350 FOR WARRIOR WHOSE CAREER ALMOST NEVER STARTED
Jason Cadee was born into a basketball family and was seemingly born to play in the NBL, but that dream was almost taken from him before it even started.
However, he shook off that career-threatening accident and now is about to celebrate his 350th game while having been the Brisbane Bullets most consistent performer this season.
Following the footsteps of father Robbie who played 100 NBL games, Cadee was always destined to make it but almost had that dreamt robbed from him with that accident that left him with a broken pelvis.
He shook it off and began his career at the Gold Coast Blaze for the 2009/10 season. He has since had stints with the Adelaide 36ers, Sydney Kings and settled at the Bullets as he approaches game 350.
Always a knockdown shooter and pure scorer, Cadee’s all-round game and leadership has continued to grow the longer his career has lasted and what he’s doing this season with the Bullets, has been outstanding.
It’s been a tough start in Brisbane as they lost the first five games, but Cadee was their consistent presence and leader to stop things falling apart.
Things then came together last week with two thumping wins over the Illawarra Hawks leading into this Saturday’s trip to Tasmania where Cadee will celebrate game 350.
One of his long-last point guard rivals was Perth Wildcats legend Damian Martin who was high in his praise and congratulations.
“He was in a car accident and we never thought he would play basketball again,” Martin said on SEN.
“It was a serious car accident so credit to Jase, that’s awesome news to reach 350 games. I always enjoyed the challenge of going up against him, he’s a great player and more importantly a great person, and I hope the Bullets get the win for him.”
SIDELINED 36ERS GUN LETS OUT FRUSTRATION
It would be a fair observation that Adelaide 36ers superstar Craig Randall II wears his heart on his sleeve and that’s equally the case whether he’s on or off the basketball court.
Randall will be sidelined at least for Thursday night’s away clash to the Illawarra Hawks and likely at home to the Perth Wildcats on Saturday night with a sternum injury. It hasn’t slowed him venting his frustration at anyone commenting on his play, or his behaviour.
Randall was one of three superstar import signings at the 36ers for this season and then expectations on how far he could lead his new team grew when he scored 35 points and hit nine three-pointers in the win against the Phoenix Suns.
He has largely backed that up too to start his NBL career averaging 21.8 points a game including twice hitting 28, but he clearly is an emotional figure and that’s always going to attract attention.
A heated conversation with coach CJ Bruton over a miscommunication over why Randall came out of a game caught people’s eye. So did him standing apart from his teammates when lining up for the national anthem in Melbourne on Sunday.
However, Randall had a good explanation for that and wasn’t afraid to vent his spleen at those who wanted to try to make an issue out of it.
“Do something else besides trying to divide me from my team!! I didn’t even know we were doing that. First game we played the Australian anthem. You definitely just looking to create a bad narrative of someone once again for some likes. BE BETTER AT YOUR JOB,” Randall tweeted.
Randall hasn’t stopped there this week. He’s also been quick to hit back at anyone questioning his attitude or if he’s a good teammate.
“I don’t pass but I lead the team in assist. Can y’all please leave me alone? One thing about the game of basketball is NUMBERS AND FILM DONT LIE,” Randall also tweeted.
“I just want to play basketball and have fun. Y’all judging me and trying to paint me as this bad teammate is crazy. I’m different and if y’all can’t accept that then cool but don’t push the narrative I’m a bad teammate and hard to coach. Do better man.”
He wasn’t finished yet either, also hitting back at any Adelaide fans questioning him.
“I get more love from opposing teams fans lol. Y’all can’t phase me man. Y’all love me when it’s good and hate me when it’s bad it comes with it. Just make sure y’all hate me in February too when it all comes together cause I don’t forget nothing,” he added.
HEROES RETURN FOR BREAKERS CAPTAIN
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the New Zealand Breakers coming into Round 6 on top of the NBL standings is that they’ve been doing it without inspirational captain Tom Abercrombie.
Think Melbourne United without Chris Goulding, the Perth Wildcats minus Damian Martin, the four-time championship winning Breakers without Mika Vukona or you can go back further, and that’s what this Breakers team is missing without Abercrombie.
Abercrombie himself is a four-time championship winner with New Zealand, is a Grand Final MVP and leads the franchise in games played, scoring and just about everything else. But he’s had to watch on this season from the sidelines.
And he’s had to do a lot of through one eye after taking a nasty blow at the NBL Blitz from Brisbane Bullets powerhouse Aron Baynes that almost detached his retina, and required surgery to fix.
The remarkable thing for the Breakers is what they’ve done without him. He is their defensive leader and spiritual motivator, but New Zealand has been outstanding defensively and played with a superb team chemistry that has seen them win six of their past seven matches.
Now this Sunday for the top-of-the-table clash with the defending champion Sydney Kings at Spark Arena, Abercrombie will make his emotional return for the Breakers and it’s much more than just his first appearance of the season.
Given the Breakers have spent the majority of the past two seasons based in Australia, it’s going to be an emotional occasion both for Abercrombie and the supporters who will celebrate his return on Sunday.
However, ever the humble team man, Abercrombie is just glad to be over that eye injury to help the team keep their defensive intensity up.
“I didn’t think it was that bad. I’ve been poked in the eye plenty worse than that. The plan is for me to back this week now and hopefully I’ll suit up Sunday,” Abercrombie said.
“The guys have been getting after it defensive and that’s what we pride ourselves on so it’s been good to see.
“Defence first mentality has been our mindset right from the start of pre-season and we developed that mindset and toughness, and recruited guys who wanted to fit that mould too.
“It’s starting to click at that end but you have to back it up night in and night out for 40 minutes in this league.”