At the end of a gruelling encounter against the New Zealand Breakers on Saturday -- a torrid affair that included violent swings in momentum, player altercations, and unsportsmanlike fouls -- Rob Beveridge gathered his Illawarra Hawks in a huddle. The Hawks head coach eyed each and every player. "Stay together," he told them.
It was a game the Hawks had controlled and deserved to win, displaying a necessary grit; it was a performance that contrasted their efforts the weekend before against Melbourne United. "We showed a very soft underbelly," Beveridge tells ESPN of the United encounter. "We've got to harden up."
At their best, the Hawks play with a verve, a magical synergy with which the total package becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Their defence becomes mean-spirited, fuelling a running game that leads to a maelstrom of three-point daggers. Call it 'Bevo Ball'. "You've really got to have a real swagger," Beveridge says. "A mentality that we're going to win."
Over the previous two seasons, when everything has come together, their runs have seen the Hawks go deep into the playoffs. There was something visceral and unquantifiable about those Hawks teams; they were simply joyous to watch. Yet, like magic, form has proven elusive this season. Amid the losing, Beveridge says, "sometimes people feel sorry for themselves" and excuses whispered in players' ears have threatened to undermine the self-confidence of a team that relies so much upon good vibes.
"There was a lot of external influence on the team," Beveridge says. "People make excuses for you. And we've got to eliminate that."
The defeats have included winnable games, feeding the self-doubts and leading, in turn, to conservative play. The unspoken mantra became: Are we afraid to make mistakes? It's been a season-long exercise in introspection, but Beveridge says the team collectively drew a line in the sand and decided to "stop listening to all that c--p out there and let's just play ... forget what everybody else says, this is about us".
The Hawks -- known for their free-spirited approach to playing, a team that runs-and-guns -- have also been undone by injuries. Mitch Norton, an integral piece, has missed a chunk of the schedule with a fractured thumb. A.J. Ogilvy, their best big man, has also missed time, and Kevin White, a defensive stalwart, has been limited to 15 minutes a game all season while battling plantar fasciitis.
All this has led to inconsistency, the bane of all coaches but an ever-present frustration this season for Beveridge. The team started the campaign horrendously -- losing five of their opening six games -- before recovering to win four straight. They then proceeded to drop four in a row.
The season previously, they started with five losses in seven games before scrambling to secure a playoff berth. But that team benefited from an historically even competition, and teams struggled for separation on the ladder. This year's competition offers no such fortune, with a gap emerging between the haves and the have-nots. Still, Beveridge hopes the Hawks have turned the corner, describing their approach moving forward as "a bit of an 'F-you' mentality." And there's a palpable excitement in the coach's voice when he says the team is good enough to compete. "We can see the light," he tells ESPN. "We definitely have that belief we can do it."
Now it's up to the players to prove they're better than the season standings suggest, and that is codified within the words "stay together". High character matters at the Hawks. You want to play in a Rob Beveridge team. You better get over yourself. There's an unwavering belief that success is built, and not bought, but that's a notion only loosely tethered to reality until we see consistency.
The following weeks provide an opportunity for the Hawks to prove the notion, as the their run home is as brutal as they come. They face off against the Breakers three more times, a rival who will surely have acclimatised NBA talent Rakeem Christmas the next time they meet. They also play Adelaide 36ers three times, starting this weekend, and those showdowns will likely decide their playoff fate.
The Hawks have a history with the 36ers -- most recently their playoff stoush last year, when hard-nosed players White and Rhys Martin pestered Jerome Randle for 40 minutes over the final two games of that series and neutered the explosive 36ers offence. But those heated encounters are firmly in the past, and new players dot both rosters.
The 36ers largely still play the same way despite the new personnel: They run it down the throat of all challengers, and that offers an interesting challenge for the Hawks. 'Bevo Ball' calls for up-and-down basketball, yet the Hawks' coach knows such a strategy may lead to defeat by the 36ers, the best running team in the league. To survive, the Hawks need to mix up their schemes -- to throw jabs, not haymakers. "We've got to mix up what we do," he says. "We've got to go fast. We've got to go slow."
The Hawks are fifth on the NBL ladder ahead of Round 15, and enormity of the task to make the playoffs does not escape the veteran coach. They can guarantee themselves a playoff berth by running the table, as unlikely as that is. Yet that's no more or less likely than losing all their remaining games. It's just been that sort of a season.
And if they make it, what then? Is there a puncher's chance of winning the title?
"I still believe if we get to the playoffs we can rattle the cage," Beveridge says.