NBL Story of the Week
There was something of a morbid curiosity surrounding Round 19 of the National Basketball League with the playoffs all but set, with more attention at the other end of the ladder than would be normal for the regular season finale.
Melbourne United, Adelaide 36ers, Perth Wildcats, and New Zealand Breakers had all booked a post-season berth, so all that remained to be seen were the match-ups for the semifinals. Hence eyes turned to the also-rans, and how they could salvage some much-needed pride in their season's final moments.
And the Illawarra Hawks delivered in spades.
With star Rotnei Clarke and skipper Kevin White both out, and pivot A.J. Ogilvy hampered by a groin injury, the Hawks decided they were going down only with their remaining guns all blazing.
If their last-second 84-82 road triumph over the Breakers on Friday was a surprise, their comprehensive 94-84 win over the hottest team in the league -- Melbourne United -- was as shocking as it was satisfying for Illawarra's fiercely passionate fan base.
Meanwhile, there are serious questions that need to be asked of the Brisbane Bullets and, perhaps more pertinently, head coach Andrej Lemanis.
Two wooden spoon campaigns in as many years does not bode well for a squad coached by someone with as many credentials as Lemanis, who also helms the Australian national team.
This has been another bitterly disappointing season for the Bullets, who struggled to produce consistent performances and released U.S. import Perrin Buford earlier this month.
The Bullets couldn't send veteran Anthony Petrie off in style, either, as they were thrashed by Adelaide in their final game after losing to fellow cellar-dwellers Sydney two nights prior.
Speaking of Sydney, the Kings showed what might have been with another pair of spirited performances in Round 19.
If defeating the Bullets to ensure they didn't finish last on the ladder wasn't enough, they bowed out in fine style with an entertaining 101-86 triumph over the Breakers on Sunday; that was their sixth win from seven attempts in a gallant rush to the line.
Some might argue that was too little too late, but the Kings displayed admirable pluck after a thoroughly abysmal two-thirds of the season that suffered badly from the absence of star guard Kevin Lisch.
It's no coincidence the Kings' turnaround occurred with the return of the naturalised Australian, and perhaps that gives something for coach Andrew Gaze to build on for next season.
NBL Player of the Week
Nick Kay (Illawarra Hawks): Kay stepped into the breach with the Hawks bereft of several big-name players. He enjoyed a tidy stat line of 15 points, four boards and three assists in the win over the Breakers before really opening the throttle against Melbourne United. A career-high 27 points (and seven rebounds) was the result as Kay and Illawarra finished their season on a high.
NBL Team of the Week
G: Jason Cadee (Sydney Kings): Found his range from deep (6-10 from beyond the arc) in the final game of the season to pour in 30 points -- including 17 in the final quarter to break the game open -- and propel the Kings to a satisfying win over the playoff-bound Breakers.
G: Bryce Cotton (Perth Wildcats): With playoffs around the corner, Perth's playmaker warmed up in impressive fashion. He produced a solid 19 points, five rebounds and four assists in the defeat by Melbourne before draining six threes from international waters on his way to 24 points and six assists in the Wildcats' big 89-61 win over Cairns.
F: Nick Kay (Illawarra): See above.
F: Demitrius Conger (Illawarra): Conger has been a tower of strength for the Hawks all season, and he was a narrow runner-up to teammate Kay for Player of the Week honours as he moved into serious MVP consideration. Averaged 22 points and seven boards across the two wins over the Breakers and United.
F: Majok Deng (Adelaide 36ers): He gave Brisbane a large taste of his undeniable potential with 20 points in just 19 minutes off the bench. Long-limbed and athletic as hell, Deng picked off three steals including one that led to a monstrous open-court dunk, much to the delight of the home fans at Titanium Security Arena.
NBL: What To Look Forward To
Playoff time! Melbourne United against New Zealand is a great semifinals match-up, but it's the bitter blood between Adelaide and reigning title-holders Perth that really catches attention. Expect plenty of physical play in both series, which start on Saturday, March 3 after Australia and New Zealand contest their FIBA World Cup Asia Zone qualifiers. The Boomers take on the Philippines and Chinese Taipei, while the Tall Blacks tackle China and South Korea.