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Warren Yiu assesses the four NBL finalists and the delicious storylines that still abound as we head into the postseason.
Phew! Four months in, and we've finally arrived at the precipice of the NBL finals. It's been a season seething with storylines ranging from the spectacular early season play of the New Zealand Breakers to the dreaded injuries that robbed teams of stars for extended stretches - most notably Kevin Lisch and Casey Prather.
And delicious storylines still abound as we head into the postseason.
The defending champion Perth Wildcats chase the three-peat and the chance for NBL immortality.
The Breakers? Their early-season form had them firmly entrenched as a championship contender -- a juggernaut equipped to rival the Wildcats and Melbourne United -- yet they've since lost eight of their next 12 and their offence of late has looked decidedly shaky.
Adelaide 36ers, an exuberant outfit that is so much fun to watch, hovers menacingly over the title picture. They're expertly coached by Joey Wright, and have the sort of offensive firepower that can blow teams away.
Finally, Melbourne United have perhaps the most talented roster ever assembled in the NBL. They are justifiable favoured for the title, yet apart from head coach Dean Vickerman and power forward Tai Wesley, they lack the "been there, done that" mentality possessed by the Wildcats and the Breakers.
With all that in mind, let's dive into each team's outlook.
Record: 20 wins, 8 losses
Season Highlight: If the road to the title truly requires going through the champions, United are in a good place. Their Round 14 victory over the Wildcats -- in Perth Arena, no less - cemented United as the team to beat. The win not only catapulted United above the Wildcats at the top of the table, it also engendered real belief that this team has the mental fortitude to perform on the grandest stage.
Season Lowlight: The Round 7 demolition at the hands of Perth, at Hisense Arena, was as humbling as it gets. The 91-59 shellacking was punctuated by another muted effort from Chris Goulding, who until that point in the season had the usage rate of a role player. He was also shooting a ghastly 35.8 percent from the field, per Spatialjam.com, raising all sorts of hysteria over what on Earth was going on with Melbourne's star guard.
Team Strengths: They're loaded. United have the most talented roster in the league, and the most firepower. They have arguably a top-5 player across their entire starting line-up, and a bench bolstered by the veteran smarts of David Andersen, and Dave Barlow. Kyle Adnam and a much-improved Craig Moller provide needed energy, and Majok is a very capable backup to Josh Boone. That depth allows Vickerman precious flexibility. United can match any style their opponents throw at them.
Team Weaknesses: Do they have any? United grades out as strong across the board: They're a great rebounding team, they own the best defence in the league, and they have explosive scoring talent. At this point, we're simply nit-picking. Perhaps they don't really force turnovers, preferring to play a conservative style of defence. They also foul a lot, something to watch when emotions are dialled up in the finals considering they have some combustible personalities.
Key Player: The on-the-fly re-integration of Casey Prather will be fascinating. How will that affect the on-court chemistry given that his injury replacement, Carrick Felix, was happy to stay on the fringes of the action and provide the grunt work? Prather lifts the ceiling of a good United team, but his play will also serve as a bellwether of sorts: If his play is uneven, teams will sense an opening.
ESPN Verdict: United have the best collection of top-end talent and the highest ceiling. Dean Vickerman has the clear title favourites coalescing at the right team of the year.
Record: 18 wins - 10 losses
Season Highlight: Seven consecutive wins -- including a run of four straight 100-point games -- cemented the 36ers as the most exciting team to watch this year. The explosive offence is predicated on rim-runs, even after opposition makes. It's an impossibly simple strategy, yet equally breathtaking when athletes such Mitch Creek, Nathan Sobey and Josh Childress are in full flight, headed right for the opposition jugular.
Season Lowlight: The Christmas Eve 19-point thumping at the hands of Cairns Taipans was particularly galling. The 36ers were short-handed, but the blowout loss at home featured a flat performance that was very un-Adelaide-like. Of course, the loss fuelled the aforementioned seven consecutive wins.
Team Strengths: It sounds rudimentary but pace-of-play is their greatest strength. Through sheer will, the 36ers force opponents into a breakneck contest that few rivals are equipped to handle. Sooner or later, opponents wilt under the onslaught and the avalanche begins. They're also sneaky good on defence; don't let the raw opposition totals fool you.
Team Weaknesses: Expect teams to load up in the paint and fall into a zone defence against the 36ers in the finals. Adelaide don't try a lot of three-pointers due to a philosophical decision: They prefer layups. But they're also not particularly great from deep. Per Spatialjam.com, they rank dead last in three-point accuracy at 33.5 percent. They're also last in three-point attempts per game, a figure that is more jarring considering they play at the league's fastest pace. Finals defences will be more disciplined, curtailing offensive rebounds to run back in transition defence, slowing the tempo and barricading the basket. How the 36ers hold up against a slower pace of play will determine their fate.
Key Player: Daniel Johnson. Mitch Creek is likely the 36ers' best overall player but "DJ" is their most important. Johnson just attracts so much attention, dragging big guys away from the paint, and provides the 36ers with a genuine high-volume, low-post target in the half-court game.
ESPN Verdict: Adelaide showed in their Round 17 home win over the Wildcats how they plan to attack zone defences in the finals: Players catching in motion, and quick hitting interior passes inside of the zone leading to shots in the paint. That's an important snapshot of their postseason prospects: Adelaide don't want to shoot outside shots. How they negotiate teams clogging up driving lanes, and daring them to shoot, will determine how far they can go.
Record: 16 wins - 12 losses
Season Highlight: The 21-point home win over the surging 36ers in Round 17 reaffirmed the Wildcats' way. The vultures were circling -- Damian Martin had called out the team as selfish, J.P. Tokoto was benched, and Adelaide seemingly scored at will in the first half -- yet the Wildcats responded with a gritty second-half performance. A more focused squad locked down on defence, which in turn fuelled a maligned offence into a blowout victory.
Season Lowlight: The humiliating thumping at the hands of Sydney Kings in Round 15, in which they scored the second-lowest points total ever by a Wildcats outfit. That loss had been preceded by another to the same Kings outfit in Perth earlier in the weekend, and cracks appeared to emerge within a club that had been for so long the standard-bearer for Australian basketball.
Team Strengths: Offensive rebounding. The Wildcats remain the best at crashing the offensive glass, a crucial source of second-change opportunities. And they need those extra opportunities since they're not a great shooting team. Their defence, so often their calling card, just hasn't been as consistent this season. Yet, when they're engaged in patches, they showcase an elite D that gives their plodding offence a chance to eke out enough points to survive.
Team Weaknesses: Consistent scoring. Apart from Bryce Cotton, the Wildcats don't have a consistent shot creator who bends an entire defence. Tokoto can step into the isolation void in spurts, but teams don't really fear contested midrange jumpers. Do they have a third option? In truth, their third option is more a collective effort that includes a motley group of Angus Brandt, Jesse Wagstaff and whoever else is feeling it on the night.
Key Player: Let's not get too creative here: Bryce Cotton is the Wildcats' most important player. He's their singular creative force, and the Wildcats depend so much on him to generate points for an anaemic offence.
ESPN Verdict: The quest for a three-peat may end at the first hurdle. It's folly to count out the Wildcats, so dominant in recent postseasons, but the defence hasn't looked as spry, or been as consistent, this season. When they're on, the defence has a disruptive physicality and the game becomes mental for opponents as they internalise that pressure. But the lack of consistency this year is putting too much strain on an offence that needs every point it can get.
New Zealand Breakers
Record: 15 wins - 13 losses
Season Highlight: Has there been in recent years a more impressive start to an NBL season than the blazing trail the Breakers left on the competition? They won nine of their first 10, Edgar Sosa looked like the league MVP, and the Breakers looked destined to challenge the hegemony of Perth and Melbourne.
Season Lowlight: The Round 10 home loss to the 36ers was particularly egregious. The Breakers led by 14 points in the third quarter, but they gave up 34 points to the 36ers in the final frame, managing only 11 of their own, as they suffered a blowout loss.
Team Strengths: The Breakers pride themselves on the executing all the little things. Nothing exemplifies this discipline more than their rebounding prowess. When an enemy shot goes up, watch all five Breakers turn and collapse into the paint, shielding the landing zone, and secure the rebound. Thomas Abercrombie even goes to extremes: He'll literally turn his back and ignore his man entirely, just to race in. They're also just so solid across the roster, and ultra-disciplined. They play hard and they defend as a team: In short, they play finals basketball. Don't count on the Breakers beating themselves.
Team Weaknesses: Scoring can be a chore. After that ferocious start to the season, the Breakers subsequently lost eight of their next 12. Part of the drop-off can be attributed to the Breakers' unsustainable luck in close games; seven of their nine wins had been decided by eight points or fewer. Primarily, their offence seemed to be overachieving. Watch their early-season games and you'll see an offence subsisting on tough end-of-shot clock heaves, floaters in traffic, and other looks that just weren't sustainable. It's hard to construct an offence based on those looks. During their funk, the Breakers offence regressed. They ranked dead last in offensive efficiency during that stretch. The drop-off from Round 8 has been staggering. Their offensive rating dropped nine points per 100 possessions, as of Round 17. And their three-point shooting fell off a cliff by 6.5 percent, per data from Crunchtimeshots.com.
Key Player: D.J. Newbill might be the Breakers' best two-way player. He provides them with a sorely needed second off-the-bounce creator, and usually defends whomever Edgar Sosa doesn't want to. Breakers coach Paul Henare staggers the minutes of his backcourt, ensuring at least one of Sosa or Newbill is on the court at all times. In those Sosa-less minutes, Newbill will need to keep the pedestrian Breakers offence afloat.
ESPN Verdict: The Breakers are legitimately good with few weaknesses. There's a lot to like: They play hard, they're disciplined, and they rebound the heck out of the ball. But do they have the requisite extra gear on offence when postseason defences dial it up further? When defences are ratcheted up in the postseason crucible, there are concerns whether the Breakers' grinding style of play can keep up with the combustible offences of teams such as Adelaide and Melbourne.