Melbourne United are officially locked in for the upcoming NBL finals series, given they are on significant winning streaks you would say the Sydney Kings and Illawarra Hawks are too, but there’s plenty happening at the out of contention Cairns Taipans, New Zealand Breakers and South East Melbourne Phoenix too.
It was a fascinating Round 19 in the NBL across the weekend with Melbourne guaranteeing a playoff berth while Sydney won an 11th consecutive match and Illawarra made it six straight.
The Perth Wildcats also ensured they didn’t slip to a rare fourth consecutive loss at home but the Tasmania JackJumpers kept themselves alive just while at the out of contention teams, there’s a lot going on too now with two rounds of the season remaining.
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Round 19 began back on Thursday night with a double-header made up of Melbourne United beating the South East Melbourne Phoenix 90-88 and the Perth Wildcats defeating the New Zealand Breakers 89-80.
The Tasmania JackJumpers kept their floundering finals hopes alive beating the Cairns Taipans 87-80 on Friday before the Illawarra Hawks hammered the Brisbane Bullets 108-77 on Saturday with the Sydney Kings beating the Adelaide 36ers 84-77.
Then on Sunday, the Phoenix bounced back to beat the Breakers 99-89 and United thrashed the Taipans 92-63.
Round 19 isn’t done yet either with the 36ers hosting the Bullets on Monday night and the Breakers playing the Kings in Bendigo on Tuesday.
Here are the five big things coming out of the action:
ADDED MOTIVATION FOR REATH
It’s hard to imagine Duop Reath possibly playing better than he did to help the Illawarra Hawks keep winning on Saturday night, and he has some added motivation to drive him on.
Reath is in his first season in the NBL on the back of helping the Australian Boomers win bronze at the Tokyo Olympic Games. He’s going to be key to how far the Hawks can go in the upcoming finals series.
He can be a real difference maker for the Hawks with his abilities in the block and he put that all on show with a brilliant performance on Saturday night in the win over the Brisbane Bullets.
Reath produced 28 points and 11 rebounds on the back of shooting a phenomenally efficient 13/15 from the field. It was just about the perfect game from the versatile big man and it helped the Hawks to a sixth consecutive win as they close in on locking away a playoff spot.
Reath has no shortage of motivation this season either. He is on a one-year deal at the Hawks and will have a whole host of options around the world after the way he has performed, and you wouldn’t rule out him getting an NBA opportunity.
However, there’s motivation closer to his heart as well. Reath played the game on Saturday like he will for the rest of the season with the initials AR written on his wrist tape – in honour of Alier Riak.
Riak was an emerging talent out of Warwick in Perth, just down the road from Girrawheen where Reath grew up, and had played impressively under Mike Ellis and alongside Cody Ellis at the Warwick Senators in the NBL1 West competition.
He had signed to play for the start up NBL1 team out of Darwin this year, but just last month he was tragically killed in senseless fashion in Melbourne while celebrating his 23rd birthday ahead of heading up north.
Reath saw Riak like a little brother and as a result he will be in his thoughts for the rest of this season, and beyond.
“He was like a little brother to me and he’s definitely on my mind, and I’m playing for him this season,” Reath said.
As for his performance on Saturday night, Reath just paid tribute to his teammates for helping him shine the way he did.
“Shoutout to my guys. I felt like a lot of the guys found me under the basket and that made my job really easy. All I had to do was finish,” Reath said.
“I’m looking forward to the finish to the season. It’s going to be a great challenge for us, but we just want to try to focus on ourselves and be the best team that we can. If we do that, we’ll be OK.”
FORGET FIRST ROUND, DIENG IS SHAPING FOR TOP 10
Ousmane Dieng arrived in the NBL this season with untapped natural potential. He has now turned that into a player delivering and showing what he’s fully capable, and his coach feels his talents that few players on earth have should see him rising further and further up NBA Draft boards.
The Breakers signed the 18-year-old French excitement machine as a Next Star this season on the back of the success they had helping RJ Hampton join them two seasons ago to help him prepare for an NBA career that is now flourishing.
Dieng had options all around the world to complete his preparations for the 2022 NBA Draft, but he chose the NBL based on the recent successes of the likes of not only Hampton, but LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey, and his development has been remarkable.
If you go back to the start of December when Dieng started playing in the NBL, it’s not out of place to say that he didn’t look ready or prepared to play against the physical and experience he was coming up against.
Dieng wasn’t confident with ball in hands, he was struggling to stand up physically and he was found out defensively, and taken advantage of. He looked a player out of his depth.
That was then. Fast forward five months and Dieng looks like a player who not only is a lock to be taken in the first round of the upcoming NBA Draft, but he should be a lottery pick which means he would one of the first 14 players chosen.
What Dieng is showing now in the NBL should be seeing his draft stocks rise every time he hits the floor.
All of a sudden, he is a player full of confidence with ball in hand. Despite standing 6’10, he has the handles to bring the ball up the floor and to take it full court and go all the way to finish at the rim.
He is also now confident and proficient enough to be isolated with his defender and create his own shot or drive it inside. His improved three-point shooting even with a hand in his face has been a pleasure to watch.
Then there is his improved defence. Some of the blocked shots he has delivered in recent games have been eye-catching, he’s also a better one-on-one defender and has stripped his opponent, and then capitalised to go up the other end and finished.
He put up a season-best 22 points, six rebounds and six assists against the South East Melbourne Phoenix on Sunday, and his coach Dan Shamir is marvelling at how far he has come this season.
“He has obviously made a very long journey during this season from starting a little bit slow to become a player that I haven’t seen many players doing the stuff that he’s doing,” Shamir said.
“I remember saying to a lot of people in the bad days and before we got him that there’s not a lot of players planet earth working with what he has.
“We are very, very happy for Ousmane that he was able to accomplish what he has during the season because when it was tough, nobody could promise that he would make this breakthrough and catch confidence, and play the way he plays within the season.
“He definitely has been showing it consistently now and the first time it really happened, I hadn’t seen a stretch like that from players at this age in any league. Now it’s already consistent and will apply to the next three games that we have left to play.”
PLENTY OF PRE-FINALS GOALS STILL FOR UNITED
Melbourne United has now qualified officially for another NBL finals appearance but five-time championship winning veteran Dave Barlow has outlined the goals they still have to tick off before that title push gets underway.
Melbourne are the defending champions and while there have been a couple of hiccups along the way this season, they remain on top of the ladder at 18-7 with two rounds remaining with a playoff appearance locked away.
They look most likely to at least finish top two and would be the favourites to maintain that first place to give them home court advantage throughout the finals. Given their 11-2 road record and the fact they’ve won in Sydney, Illawarra, Perth and Hobart, that might not matter too much anyway.
While it would be easy for a little bit of complacency to creep in over the final two weeks knowing that finals await, that won’t be happening with United according to 361-game veteran Barlow.
He is also yet to decide on his own future and whether or not he will continue beyond this season, but the 38-year-old remains as motivated as ever to continue to hold United to their high standards over their final three games.
That begins at home to the out of contention Brisbane Bullets and Cairns Taipans in Round 20, and then what could still be a critical game for the Tasmania JackJumpers in Hobart in the final round.
While it might be tempting for Melbourne to trial some different things and to freshen up ahead of the finals over the next two weeks, that looks unlikely to happen with Barlow setting clear their goals before he tries to help be part of what would be the sixth NBL championship of his career.
“I guess the impending finals is somewhat in the back of our minds but there are always goals and challenges prior to that,” Barlow said.
“We clinched a playoff spot with that win so you tick that box and then it’s about if you can achieve home court advantage, and first place. These are the most important things before we get to that point so that’s kind of where the focus is for us but we’re feeling good all-round.
“In the last few weeks we have performed at a level that is acceptable but I still feel we have room to grow. We want to try and achieve those goals and then are incredibly excited to have another opportunity to compete for a championship.
“It’s what you endeavour to do every year and we’re incredibly fortunate to have that in front of us again. I think everyone understands that so there’s somewhat of a contentment, but also an understanding that there’s a lot left.”
TAIPANS NEED TO PUT RESPECT BACK IN JERSEY
Cairns Taipans coach Adam Forde was concerned by what he saw from his team in losses to playoff contending teams in Round 19, and he is urging them to put the team first over the final two weeks.
The Taipans came into the round on their first three-game winning streak of the season. They were looking good in Hobart on Friday leading the Tasmania JackJumpers until the game turned when their general Scott Machado went down injured.
They ended up losing that game by seven and then delivered a disappointing second half at home to the league-leading Melbourne United on Sunday to end up losing by 29.
That has coach Forde concerned about what’s to come with away trips to Perth and Melbourne in the space of three days in Round 20, and then playing the red hot Sydney Kings three days later.
Forde couldn’t help but think he saw too much of players being out for themselves whether it was emerging players like Keanu Pinder or Bul Kuol listening to the hype, or other players on the team trying to prove too hard they still belonged in the NBL next season.
The only players Forde was happy with after the Melbourne loss was injury replacement guard Ben Ayre who made the start in Machado’s absence for seven points and five assists, and development player Brayden Inger who made the first two three-pointers of his NBL career.
Forde went as far to say that throughout the second half to United didn’t give the jersey the respect it deserved. He now hopes that the players can put their individual thoughts aside to do what’s best for the team over the last four matches.
“It really comes down to the individual. I know there are a lot of free agents on the team and I understand that, and there are a lot of guys who have done well and are going to warrant more income,” Forde said.
“There are also guys who aren’t doing very well and they are a bit nervous about what the future looks like. I understand that aspect of the sport and I’m the most real about it than anybody else I feel.
“You have to look at how you finish out this season and understand that what is most recent and relevant in people’s minds is how you go about this period right now.
“Yeah, we had a good little run winning three games in-a-row and everybody was enjoying each other’s company but now we put out a performance like that on our home court. This shows a lot about how you carry yourselves in the next two weeks.”
MITCHELL BACKS FOXWELL DESPITE THE CRITICS
The season hasn’t lived up to the expectations South East Melbourne Phoenix had but when looking for positives, coach Simon Mitchell is excited about the future of 18-year-old Owen Foxwell.
Before the Phoenix beat the New Zealand Breakers in Bendigo on Sunday, they had lost seven of their previous eight matches to go from knocking on the door of top spot to falling from playoff contention altogether.
It has been a period of frustration for coach Mitchell and it’s left him searching for answers in terms of players to bring the energy and intensity, and attention to detail to execute that nobody had been able to replicate after Ryan Broekhoff went out with a shoulder injury.
However, across the two games in Round 19, Mitchell was willing to throw teenage guard Foxwell into the deep end to play at critical moments both against Melbourne United and the Taipans, and he couldn’t have been happier.
Foxwell played 11 minutes in the Throwdown against United for four points and a rebound where he got the chance to play against the likes of Matthew Dellavedova, Shea Ili, Yudai Baba and Chris Goulding.
Mitchell then backed up by playing Foxwell for another 16 minutes on Sunday in Cairns where he produced two points, two rebounds, an assist and a steal in the 10-point win.
The coach went as far to say he was his MVP of the game afterwards and he couldn’t be more impressed with the young man who is still to decide what to do with his future with a college future still a possibility.
“The guy I really loved was Owen Foxwell. I just loved his game. If you’re handing out MVP votes from what I want to see, he probably gets the votes,” Mitchell said.
“He is a kid who is about to go off to play under-20 nationals and he was sitting down doing his VCE when he joined us. He’s had to bide his time and injuries create opportunities for guys and what we’re seeing on the floor the last few games we’ve been seeing at practice the majority of the year.
“I’m really proud of how he’s presented himself and some commentators thought it was a little bit reckless throwing him into the game early last time, but he’s proved them wrong. Good on him, we know what he’s capable and all our players know what he’s capable of.
“He’s not surprising us, but he’s definitely surprising some opponents and I love his defensive intensity, his ability to get into the ball and create a bit of havoc, and turn guys over. He’s a good kid and I can’t speak highly enough of his performance.”