The lasting image of this season will always be Cedric Jackson’s buzzer-beating half-court prayer in Perth – a shot both impossible and inevitable. It’s just been one of those seasons where things would be shuffling along without much fanfare and then, whack, a Josh Childress forearm, or better yet, a Jordan McRae transition dunk floods our screens.
Simply, there have been very few tired, phone-checking games this season. After all, numbers don’t lie:Based on everything we know so far, the playoffs are going to be wildly unpredictable. Every possession, matchup and little detail will matter. Let’s not be surprised if a match winner is born from an unlikely place.
In the lead-up to the 2015 NBL playoffs, Downtown will examine key players – X Factors – who may just unexpectedly swing a series for their teams.
New Zealand Breakers: Tai Wesley
There were a lot of ways for New Zealand’s fortunes to turn sour this season. After a brutal Tall Blacks’ World Cup schedule that condensed the Breakers’ preseason to merely two weeks, they had an excuse to be tired. With higher honours potentially awaiting Cedric Jackson and Tom Abercrombie in Europe, it would’ve been easier to get sidetracked by the ‘next contract’.
But here they are, once again, contending for another NBL championship. And we can mainly credit Jackson, from a tactical standpoint, and New Zealand’s depth for their ability to survive the regular season slog.
Adelaide now awaits them. In other words: Holy Brock Motum, Batman!
That leaves Tai Wesley – the heir apparent to Mika Vukona – as a bit of a wild card.
The Breakers need Wesley’s toughness and raw energy off the bench. Importantly, he’s another body Dean Vickerman can throw at Motum. And the thing is, he might just be the best matchup for Adelaide’s MVP. Sure, Wesley has a hard time jumping over anyone, but he’s an unmovable brute who can adeptly run the floor. If Adelaide decides to go big with Motum at the three, the Breakers can at least dabble at the idea of sliding Wesley over to neuter Motum’s post-game.
Wesley might only play 15-20 minutes a game, but those minutes will be crucial in determining whether New Zealand survives the 36ers’ booming offense.
Adelaide 36ers: Daniel Johnson
Adelaide committed highway robbery with its in season acquisitions of Brock Motum and Daniel Johnson. And they’ve straight murdered the league since. I have to check the math, but I think the body count rivals the Sean Bean tally.
We have to watch Joey Wright’s lineup choices. He might be tempted to roll out a beastly Gibson-Wilson-Motum-Petrie-Johnson lineup that would generate a bunch of problems for the Breakers to solve.
Because Cedric Jackson loves to live in the paint and collapse the defense, Adelaide’s ability to limit interior scoring will help determine the outcome of the series. Seriously, Johnson couldn’t have timed his return to Australia any better. He provides the sort of rim protection (1.7 blocks per game) that can make opponents think twice about brazenly attacking the rim.
On the other hand, if New Zealand’s big men dive into foul trouble, Adelaide can always dump the ball down low for Johnson to exploit the situation.
Really, anything they get from Johnson is an added bonus, which sounds insane considering he was Adelaide’s MVP for the past three seasons and an NBL first-team All Star in the 2013-14 campaign. But he wasn’t even donning the blue four weeks ago
Bottom line: The 36ers had the toolbox to win any series ever since Motum’s arrival. Now, it’s just freaking unfair.
Cairns Taipans: Torrey Craig
Torrey Craig is what X-Factor power really looks like:
When the Taipans’ offense is performing a ballet of movement with every player on the court inflicting mental and physical stress on their direct opponent, Cairns is a nightmare to contain.
As the regular season grew old, enemy defenses attempted to juke Cairns’ rhythm by pressing Scottie Wilbekin to shoot the ball even if it’s a good open look. The plan worked, to some degree. But Wilbekin has found a shooting rhythm, and Cairns has Aaron Fearne’s expert coaching to lean on. Still, we shouldn’t expect Perth to deviate from that chain of thought – switching on the pick-and-roll and going under screens.
And so, we return to the X Factor, who makes the Taipans a hair less predictable. He’s a devastating athlete who boasts heat check potential from the three-point line and a liking to the chest beating plays. Heck, every championship team needs a dose of crazy or unpredictability.
Craig’s a problem for the Wildcats. Not only does he form the league’s premier one-two-punch off the bench with Cameron Tragardh, but he also enjoyed three strong performances against the reigning champs including a ridiculous line of 21 points, 11 rebounds, 2 steals and 4 blocks in January.
Despite Craig’s fluctuating form (11 games of five points or less), Cairns has been a model of consistency this season. They own a plethora of weapons, of course, but none as damn flammable as Mr. Craig.
Perth Wildcats: DeAndre Daniels
The James Ennis Story set nearly impossible expectations on DeAndre Daniels. There was certainly reason to be excited about his arrival - especially after his 20 and 10 performance in UConn’s Final Four game against Florida - but Daniels was caught in a no-win situation. Comparing him with Ennis is unfair, and doing so has in fact undersold Daniels’ effectiveness and all-round play.
Tenacity, more than streaks of occasional greatness, defines the perfect player for Trevor Gleeson. And this, more than anything, explains why Daniels has actually been better than what you might have thought this year.
Daniels has averaged 8 rebounds per game, which is an elite number for a small forward, while sometimes showing a useful inside-outside game. There’s nothing pretty about it, other than Daniels’ ability to stir mismatches and provide a secondary scoring avenue for the Wildcats.
Home court and three-point shooting defined Perth’s season series with Cairns. In their two losses against the Taipans on the road, they shot a combined 20.5 percent from beyond the arc, while nailing 37 percent in their two home wins.
Sure, the Wildcats are built for defense, and it’s in that area where championships are won. But if we’re going to split the winner from the Perth-Cairns matchup, it’s probably coming down to who can shoot a superior clip from beyond the arc.
And so, the question is: Can the Wildcats inflict enough scoreboard pressure to make the Taipans squirm? No one quite knows the answer, but you can’t help feel that Daniels’ three-point radar will be a determining factor.
If Perth wants to return to the Grand Final series, they’ll need The Celebrant to smother Cedric Jackson, but they’ll also need a steady alternative-scoring element in their offense. I’m holding firm in Daniels’ ability to make it happen.
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