NBL Round 3 Preview: Illawarra Hawks v SE Melbourne Phoenix

From nbl.com.au:

When: 8pm (AEDT), Saturday 19 October

Where: Melbourne Arena

Broadcast: ESPN; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand

The last time

SE Melbourne 116 (Kelly 21, Mackinnon 20, Ronaldson 17, Smith 17) d Illawarra 73 (Hatcher 18, Ritter 13, Campbell 12), Round 15, 1998, Melbourne Park

It wasn’t pretty the last time SE Melbourne welcomed the Hawks to town, now Cairns Taipans coach Mike Kelly racking up 21 points at 80 per cent as the hosts ran up a cricket score and downed the men from the ‘Gong by 43 points. Current Hawks GM Mat Campbell had a solid outing with 12 points and 5 boards to support pint-sized import Elliot Hatcher with 18.

The now

SE Melbourne shot 16-of-32 from long range that day back in 1998, and not much has changed with their latest reincarnation banging in 30-of-59 so far en route to becoming just the second expansion team to win their opening two games. At the other end the Phoenix are top two in four defensive statistical categories and quietly proving a tough nut to crack.

In contrast, Illawarra rank bottom two in five defensive categories, and are having all sorts of trouble finding line-ups that work, with Josh Boone and LaMelo Ball the worst statistical point guard-centre tandem for +/- at this early stage. Offensively the Hawks are struggling to convert high-percentage shots inside and out and are leaking points in d-trans as a result.

The stats

– Illawarra are missing the second-highest amount of three-pointers in the competition (19.3 per game) despite attempting the second fewest (25 per game)

– The Hawks rank bottom two in points against, fouls against, opposition free-throw attempts, oppo assist percentage and defensive rating

– SE Melbourne rank top two in opposition field-goal percentage (43%), oppo three-point accuracy (28%), oppo free-throw attempts (14FTA) and assists while playing at the league’s fastest statistical pace

– The Phoenix are averaging the most three-point makes (15 to second-placed Sydney’s 10) at the highest percentage (51% to second-placed Melbourne and Cairns on 36%)

The match-ups

Mitch Creek v Tim Coenraad – While the Phoenix are without Tai Wesley, slotting Creek into the power forward spot makes them more dangerous in a number of ways, particularly their ability to disrupt on D, rebound and run, space the floor to get into the lane and create. Against the Bullets, Creek provided all that and more with 25 points, 7 boards and 7 assists.

Illawarra moved Tim Coenraad into the starting line-up last Sunday and he didn’t disappoint, going 3-of-6 from outside and also dishing 5 assists. Former coach Rob Beveridge introduced Timmy to the power forward position to give the Hawks’ bench unit mobility and scoring power, but it appears new boss Matt Flynn will ask his veteran to step up even more in the four-spot.

John Roberson v Aaron Brooks – Two of the most explosive guards in the Hungry Jack’s NBL go head-to-head, and while Roberson runs the show for the Phoenix and Brooks plays off the ball for Illawarra, expect them to spend plenty of time matched up given the lack of alternate defensive options with the jets to keep up with this pair, and their importance to each team.

The Hawks went smaller in last Sunday’s win over Cairns and it allowed Brooks to shine, rebounding from his 3-point shocker in Perth with 19 points and 7 assists. Roberson doesn’t need much room at all to shine, nailing nine three-pointers against Brisbane to take his season’s tally to 25ppg on 13-of-17 from range, meaning Brooks’ ability to shadow him off screens is vital.

The quotes

The latest vogue in world basketball is the smaller, more mobile line-up, but it’s something that’s been long a feature of the Hungry Jack’s NBL.

Back in the last millennium all-court players like Chris Jent, Marcus Timmons and Kevin Brooks were manning the four-spot in this league with great success.

It’s a tradition that has continued with stars like Sam Mackinnon, Martin Cattalini, Mark Worthington, David Barlow, Shawn Redhage and Mika Vukona, amongst many others.

For various reasons, however, it’s a trend that has rarely been used in Wollongong, with more traditional power forwards like Melvin Thomas, Cam Tragardh, Nick Kay and Brian Conklin, or the shooting prowess of Adam Ballinger and Oscar Forman, owning the four-spot.

This season it was 211cm AJ Ogilvy taking the reigns, but after two losses to start 2019/20, coach Matt Flynn and star guard Aaron Brooks had a long chat on the return from Perth and found they were on the same page.

“You’ve got to adapt or die, right?” Flynn asked.

“So after the Perth game we all took stock, (Brooks) was the first guy, we spoke one-on-one after the game and we got some things out.

“You’ve got to lean on some guys with experience, and AB’s been around, he knows the game. He pointed out some things I already knew, but it was really good just to hear it from another voice.

In“The game of basketball’s changing universally, it’s going a lot smaller, we just felt at times that our system was clogging the lanes for some of the talent we’ve got, so we tried to make an adjustment.”

And adjust they did. Tim Coenraad moved into the starting line-up alongside the dead-eye Todd Blanchfield in the forward spots to try and solve the Hawks three-point woes, and also open up room for Ogilvy and Josh Boone – who will likely miss this game – in the paint.

“We just wanted to be more aggressive, play faster. Having Tim and Toddy out there, guys who can shoot the three, it opened up the driving lanes a little bit more and I felt like that helped us all out,” Brooks said.

“Tim Coenraad has been shooting great, and coach did a good job of making adjustments and playing on the fly. I think we got better and better as the game went on.”

The result was their first win of the season, and it left Flynn impressed with his group.

“They’re fast learners,” he said.

“We completely changed the way we were playing in 48 hours and they picked it up, some of the different structures we ran, we hadn’t even scrimmaged it.”

Illawarra’s change of tact is certainly still a work in progress, but it sets up an intriguing match-up with a SE Melbourne team who have gone smaller due to injury, but appear to have lost little in the process, thanks to Mitch Creek.

The Hawks are forcing 15 turnovers per game, second best in the league, but that aggression will be tough against Creek and the Phoenix, who will have replacement import Jaye Crockett in uniform.

“Having Mitch Creek as a four man, it’s really tough to start pressing and taking away stuff because he’s such an accomplished ball-handler,” coach Simon Mitchell said

“We saw a couple of times they were face guarding John, he would just go and stand in the corner and now it’s a four-on-four game and someone’s got to try and stay in front of Mitch.”

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