By Matt McQuade
I’ve often talked about the importance of parity in the National Basketball League.
From a fan’s perspective, having a competition where the outcome of any game isn’t so obviously skewed to one team, where there is always the possibility of upsets and where as a team you need to bring your A game every night if you want to get that W – all that helps to maintain interest and involvement in a competition.
But then there’s the other side of the coin – when you have a situation where two or maybe three powerhouse ballclubs separate themselves from the rest of the pack, who establish themselves as far and away the dominant forces in the league and are almost guaranteed to reach the playoffs at the very least.
As a pure basketball fan, there’s something to be said for games featuring those standout teams – even if you don’t necessarily support one of the squads involved in that type of duel; those are the battles that pique the interest more so than your average garden variety regular season or playoff game.
Back in the 1980s, they used to call the bi-annual meeting of the NBA’s Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers ‘Armageddon’ mainly because of the rivalry that existed between the legendary Larry Bird and Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, but also because it was east meets west, blue collar versus Showtime; a clash of divergent styles. No other games in the NBA regular season came close to the television ratings those games used to generate.
Closer to home, those who were in Melbourne in the early to mid 1990s remember with fondness the intense hatred that existed between Brian Goorjian’s South East Melbourne Magic and Lindsay Gaze’s Melbourne Tigers, and how that translated into 15,000 strong crowds at the then National Tennis Centre. Goorjian’s brutal defensive philosophy ranged against the free-flowing Tiger offence led by the greatest of them all Andrew Gaze and his running mate Lanard Copeland; the depth and muscle of the Magic doing battle with the Tiger fast break attack featuring the immortal Gaze to Copeland alley-oop.
It made for great television, gave the NBL a national profile it had never had previously, and was an enduring storyline for years.
Since those halcyon days, the league hasn’t quite had those intriguing matchups that transcend the usual fandom, but in the last two to three years, that situation has changed with the emergence of the Perth Wildcats and New Zealand Breakers as prime-time ballclubs.
They went to war in a memorable three game Grand Final series in 2012 and have had a host of tremendous battles over the last few seasons. It’s become a rivalry that is comparable to some of the great ones of the past, and it has all the ingredients you need – rabid fanbases, great coaching, immense talent and depth and two contrasting styles. It is a test of wills whenever these two titans go between the lines – and it makes for compelling viewing, no matter your affiliation.
And with another epic confrontation quickly approaching between these two giants of the National Basketball League, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to have a chat with New Zealand’s superb floor leader Cedric Jackson, who in the eyes of most has established himself as this competition’s best player.
The unassuming import point guard has been nothing short of spectacular for the Breakers this season, doing it all at both ends of the floor. He leads the iiNet NBL Championship in assists and steals, is eighth in scoring, and earlier this season recorded a remarkable triple double – rare in this 40 minute era – against the Melbourne Tigers.
The standout MVP candidate spoke to me about life as a Breaker, gave his take on the NBL, and went through some of his history in the game, including his experiences in college with St John’s and Cleveland State.
The team has a great winning streak going and has really come together over the past couple of months. What do you put that down to?
Ah you know, just the chemistry. The coaching staff has really brought us closer together...it’s just a lot of things really. As a team, we try to be great every single day and try to be great at everything we do...even though we’re not perfect everybody is working hard to try and get their game better.
You’ve been able to pull out a few wins in close games – how much does that experience last season winning the championship help in situations like that?
It definitely helps a lot, because in certain situations you know what to do...with go-to plays and go-to guys; when’s the best time to attack the rim and things like that. There are guys on this team who really set the tone and the rest of us just follow suit.
You were an integral part of last season’s championship team. What’s the comparison for you between that squad and this current Breaker unit?
We’re a totally different team to what we were last year, even though we had so many guys coming back. We had a pick and pop guy last season who would drain threes every time in Gary Wilkinson; now we have Will Hudson who’s a big target down low...he can run the screen and roll, he can hit the jump shot and he’s a great energy guy. We pretty much have the same pieces we did last season, but added just a couple of new guys...Corey Webster is back and he’s backing me up, he can shoot the ball and handle it well. I think we are different from last year in that we like to push the tempo more, we try to attack more than we did last year.
What are your thoughts on Andrej Lemanis as a coach?
Actually, I don’t know where to even start. He’s a hard worker – while the playing group is trying to get some rest, he, Dean Vickerman and Judd Flavell are working hard trying to put us in the best situation to win. Even though certain teams have bad records, they are still good though if you know what I mean. So it’s important that Andrej and the coaching staff prepare us well and they do a great job in not allowing us to slack off. They have no problem in calling any of us out right in front of everybody – we’re a family too, so everything is all out in the open. If anything wrong is going on, we will always discuss it. Andrej is a frontrunner, man...we follow him and just try to follow what he does.
How big is it for you to play for such a great organisation and team as the Breakers?
Well when I first came out here I remember saying how lucky I was because before that I didn’t know how good the team was – I always thought I was fortunate to land on a good team where you didn’t have to kill yourself every night just to, you know, try and help your team win. The great thing about our team as you know is that we have a lot of weapons. I don’t really expect to continue to score all the time because other guys can do that for us...I see a lot of teams trying to make me the focal point of their defence which is fine because we have a lot of veterans who can take advantage of that – that’s when I can get our other guys involved. We have a lot of veterans who know what it takes, and the guys who weren’t here last year just follow suit. Our chemistry is working very well.
Why did you decide to make the move to New Zealand and the NBL?
Well I was playing in the D-League (NBA Development League) at the time, and I wanted to see what life was like overseas. I had a really good conversation with Andrej; told him a little bit about my game and my commitment to defence, working hard, getting guys open...there were a lot of things that he really agreed with. He’s just the kind of coach that I like to play for so I just made that move. It was a little scary at first because it was my first time in New Zealand, but the guys really took care of me, especially our owners. The owners were like my second set of parents, and then my teammates took me in and I started feeling more comfortable, to the point where this is now my second home.
There’s been a lot of talk around the fact we have a crop of great point guards in the league right now. What’s your take on the amount of talent and depth there is at your position in the NBL?
Man, it’s great. A lot of people are finding out about the NBL and a lot of people talked to me when I was in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, asking me how the NBL and New Zealand and Australia was. Certain guys I used to play with years ago are now in this league...it’s really a tough night every night in the NBL. You can never take a day off because the guards here – not just the imports but there’s a lot of good Australian point guards – are all really tough. You can’t fall asleep on any of them and it’s always a tough night playing against these aggressive point guards.
Of that crop, who has been your toughest opponent?
Yeah, the thing is I can’t really pick just one guy. We get someone different every night...the great thing about our team is that we try and base our defence on team help so if I get beat by a guard I have to trust the other guys that they will have my back and then I’ll take their guy or whatever. There’s not one single guy in the league who I’d single out as the toughest – all the other point guards are pretty much focal points for our team.
The triple double against Melbourne was one of the best individual performances in the league for many years. Talk about that game and how satisfying it was to play like that against an NBA lottery pick in Jonny Flynn.
Well, going into the game I just tried to reassure my coach and teammates that I played against Jonny before and everything like that...he lived not too far from where I grew up so it was fun to play against someone with whom I’m pretty familiar, but I wanted to reassure the team that it wasn’t going to be this one on one game like everyone was hyping it up to be. I just let everybody else hype everything up (laughs) but you know, I try and stay within the team. We had a game plan, and it just so happened that I was really aggressive that night and made a lot of shots. My coaches brought it to my attention that I was close to the triple double so they decided to put me back in the game – and it really felt good to get it. Not just because it was on Jonny, but because it’s really hard to get a triple double in a forty minute game.
You’ve got Perth upcoming – how excited are you for that matchup?
To be honest, we try and treat every game the same way. We prepare the same way, but ultimately we want to be focused on us and try not to worry too much about the opposition and what they do. However, we do remember the last couple of times we played the Wildcats...we didn’t play well against them. Not to take anything away from them – they played really well – and they are a very tough team. They are the number two team in the league for a reason, so there will definitely be higher stakes for the game this weekend.
Moving away from the NBL – your name has been bandied about as a potential NBA player, and you had a couple of brief stints with Washington, Cleveland and San Antonio. What would getting back to the Association mean to you?
It would mean that all my hard work paid off. I have to give all the credit in the world to the Breakers for helping me shape my game to where it is right now. They’ve definitely helped me in every aspect of my game and I would take what I’ve learned here and just bring it back home. It would definitely be a great accomplishment for me if I was to make an NBA roster.
You had an interesting college career – going from St John’s in the Big East, and all the profile that comes from playing in a major conference on the Atlantic seaboard, to Cleveland State in the Horizon League, where you took your team to a pair of appearances in the NCAA tournament. Why did you make that move initially?
Well, at St John’s, I was maybe the third or fourth guard coming off the bench. I definitely wanted to play a little bit more. Gary Waters is the reason I left St John’s – he was the coach at Rutgers where I was originally supposed to go, but they ended up getting a guy called Quincy Douby, who wound up in the NBA. So when Rutgers got him, I had to go and play somewhere else that was close to home. That first year at St John’s was fine, but then I didn’t do as well in my second year and I was losing my confidence. I knew I was better than that, so I sat down with my dad and my high school coach and we discussed it, and I just felt like it was time to make that move. I took all the experience that I had gained in the Big East – I knew what it took to play at that high level and I had gained that notoriety where everyone knew who I was – and I went to Cleveland State because Gary Waters was then coaching there. My career just went higher and higher from there.
Many people in this country don’t quite understand what playing in the NCAA tournament and March Madness is all about. Talk about the experience of getting to the tournament and playing in the NCAAs – especially when the Vikings knocked over Wake Forest.
Well the experience is crazy. First of all, you have to win your conference championship to go, unless you’re ranked as one of the top teams in the country. So us beating Butler for the conference championship – we made history because Cleveland State hadn’t been to the NCAAs since 1986. That was a great accomplishment for us. When we got there, our coach made us conscious of who we are and where we are. He told us that he didn’t want us to be just some team that just makes it to the NCAA tournament – even though we were playing against a team in Wake Forest that at one point that season was ranked as the number one team in the nation. That didn’t mean we were just going to lay down or whatnot...I mean everyone was calling that game David and Goliath. I’m not sure if everyone knows the biblical story, but Wake Forest was Goliath and we were David. Everyone took Wake Forest to win, which they should have based on the fact that everyone had seen them play and not too many people had seen us play. So we went into that game with total confidence, and we really started rolling, but we were very conscious about giving a team like that any life – they had a lot of NBA players on that team. But still, you know, that didn’t faze us, because we felt like we could play with anyone. So when we won the way that we did, we celebrated for a little bit, but we knew we had another game in two days – we had to play another tough team and that was Arizona. That didn’t work out, but at least we made it to the final 32 which was a great accomplishment for us. We wanted to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, but you know Arizona was a great team and they just outmatched us at every position. But we still left with our heads held high and we accomplished a lot that year – it was a great year for us.
Finally, just getting back to the NBL, you seem very content in Auckland. Obviously you’ve still got the goal of making the NBA, but if for whatever reason that doesn’t work out, do you see yourself as a long-term guy in New Zealand?
I definitely wouldn’t throw that option out the window. I’ve been approached about getting naturalised here and that would be great for this country. This country has shown me a lot of love, especially the owners of the team, the staff, everyone in the front office. I would definitely keep that open as an option, because this is a really good league. Anytime I go back home to the States I give the NBL praise, I tell people about how good this is. Really, the only challenge for me is just the travel.
A couple of seasons ago, I wrote how Joey Wright must have walked under a ladder, or broken a mirror, or committed any number of superstitious acts to warrant the incredible run of bad luck his Gold Coast team had with injury and illness.
Things were so bad for the Blaze, it was difficult to believe any team would ever face that type of adversity again – it seemed like that year was just a confluence of factors that couldn’t be duplicated.
Well, guess what? It’s happened again – this time to the unfortunate Wollongong Hawks.
To call the Hawks’ run of injuries this season brutal is almost understating the issue. Right from the start, this team has been snake-bitten to the extreme – if it wasn’t Tim Coenraad missing most of the early games with a particularly nasty episode of plantar fasciitis, it was Larry Davidson suffering a broken rib or Tyson Demos dealing with a knee problem.
But the season hit a nadir a fortnight ago when the team was just devastated by an almost unthinkable double blow – losing their starting backcourt in the same game to season-ending ACL injuries.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Glen Saville, one of the greatest Hawks of them all, suffered a knee injury in the team’s loss to New Zealand last week that at time of writing may have prematurely ended his magnificent career.
Wollongong head coach Gordie McLeod has always been great at keeping things on an even keel, at least outwardly. His mantra has always been that individuals aren’t important in the overall scheme of things – it’s about the team, and guys stepping up to cover when others go down. But Gordie must surely feel like he’s taken multiple punches to the gut this season with an injury list that would put a toll on a MASH unit.
It’s amazing that – under the circumstances – Wollongong hasn’t yet fallen out of the playoff race. But was Sav’s injury the final, unavoidable, knockout blow?
Like many rookies, Melbourne’s Nate Tomlinson has suffered through some growing pains in his first year in the professional ranks.
Playing ball with and against hardened pros is a far cry from even the cut and thrust of college basketball in the US, which is highly competitive but still not at the same level as a quality league like the iiNet NBL Championship.
There have been times where some Tiger fans may have thrown their hands up in despair and wondered if Nate really had a future in the National Basketball League, but for some kids, it just takes a little longer than others to make the adjustment and patience is required.
I bring this up because I found an article online recently which speaks to the kind of impact Nate had during his four-year stint at the University of Colorado – and also should give Melbourne fans some confidence that he will be a significant contributor down the track.
The story on the website of the local paper in Boulder, Colorado – the Boulder Daily Camera – is about the university’s current struggles this season. The article quotes Coach Tad Boyle as attributing Nate’s loss to the program as a big reason why the Buffaloes have had major issues in their current campaign.
“Nate didn't care about scoring, he didn't care about shooting” Boyle said. “All Nate wanted to do was win. The thing about Nate is he had enough nastiness to him and competitiveness to him that he held his teammates accountable to what we wanted to get done. We miss Nate a lot.”
Junior forward Andre Roberson echoed his coach’s words.
“Nate was a special guy,” Roberson said. “Every person is different. He carried special characteristics that helped this team out a lot. I feel like we don't have a guy like that this year. We've got to go about a different type of leadership.”
Based off those words, it’s clear Tomlinson has those intangibles that winning teams covet. Tiger fans should accordingly be patient with him – this kid will deliver for them down the track.
There haven’t been too many bigger regular season games this season than the opener to Round 17 in the iiNet NBL Championship, as the 17-3 New Zealand Breakers throw down with the 13-4 Perth Wildcats at what will be a sold out, heaving Vector Arena this Friday night.
It may be that hoary old cliché of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object – New Zealand’s high-powered attack versus Perth’s in your face, physical defence – but it’s the only thing that fits this matchup of the two best teams in the National Basketball League.
The season series has been pretty one sided to date however. The Wildcats crushed the Breakers in the season opener in Auckland and repeated the dose in Round Eight, so even a win for New Zealand – unless it is in blowout fashion which is unlikely – won’t necessarily put them in the driver’s seat for the all important Minor Premiership.
Cam Tovey’s absence through injury puts the spotlight squarely on New Zealand’s Thomas Abercrombie, who needs to play at an All Star level given Perth don’t have a matchup for him with Tovey out. The Cedric Jackson-Damian Martin mini-war will as ever be a story to watch, while the Breakers have got to figure out a way to put the clamps on Kevin Lisch – he has gone for 20 and 18 points in the two games played in the regular season series.
The Breakers are on a tremendous roll right now and it’s easy to see their depth overcoming a wounded Perth outfit at home, but the ’Cats are incredibly resilient and I think they’ll just get past New Zealand in a thriller.
It’s really the last roll of the dice for the Adelaide 36ers this season as they take on the Wollongong Hawks at Adelaide Arena this Friday.
All but down and out after losing 10 of their previous 11 games, the window is almost shut on what has been a bitterly disappointing campaign for a 36er squad that was lauded as a title contender in the preseason but has greatly underachieved in 2012/13 and looks like a team just waiting for last rites to be administered.
Thing is though, this is a chance to hold off the funeral for another week as they catch the Wollongong Hawks at the perfect time.
The Hawks are beaten down physically and may come in to this game without Glen Saville, whose knee underwent scans on Tuesday to determine the seriousness of the injury he suffered last week early in his team’s loss to the Breakers. If he can’t go, Tim Coenraad will need to step up and likely play heavy minutes.
Adelaide’s import Scott Christopherson has been a disaster since coming in for CJ Massingale, but it’s not all his fault – often he’s looked clueless and out of his depth, but it doesn’t help when your coach decides to play you at the three spot on occasion. It’s time to start giving younger kids like Tom Daly his minutes given he clearly won’t be around next season.
Malcolm Grant had a nice game last week on debut for the Hawks and his matchup with Jason Cadee should be a highlight, while Daniel Johnson and Luke Schenscher will have their hands full with Oscar Forman and Larry Davidson and Adris Deleon is the X factor as ever – if he’s on, he can win this game by himself.
Given Wollongong is in freefall right now, and Adelaide is about ready to check out this season, this one is a tossup. But I think the 36ers will step up one last time at home and get the money.
Things are getting desperate for the Sydney Kings as they head to North Queensland to take on the Townsville Crocodiles at the Swamp this Saturday night.
The team that was 9-5 coming into the All Star break has struggled since the midseason holiday and are riding a four game losing streak right now. It’s clear their lack of depth has been brutally exposed as teams do more and more scouting on their tendencies, and they’ve been over-reliant on the likes of Ben Madgen and Corin Henry – albeit Ian Crosswhite has been immense in the last couple of weeks.
For their part, the Crocs have been terrific since solidifying their roster with Gary Ervin and Luke Nevill, and truth be told should have beaten Perth last week – only some clutch shooting from Matt Knight and Kevin Lisch denying them the pleasure of shutting up 10,000-plus fanatics in Perth Arena.
Peter Crawford has been a tremendous servant of the club and becomes the all-time leader in games played for Townsville with his 259th appearance this Saturday, so that should give the Crocodiles even more motivation to drop the Kings below .500 on the season.
On paper though, I actually believe Sydney matches up reasonably well with Townsville, who really only have a couple of bigs to throw at them in Nevill and Russell Hinder. I’m expecting a big game from Madgen, I think Crosswhite’s mobility will give Nevill trouble, and if they get decent contributions from the likes of Aaron Bruce and Darnell Lazare, they can get the job done.
In the end it will be close, but I’m tipping the upset. Despite their recent form, the Kings steal one at the Swamp.
Melbourne’s inconsistency could be their downfall this season when all is said and done, but they have a chance to win two straight and potentially knock Cairns right out of the playoff race when they meet the Taipans at the State Netball and Hockey Centre this Sunday.
The Tigers were dominated by Jamar Wilson at the Snakepit last week – Chris Anstey admitting that “Jamar kicked our asses” – but then bounced back to outlast the 36ers at the Cage and keep their playoff drive on course.
Jonny Flynn was dynamic against Adelaide and you would expect him to be thirsting for revenge against Wilson, who got the better of him in their previous meeting, and the Tigers need to do a better job scouting Cairns’ athletic import Shane Edwards, who admittedly hadn’t done much of anything before an inspired two minute burst last week turned the game on its head.
Look for Seth Scott to attack Cam Tragardh on the inside and for the Tigers to run wherever possible – time and again this season this team has shown it can be devastating in transition, not surprising given the athletes on this roster like a Chris Goulding, a Bennie Lewis or a Lucas Walker.
Again, tough game to call, but I like Flynn to lead the Tigers to a solid W.
In the final game of Round 17, Wollongong closes their modified Doomsday Double against the Wildcats at Perth Arena this Sunday.
The Hawks actually hold a 2-1 series lead over the Wildcats this season – not that it will matter in the final wash-up given there’s no chance Wollongong will catch Perth in the standings. Indeed, there’s a very real chance that the team that was once 8-3 and in second place on the ladder won’t even make the playoffs.
Injuries have destroyed the Hawks this season, and it’s a real shame, because the way they were playing earlier in 2012/13 it looked like they could be the team to challenge the Perth-New Zealand hegemony.
Perth respects Wollongong’s toughness and structure and there’s no way the Wildcats will take the Hawks lightly. Perth mentor Rob Beveridge knows Oscar Forman can bomb you out of the gym; Deleon is as explosive as they come and Larry Davidson can do some damage with his versatility.
But the Wildcats’ depth and relentless attitude is just too much for Wollongong to cope with. Damian Martin and Kevin Lisch will harass the Hawk backcourt incessantly, Shawn Redhage could go for big numbers given the visitors don’t have a matchup for him and Matty Knight is a low post target Wollongong will have all sorts of problems defending.
I think Perth jumps all over the Hawks early, and then cruises to an easy victory at the Arena.
Popular columnist and basketball tragic Matt McQuade has written for the National Basketball League and Basketball Australia since 2005 and was previously a regular contributor to national periodical Pro Basketball Today. He’s the play by play caller for Sydney Kings’ games on Sydney Kings Radio alongside NBL legend Bruce Bolden, and you can also hear him every Sunday night from 7:30pm with Cameron Luke on SEN 1116AM radio in Melbourne and on the web at www.sen.com.au with his weekly NBL wrap-up on the ‘Hoopin Around’ program.