Adelaide 36ers v Cairns Taipans
When: 7.30pm (AEDT), Saturday 11 February
Where: Titanium Security Arena, Adelaide
Broadcast: NBL TV; Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ
The Cairns Taipans got the job done on Thursday night, overrunning a 36ers team resting their stars as coach Joey Wright cast one eye towards the playoffs.
“You can only play who they are playing out there,” Taipans boss Aaron Fearne said.
“If I was in the same shoes as Joey I would be trying to freshen my guys up for the playoff run for sure, he’s got it locked in.
“It’s no different to what we’ve done in the past, you try to keep your group fresh, because everyone’s carrying some kind of niggle at this point.”
— Mark Worthington (@Wortho33) February 10, 2017
The 89-85 win – which ultimately sealed Cairns’ playoff berth, much to the enjoyment of the retiring Mark Worthington – was sparked by a 23-7 run bridging three-quarter-time, during which the Taipans nailed six big triples.
“I think it’s been a bit of a theme with us, that’s the way we’ve played, we have the ability just to grind in there for a bit and then we just get on these rolls,” Fearne said.
“We’ve shot the three-ball well all year, I think we’re second or third in the league, so we have the ability to do that.”
Insightfully, Fearne pointed out there is another very important reason why Wright had his reserves playing extra minutes with a post-season ticket already stamped.
“When you get to the playoffs you have to call on somebody at some point,” he said.
“Your key guys are going to come out and play but you’re going to need those bench guys, those role guys to come out and they might have a purple patch that will win you a playoff game and he’s giving those guys an opportunity to play.”
Two seasons ago, Fearne watched Rhys Carter and Tai Wesley play that role for New Zealand as they swept the Taipans in the grand final, while Wright will be hoping for something similar from the likes of Majok Deng and Anthony Drmic.
The 36ers’ rookie swingman has averaged 11.5ppg at 68 per cent from the field and 12-of-19 from the arc in his past four games – including 17 points in 18 minutes against Cairns – while Deng nailed 2-of-4 from range on Thursday to spread the floor.
“It’s great having those guys come in and do what they did, their confidence should be riding high and they’ve had some great trainings of late as well,” Wright said.
“It’s not a surprise, with those two bombing away like that it gives us another threat.”
Wright gave his bench 96 of the 200 minutes in Cairns and liked what he saw.
“We wanted to test some guys so we know what we’re going to get in minutes come playoffs,” he said.
“We knew (the Taipans) were fighting to stay in playoffs so it was going to be a playoff atmosphere, and I thought some of our young guys did real good under the pressure.”
— NBL (@NBL) February 9, 2017
The two teams meet again on Saturday night in Adelaide, and now Cairns’ are locked into their second post-season campaign in three years, Fearne must be tempted to rest some key players after the long and arduous road they have taken.
“We’ve won six of our last eight games, we’ve had to pretty much play playoff basketball for the last quarter of the season,” he said.
“The guys have battled hard and found a way and incorporated a player in, and dealing with Wortho not practising with his shoulder how it is, there’s definitely been some interesting weeks leading up.”
However, the Taipans can still claim second place and home-court advantage in the semi-finals if they prevail and Perth fall on Sunday – or if Cairns, Illawarra and the Wildcats all win – and that will undoubtedly be Fearne’s motivating point.
Cairns will also be keen to figure out how new import Tony Mitchell can best be used against the 36ers.
— NBL (@NBL) February 9, 2017
In the lead-up to Thursday’s game, Fearne said his small forward’s athleticism and physicality would be an asset against Adelaide’s fast-paced style, but the 36ers targeted him to the tune of 2-of-8 shooting, three turnovers and a plus-minus of -17 in 19 minutes.
The Taipans will also be keen to get point guard Travis Trice some easy looks, after his 4-of-14 display on Thursday took him to a wayward 10-of-36 against the 36ers this season.
Given these teams could still meet in the semi-finals, coach Wright will be keen to solve the interior puzzle presented on Thursday night, when Nate Jawai and Nnanna Egwu combined for 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting.
With Jawai saddled by foul trouble, Egwu stepped up as he has so often this season and produced within the team system.
“What I’ve appreciated about Nnanna has been his maturity, his professionalism for a young guy,” Fearne said.
“Playing behind Nate as an import, hasn’t complained about it one time, and when he gets the chance to play his head’s always in the right place.
“He does what he does really well and doesn’t try to do things he’s not good enough at right now. He’s come in multiple times and just sparked us.”
— NBL (@NBL) February 9, 2017
Fearne has no doubt Wright will have his team fired up for their final regular season game in front of what shapes as yet another packed house.
“They’re going to want to come out (hard), they played very hard tonight,” he said post-game on Thursday.
“He’s done a phenomenal job with that group, the average age (is) about 22 years old, come on, they’re like a college team, and that’s no disrespect to them.
“You’ve got Randle out there, he’s the MVP of the league and he’s their alpha dog out there and runs the show and powers those guys and Joey’s got them playing at an extremely high level.
“He should be really proud of what he’s done with that group, they’re sensational.”
Wright reports that Randle will hopefully “play the minutes we need him to play” after registering just 11 minutes in Cairns, but says his MVP “still won’t play the minutes he has been playing”.
And the 36ers’ play-caller isn’t worried about his team being out of kilter heading into the post-season, regardless of losing their past three games.
“You can play a hell of a game and lose, just because you lose a game doesn’t mean you’re out of form, just because you win a game doesn’t mean you’re in form,” he said.
“We’re not out of form, we’re playing good basketball.”