Tip-off: Monday, December 31, 6.30pm (local), Cairns Convention Centre
Broadcast: NBL.TV (live)
Last time they met: New Zealand 97 (Jackson 32, Pledger 13, Boucher 10) d Cairns 76 (Wilson 18, Edwards 15, Rychart 15), Round 11, 2012/13, Vector Arena, Auckland
The Cairns Taipans achieved a 34-28 win-loss record the past two seasons and impressively did so without being one of the league’s better offensive rebounding teams.
But this season things have changed, with the Taipans ranking up with powerhouses New Zealand and Perth on the O-boards.
“We try to attack the offensive glass hard,” coach Aaron Fearne said, revealing it begins with a battle royale on the practice court.
“From a training perspective you’ve got to make some really solid hits on box-outs or you'll be giving up offensive glass all the time.”
While this has added a new facet to the Taipans’ game, it has potentially turned a former strength into a weakness.
“Our biggest hole defensively has definitely been letting teams get out in transition on us,” Fearne said.
Where the Taipans were the masters of the tempo, this season opposition teams have been able to compile some staggering runs.
In Round 11, three nights apart, Cairns conceded a combined 63 points in their second quarters against New Zealand and Melbourne.
With a more talented offensive line-up, Fearne has encouraged his players to push the ball more often, but has watched repeatedly as poorly-chosen quick shots, combined with his team’s penchant for offensive rebounding, have left the back door open.
For his part Fearne doesn’t believe it is a rebounding issue, instead pointing to ill-discipline and failure to stick to the defensive structures.
“It’s really our inability to communicate and pick the ball up and get to our spots defensive transition-wise.”
That problem has been exaggerated by the partnership of "tweeners" Alex Loughton and Cam Tragardh in the frontcourt, who both struggle to contain guards coming off ball-screens and then compete inside with bigger opponents once forced out of position.
Fearne said he is encouraged by the patches of good form, frustrated by the inconsistency, and not closed to the idea of mixing up his frontcourt partnerships if that means getting results.
“You're always looking. Ultimately, I'm just trying to find the best group.”
So far this season the Taipans have pulled in 39 more offensive rebounds than their opponents, ranking second in the league. Last season they had a deficit of 54, placing them seventh.
In two games in Round 11 the Taipans were out-scored by 20 points in 33 minutes with Tragardh and Loughton on the court together.
Cairns are allowing opponents to shoot an equal league-high 45 per cent from the field.
In New Zealand’s three losses they have averaged only 12 free-throw attempts. In their nine victories they have gotten to the stripe 22.4 times a night.
The Taipans can ill-afford to let Cedric Jackson loose in transition, meaning they might need to choose between crashing the offensive boards or loading up their transition defence.
While much is required of point guard Jamar Wilson, he must lift his decision-making in offensive transition to ensure this game is played on the Taipans’ terms.
The Breakers have been inconsistent on the road this season and were well down in the effort areas in losses to Perth and Sydney.
After what should be a physical test on Friday night in Adelaide, the Breakers’ mettle could be tested if Cairns make a quick start and get their huge New Year’s Eve crowd involved.
Ultimately though, Wilson and the Taipans’ bigs have not shown they can consistently guard the on-ball screen, particularly in transition, and if Jackson again gets too much leeway the game could quickly slip through the home team’s fingers.
Prediction: Breakers by 8