The New Zealand Breakers blew a golden opportunity to take a 2-0 series lead – and it could gift the Sydney Kings back-to-back NBL championships.
The Breakers had the ascendancy but after suffering stage fright at home they’ve handed the Kings the psychological advantage heading into Friday’s decisive Game 3.
Sydney is now in a prime position to defy the record books and claim another championship, despite only four teams in NBL history having won the title after losing the opening game of the series.
It won’t be easy for the Kings, though, as the men from the Harbour City struggle with injuries to star duo Xavier Cooks (ankle and corked thigh) and Derrick Walton Jr (cramps in quad).
Cooks and Walton Jr are “banged up” but they’ve vowed to push through the pain against the Breakers in Game 3.
It comes as Sydney is a live chance of breaking the NBL’s single-game attendance record in Friday night’s grand final clash with New Zealand.
Sydney owner Paul Smith said the Kings were tracking toward a crowd north of 17,000 at Qudos Bank Arena.
It puts the league record of 17,514, set by the club in November 2019, in sight and sets the scene for the Kings to avenge their opening game home loss.
Matt Logue and Michael Randall take a look at the 10 factors set to decide Game 3.
WHICH MCDOWELL-WHITE TURNS UP?
From chocolates to boiled lollies, The Breakers‘ playmaker produced a six turnover stinker in game two after a masterpiece in the series opener. He is the Breakers’ most-crucial player and must stand up under the heat.
Who is going to look after the ball?
Each team scored 22 points off turnovers, but the Breakers were hurt more, given they had three less than the Kings (20-17). NZ must keep the Kings closer to the 12 points from turnover they limited them to in game one to have any chance.
MAKE THE CALL, CHASE:
Tim Soares has failed the test in both games so far. It‘s time to give the better Aussie in Jordan Hunter carte blanche to start at the five. We get Soares suits the Kings run and gun style better, but Hunter has been superb in both games and showed he deserves a chance, especially in a quirky series where the Kings have had to adjust to key injuries.
If Derrick Walton Jr can‘t go, Xavier Cooks becomes even more important, given he is the team’s second-best playmaker. The playbook shrinks when he isn’t on the floor and, while Dejan Vasiljevic is manful directing traffic, he is more deadly operating off the ball as someone who commands defensive attention and can finish the excellent work of his teammates.
Dererk Pardon’s game-two numbers look good – 11 rebounds and four blocks – but a deeper look reveals the Breakers big man was a -10. Yet to pass the eye test in the series. The Breakers could use a 15-10 double-double to help carry the load.
SIMON SAYS ‘I’M THE FINALS MVP’:
No one has put together a better two-game stretch than defensive dynamo Justin Simon, who changed game two with four steals in the third quarter. Seems like he’s the guy the Breakers forgot. They must put time into him on both ends of the floor.
ROLE PLAYERS E-NOI-MOUS:
Kouat Noi talks a big game but doesn‘t always back it up. In game two, with Cooks and Walton wounded, he was huge with a team-high 20 points. If either of those men are hampered again, Noi will be a key, but they will also lean heavily on Shaun Bruce and Angus Glover.
The wins have gone to the away teams in each game. It will be extremely hard for the Breakers to silence a crowd of more than 17000 that could exceed an NBL record on Friday night. The Kings will hope a heaving Qudos Bank Arena can be their sixth man.
KINGS TO STICK WITH BREAKERS’ ZONE KILLER?
Sydney did a superb job of shutting down the Breakers in Game 2 with a zone defence.
The New Zealanders – who were restricted to just 74 points, didn’t how to kill the Kings’ zone in the halfcourt.
As a result, the Breakers were sloppy with the ball and they couldn’t hit their shots.
Can New Zealand make the necessary adjustments in Game 3?
BREAKERS MUST SLOW SYDNEY DOWN:
Sydney is the NBL’s premier side in transition. The Kings love to run the ball, and their fast-paced style is extremely difficult to contain.
Obviously, Cooks’ injury struggles have significantly prevented Sydney from producing its finest offence.
But if Xavier can stay on the court for longer in Game 3, it could be curtains for the Breakers.
IS MVP COOKED? KINGS STAR OPENS UP ON ‘UGLY’ BLOW
– Matt Logue
NBA bound Sydney Kings star Xavier Cooks has declared himself a certain starter for Friday’s crucial Game 3 grand final clash, despite conceding his “beat up” body is struggling with a corked thigh and an ankle injury.
Cooks declaration comes as fellow Kings star – guard Derrick Walton Jr – is also expected to put aside cramping in his thigh to take on the New Zealand Breakers.
It’s a double boost for Sydney, who still must defy history to win this year’s championship series after dropping Game 1.
Only four teams in NBL history have won the championship series after losing the opening game.
Cooks, though, is determined to push through the pain in a bid to claim back-to-back championships with the Kings.
“I’m going to give it a crack – no matter what, I’ll give it a crack,” said Cooks, who this week signed a two-year NBA deal with the Washington Wizards, which starts after this season’s NBL championship series.
“It’s more the cork, but it’s a mixture of everything. The ankle is swelling up on international flights, but with the cork I got hit twice in the same spot during Game 1 and I just couldn’t get going.
“On Sunday I tried to get warm to get going, but it just didn’t feel safe. My knee then started to blow up, and yeah, it was ugly.
“I tried to play, and the coach kept pulling me out because he didn’t want any further injuries going forward.
“But these four days off will be great. Obviously, my body is feeling pretty beat up, but it’s the grand final and I’ll try and get through it.”
Cooks is feeling confident heading into Game 3 on Friday night after watching the Kings beat the Breakers in Auckland to level the series at 1-all.
This year’s MVP labelled the victory the “gutsiest performance he has ever seen”, but he was especially elated with his side’s defence to restrict the Breakers to just 74 points.
Sydney adopted a “Dogs on a ball” defensive mindset to win last season’s championship and Cooks wants the Kings to bring the ruthless mindset back.
“For a good part of the year we were the best defensive side and we took pride in that, but in the last few months we’ve shifted away from that,” he said.
“We were winning games through our offensive ability and understanding of game plans.
“So, it was good to have a complete 40-minute defensive performance at an elite level in Game 2 because that is what it takes to win games in the playoffs.”
With more than 13,000 tickets already sold, Sydney is expecting its biggest crowd of the season when they host the Breakers in game three of the NBL23 championship series on Friday.
NBL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: GAME 3 (Series tied at 1-all)
Friday, March 10:
Sydney Kings vs. New Zealand Breakers at Qudos Bank Arena from 7.30pm (AEDT) and Live on ESPN and Kayo
Originally published as NBL finals: The 10 keys set to decide decisive NBL grand final Game 3