With back-to-back titles on their mind, the Sydney Kings have advanced to the NBL23 championship series. While survive and advance is cliché, it doesn't feel overly dramatic to suggest this was a survival against a weary and shorthanded Cairns Taipans squad that refused to relent.
It was an enthralling and chippy matchup with Cairns, though the pre-series script was largely followed, even if there were some twists along the way.
Back in November, I wrote that in order to beat the Kings, an opposition team will likely have to make a high volume of shots that the defending champions' elite defence is willing to live with.
"The Kings defensive principles are simple: restrict shots at the rim, limit corner three attempts allowed, and coerce the opposition to shoot from the midrange or non-restricted area paint attempts (floater range). At 7-2 on the season, the Kings aren't unbeatable, though the data is indicating that to have success, you need to be able to hit the shots they force you to take."
Three months later, the formula remained the same for the Taipans. Of course, there is the rather large disclaimer that Cairns had been cruelly ravaged by injury, with Keanu Pinder missing the entirety of the series, Shannon Scott missing two games and Tahjere McCall one.
Cairns shot chart vs. Sydney (via spatialjam.com)
The Sydney Kings are an elite paint protecting defence. Between Xavier Cooks as the freelancer and Tim Soares as the stay-at-home rim protector, there are no easy buckets at the basket. Across the course of the series, the Taipans finished just 54% of their attempts at the rim on low volume, which falls 7% below league average. As is usually the case against Sydney, there were very minimal easy points on offer.
Already the highest volume 3-point shooting team in the league, the Taipans let it fly at an even higher rate in the postseason. Across the series, Cairns launched 101 attempts from beyond the arc, with 49% of their field goal attempts coming from three (up from 44% in the regular season). Additionally, 88.1% of those attempts came from above-the-break rather than the short corner three.
Overall, the Taipans hit just 32% of those 3-point attempts across the three games. On the season, they finished 32.3% from long range, just 0.1% above the worst mark in the league (Illawarra and South East Melbourne tied).
While timely 3-point makes kept them within striking distance and made them a dangerous opposition, it appeared the Kings were comfortable with certain players firing away from long range. Posting a 102.3 offensive rating in the series, the Taipans just couldn't find a way to generate enough offence, which was a problem throughout the season for a team that finished eighth for efficiency on that end of the floor.
Down the other end, the Kings attacked the basket with regularity, attempting 106 shots at the rim compared to 69 for the Taipans. Derrick Walton Jr. (15-for-20), Kouat Noi (9-for-14) and Xavier Cooks (17-for-31) were particularly damaging from within the arc.
Percentage of field goal attempts by zone (via SpatialJam.com)
Despite the contrast in shooting frequency by zone for each team, it is worth noting that the Taipans found their way to the free-throw line more than blindly looking at the shot chart would suggest. Overall, the Taipans attempted 71 free-throws to the Kings 61, with their 34.5% free-throw rate well above their season average.
From the outside, the Kings offensive wildcard continues to be Dejan Vasiljevic.
"I talked to Luc Longley and Andrew Bogut before the game, they said 'it will come'. In big moments I had to step up, be aggressive, keep the defence honest. I don't think I did that in the first two games. It just came."
Checking into the game with 4:34 to play in Game 3, Vasiljevic was 1-for-8 from three and 8-for-33 overall in the series. Soon after re-entering the game, the sharpshooter landed back-to-back daggers, drilling two triples in the space of 28 seconds to put the game on ice. On the season he is up to 36.9% from three on more than double the volume of any Sydney teammate.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment defensively from the Kings came in game three, with Justin Simon spending much of the game face guarding Taipans star D.J. Hogg.
"Justin Simon on D.J. Hogg was an elite performer tonight defensively," head coach Chase Buford said postgame. "D.J. Hogg's a heck of a player, he's probably gassed after carrying the load and the week he's had. I thought Justin did a really good job on him tonight, I thought that was a key."
"He just didn't let him get going, he didn't let him shoot the ball and that was our plan tonight. You have no responsibilities other than to take him away and I thought Justin did a great job."
Averaging 16.5 shot attempts and 24.5 points per game through Game 2, Hogg finished with nine points on just eight shots in the decider. Given the microwave nature of New Zealand import Barry Brown Jr., it's likely Simon will have some more chasing to do in the near future.
Undermanned and battling through a challenging postseason schedule, the Taipans run came to an end, but not before one hell of a fight.
"Credit to Cairns. Hell of a job," Buford said. "We're very aware that if they had been healthier with Pinder and Scott and McCall the whole series it might have looked different. They are a great team."
It certainly possible and entirely reasonable that personnel and fatigue changed and exaggerated the way the Taipans attempted to generate a winning score, but outside of some stretches of uncharacteristic Sydney defensive breakdowns, a lot of the numbers were as predicted. Next up, New Zealand.