The Sydney Kings are back-to-back champions.
After an enthralling series where each team appeared to have the title in their grasp at different stages, it was a fourth quarter run from the Kings that helped them edge out a tough Breakers team.
Kane Pitman, Olgun Uluc and Peter Hooley are here once again for the NBL23 finale of 3x3.
What was your favourite moment of the series?
Kane Pitman: Angus Glover with five consecutive points in the fourth quarter of Game 5.
The Kings were down seven with half a quarter to play and looked on the ropes. Glover was suffering from a suspected rib injury and could barely stand up straight, let alone breath. First, a heave from the corner hit the side of the backboard before he gathered the rebound and threw down a two-hand dunk. Next, he knocked down a straightaway triple that unglued Qudos Bank Arena and inspired his team as well as re-ignited belief in the home fans. It was the storybook heroic moment that every sports story has. Glover was heroic.
(There was also a little luck on the rebound prior to the dunk but hey, you need a little luck along the way on the road to a title.)
Olgun Uluc: This might be recency bias, and because I was in the building: Xavier Cooks' and-1 in the fourth quarter.
There were more impressive plays in the series - Justin Simon's back-to-back-to-back steals in Game 2 and Barry Brown Jr.'s dunk in Game 4 come to mind - but the putback layup through contact from Cooks in the final period of the series was maybe the loudest I've ever heard a basketball arena in the time I've covered the sport. It was deafening and felt like a cathartic moment for the fans in so many ways. That bucket gave the Kings a lead late in the fourth quarter that they wouldn't relinquish, and that it came from the league's MVP, who'd struggled with injuries all series, made it a really awesome moment to be in the building for.
Peter Hooley: Game 2 is something I'll remember for a very long time.
Being a former role player, that effort from the Kings bench was outstanding. The way that every player stepped on the floor and rose to the level that was required, it was an incredible game. It's safe to say that had they not managed to win that game, they wouldn't have been crowned champions. The Kings were one of the deepest teams all season long for a reason, and when they needed it the most, the confidence Chase Buford had instilled on that unit came through in spades.
What went right for Sydney?
Kane Pitman: The Sydney Kings defence and trusting the system.
All season long the Kings shut the tap off at the rim while coercing the opposition into tough shots and the championship series was no different. While the Breakers had some success in floater range, they were too often forced into taking long range attempts and overall, the Kings largely gave up shots they were willing to live with. Across the course of the series, the Breakers offensive rating was just 103.7, down from 112.3 across the entire season. Additionally, Barry Brown Jr. finished just 36.5% from the floor and 27% from three in five games which are numbers the Kings would have absolutely taken before Game 1.
Olgun Uluc: Their depth kept them afloat.
Chase Buford earned some criticism throughout the season for going very deep into his bench, which meant some of his substitutions were quick and the starters sometimes got limited minutes. What's clear is that Buford had the long game in mind. During this Championship Series, the Kings' role players stepped up in practically every game - from Angus Glover, to Jordan Hunter, Kouat Noi, Shaun Bruce, or Jaylin Galloway - and especially in Game 2 when the team's two All-NBL players were injured. Whether through injury or just not being someone's night, the Kings always had a bench guy they could put on the floor and trust they'd get the job done, and that sentiment was capped off by Angus Glover's heroic Game 5.
Peter Hooley: The bench
As I've stated a few times here, the bench unit was outstanding all series long for Chase Buford. I probably had Angus Glover as a close second to Justin Simon for the Championship MVP, as he was one player for Sydney who showed up every single game and made plays.
Game 5 from him will go down in history as one of the most impactful performances from a bench player in a deciding game. More to that, it was clear Buford knew all season long that he may need to call on his role players when they least expected it. Look back to the clutch moments against Cairns and Illawarra on Sydney's home floor. A game winner from Noi and then Shaun Bruce. They were more than ready for this series.
What went wrong for New Zealand?
Kane Pitman: Not a lot, but lack of offence hurt in the end.
The Breakers finished the regular season fifth in offensive efficiency and the longer the series went on, New Zealand found it challenging to find enough players to keep the scoreboard ticking over. On a points per game basis, the Breakers had the top three scorers of the series with Brown (18.4), Jarrell Brantley (17.0) and McDowell-White (13.6). After those three, the Kings had the next six top scorers. They simply had more options to ask questions of the Breakers defence when their top stars were battling health concerns.
Olgun Uluc: Hero ball.
The Breakers were unbelievably impressive all series; especially defensively, but also reacting and making adjustments to the way the majority of their sets were being guarded. When the ball was in Will McDowell-White's hands, there was a sense that Mody Maor's team would get at least a decent quality look every trip down the floor. Unfortunately, there were pockets where they went away from McDowell-White in order to let Brown Jr. effectively just isolate to go and hunt a bucket.
On one hand, he was the most prolific isolation scorer in the NBL; on the other, it's not a sustainable way to win basketball games. Brown Jr. won the Breakers some games by taking over in the fourth, but there's no question that style of play lost them a few as well.
Peter Hooley: Bit of everything at the wrong time
Over the course of the series I think New Zealand allowed a couple of players off the Kings bench to outwork them too often. It was Kouat Noi and Jordan Hunter in Game 2 and Angus Glover in game 5. With the MVP carrying an injury and really struggling to have any impact in the first four games, that was the time that the Breakers needed to step on Sydney and put them away.
Instead, they seemed to be on the back foot when bench guys came in and made an impact. In terms of Game 5, that fourth quarter was strange. For some reason they went away from putting the ball in Will McDowell-White's hands. He's too unselfish not to trust him to make the right decision in the moment.