14/04/2024

(Photo: Sydney Kings/Twitter)

After 18 rounds and a gruelling two weeks of finals basketball, the stage is set for the two top NBL clubs to duel it out in a best-of-five game series to hoist the illustrious Dr. John Raschke trophy.

The Sydney Kings look to become the ninth team to re-appear after last year’s Grand Final series against Tasmania, defeating the JackJumpers 3-0, with Xavier Cooks claiming Grand Final MVP. The New Zealand Breakers, meanwhile, have returned for the first time since 2016 and will look to grasp a fifth NBL championship to break the tie with the Kings for third most among teams.

The series will be an offensive showcase of skill and ball movement, with the Kings ranked eighth in defensive rating while the Breakers are ranked last. Making way for a high-scoring affair that should call for an increase of defensive intensity from all players.

In what was the first coaching ejection of the season last week, Kings coach Chase Buford needs to stay calm and composed if he wants to lead his team toward the promise land once again. Especially with Buford going up against Breakers coach, Mody Maor who was also a candidate for this year’s Coach of the Year award.

Can Xavier Cooks top off a potential perfect season? Will the Breakers prove everyone wrong again and reset the balance of the league? What x-factors could make a significant stamp?

Let’s take a look at some of the factors that will defy the series.

Previous Matchups

Since the beginning of the season, the Kings have been favoured by all to be the team most likely to finish atop the ladder and repeat for another championship. Reflective of their season series against the Breakers, where they won 2-1.

In their first meeting, the Kings narrowly won by just four points after a late final quarter comeback led by Izayah Le’Afa from the Breakers. A lead was built up early thanks to the fast-paced nature of the Kings’ offence that allowed the players freedom to isolate while having the option of finding teammates cutting to the basket.

Weaknesses slowly but surely started to crack for the Kings, with Le’Afa taking full control of the pick-and-roll centric offence that highlighted the Kings’ lack of interior defence.

The second game showcased a similar story to the first, a slow start from the Breakers that held them back from a chance at the win despite, going on big scoring runs throughout the second half.

While the most recent game provided proof that the team who strikes first wins, with the Breakers overcoming the Kings in Sydney thanks to a 14-point lead at halftime. A terrible shooting night from the Kings made way for a 30-point, 9 rebound and 5 assist game from Jarrell Brantley, who stepped up as the first-option in Barry Brown Jr’s. absence.

A Battle of the Guards

One key matchup to look out for throughout the series will be the Kings’ Derrick Walton Jr. going up against opposing point guard Will McDowell-White.

Walton Jr. has had a season to remember, with the import gaining recognition by being named All-NBL First Team, while McDowell-White continues to improve after almost winning the league’s Most Improved Player award this year.

Walton Jr. has notched averages of 16.4 points, 3.9 rebounds on 47% shooting and finished second in the league in assists at 6.4 a game.

His shot creating play is reminiscent of former Kings guard Casper Ware Jr., in his ability to be a three-level scorer while finding ways to get the ball to a talented scoring starting unit.

While McDowell-White has been the captain commanding the Breaker brigade, being a constant defensive spark along with having one of the best assist-to-turnover ratio’s in the league.

Recording averages of 10.2 points, 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds, McDowell-White has been the staple all-around guard in the league this season and will be a free agent all teams will want to grab for next season.

In terms of how the two went in the season series, both have averaged 15 points in the three games played, with McDowell-White slightly winning by averaging three more assists at seven a game.

Look for Rayan Rupert to guard Walton Jr. and Justin Simons to handle McDowell-White for the series, with both coaches most likely wanting their best defenders on the prolific guards as seen in their previous duels.

X-Factors Crossover

There are many different scenarios and possibilities that could flip any factor of the series going forward but in terms of x-factors, none are more vital than Barry Brown Jr. and Justin Simon for their team’s offence and defence respectively.

Brown Jr. has lifted the Breakers in the final series so far and shows no signs of slowing down, while Simons has remained a constant force of consistency for the Kings all season.

Brown Jr. has been the import gift that keeps on giving by having of one the best individual seasons in the league on his way to an All-NBL Second Team selection.

The guard has cracked the top five in points per game for the league with 19 a game and has just come off the best individual finals performance this year with his 32-point game that sealed the Breakers Grand Final spot.

While many praise the likes of Cooks, Walton Jr. and Vasiljevic for the Kings success, it’s Simon who has quietly flown under the radar this season as one of the league’s top defenders.

He is a player that can guard all positions on the floor which well prove pivotal against a tall Breaker line-up and when giving the chance to step up offensively, Simon is more the capable after averaging 10.0 points per game on 49% shooting, ranking among the league best.

The two are poised to go up against each other individually, with Simon taking the assignment on Brown Jr. in every minute he has been on the court in their matchups.

Though while Simon has been regarded as the league’s best one-on-one stopper, Brown Jr. has averaged 18.5 points against him a factor he must keep up if the Breakers want any chance of lifting the gold.

The Big Breaker Towers

Part of the Breakers squashing season-low expectations has been their addition of two import’s, who’s dominance in the paint has left the league scrambling for answers.

Big man Dererk Pardon and Jarrell Brantley have imposed a culture of defensive intensity that has been contagious from the starters to the bottom of the bench.

Pardon has produced a season of paint dominance, the American big man has compiled averages of 12.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks on 65% shooting for the season.

The All-NBL second teamer has become integral in the Breakers offence through their pick-and-roll centric playstyle that utilises Pardon’s putback and cutting game to full advantage, that have still left teams still looking for ways to contain.

The Breakers paint attack is not complete without Brantley’s ability to stretch the floor and defend the paint just as well as his frontcourt partner Pardon.

Brantley has shined as the most impactful second-option in the league on his way to 16 points a game, with a level of versatility on defence that looks to potentially slow down Cooks and Simon and the troubles that come from the Kings fast-paced offence.

An MVP’s time to shine

With the Kings reign has come the rise of the NBL’s top player in Xavier Cooks, with a season that may just see him make the trip overseas next year to the NBA.

Cooks has only continued to help elevate his team to a first-place finish, setting a staple of two-way excellence whilst being an all-around contributor on the basketball court, a factor that was most evident with his league historic triple-double against the Phoenix.

Cooks looks to turn the tide on his finals production after just passing through a semi-final series that tested every type of defence against the forward.

Eventually able to break the hold on the Taipans, with a double-double of 27 points and 12 rebounds that pushed the Kings in the Grand Final spot.

If the Kings want to keep the series in control, Cooks will need to look to find his own shot more often in a way that is reflective of how he stepped up in the absence of MVP Jaylen Adams last year.

However, the Breakers have proven that they are more than capable of slowing him on the day, reducing him to less points, rebounds and assists than his season averages in the three times he has played them.

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