Image: Tasmania JackJumpers twitter

It’s that time of year in the NBL.

The euphoria of high-octane postseason basketball action, in which every play carries implications.

For the Tasmania JackJumpers, Illawarra Hawks, Sydney Kings, and the New Zealand Breakers, they are competing for their lives.

Melbourne United and the Perth Wildcats wait in the background, currently having three weeks off after locking away top two positions.

Both play-in games take place on Wednesday, starting with the JackJumpers v Hawks at MyState Bank Arena in the Apple Isle.

Tasmania took two of three regular-season meetings, although Illawarra won an overtime thriller on the JackJumpers’ home floor 108-107 in January. Gary Clark was instrumental that night posting 25 points and 15 rebounds.

The JackJumpers will feature in a third-consecutive postseason since entering the league in NBL22. As for the Hawks, they return to the postseason after a calamitous NBL23 which saw them register a franchise-low three victories.

Illawarra’s journey this regular season has come with its ups and downs. Firstly, the appointment of Justin Tatum after firing Jacob Jackomas in mid-November has seen the Hawks take their game to new heights.

Tatum’s appointment has brought about a new level of accountability, particularly in defining everyone’s role, with Gary Clark becoming the offensive focal point.

NBL writer Tom Hersz believes Illawarra have nothing to lose tomorrow night.

“If they can somehow sneak a win, which is gonna be tough in Tassie, whatever they do from there, it’s a bonus given where they were. But it’s not gonna be easy,” Hersz told The Inner Sanctum.

Knocking off the disciplinarian-minded JackJumpers under coach Scott Roth won’t be easy. Despite losing seven games during the regular season by five points or less, they found their form at the season’s home stretch, winning five of their final six games.

Compressing half-court defence is Tasmania’s game, where they have ranked in the top three in defensive rating in two of their three seasons.

But what tends to go under the radar is their precise offence. The JackJumpers finished first in three-point shooting (37.7 per cent) and second in three-point attempts (29.5 per game).

Four JackJumpers players, Most Improved Sean McDonald (46.8 per cent), Jordon Crawford (38 per cent), Anthony Drmic (37.1 per cent), and Jack McVeigh (36.4 per cent), all shot higher than 35 per cent from downtown.

Tasmania blew apart Illawarra on 12 October behind a three-ball barrage, knocking down a franchise-record 18 threes.

Hersz points to Illawarra’s much-improved defence to take on the challenge of mitigating the JackJumpers’ surgical offence.

“You’ve got to be conscious of the way you defend the perimeter against this team,” he said.

“It’s easier said than done because you can say, ‘Okay, close out hard and make them put the ball on the floor.’ But Jordon Crawford, Milton Doyle, and even Jack McVeigh, when they put the ball on the floor and they get two feet in the paint, they’re even more dangerous.

“It’s going to come down to help coverage and how you close out. And if you do make them put the ball on the floor, how you then cut them off when you get into defensive rotations, make sure you’re contesting hard.

“You kind of almost want to force a tough attempt at the rim, or you want to force the mid-range jumper if you can.”

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At Tasmania’s disposal is big men Will Magnay and Marcus Lee.

Magnay led the league in the regular season for blocks with 1.7 per game, whilst Lee finished with 0.8 per game.

Throughout the season, Roth didn’t hesitate to shift the magnets, starting Magnay ahead of Lee.

Lee is prone to foul trouble, picking up three or more fouls in a game on 18 occasions this season, fouling out three times.

Despite this, the 211 cm was a presence, notably in the team’s first encounter with Illawarra. He quelled Sam Froling’s left-handed short jumpers around the rim, restricting him to only eight points on four-of-11 shooting.

“It doesn’t matter which one starts and how many minutes they play because on any given night, they’re going to have a different impact,” Hersz said.

“We’ve seen some nights, Marcus Lee be really strong when he gets off to a good start. And then, on other nights, he is prone to getting himself into foul trouble, averaging three fouls.

“Will Magnay came off the bench to start with, because he wasn’t healthy at the start of the season. And as he’s ramped up, he’s having more of a positive impact.

“He probably gives them a slightly different look offensively than Lee. They’re both really good in pick-and-roll settings, diving hard to the rim and crashing hard to the rim. And they’re both really strong lob threats. But Magnay probably has a few more moves around the basket as well, can face up a little bit and stick a 15-foot jump shot if he needs to.

“But either way as an opponent, you’re gonna have to contend with one of those two guys on the floor at any one time.”

An area of Illawarra’s rapid improvement from underdog to legitimate contender is their commitment to the defensive end.

In the first nine games under Jackomas, the Hawks conceded 100 points four times and 90 points twice, ranking as the league’s worst defensive unit, allowing 95.3 points.

They may have given up 100 points three times under Tatum, but overall, their defensive attention to detail comprehensively put them in the top five conceding 89.9 points per game.

Going 12-7 in the final 19 matches, the Hawks conceded only 87.4 points per game, guaranteeing their play-in spot.

Their turnaround stems from Tatum’s first game in charge against the New Zealand Breakers on November 19, only giving up 65 points on 32 per cent shooting and 28 per cent from beyond the arc.

But their strength is their constant relentlessness to pound the paint and place pressure on the opposition’s interior. Illawarra were number one in the regular season for points in the paint at an average of 45.9 per game.

Adding to their dynamic play is their quickness to push the tempo to generate easy fastbreak points in transition. It’s a proposition that could decide the match.

“It’s going to make for a really interesting matchup because Illawarra wants to push the pace,” Hersz said.

“We know that the JackJumpers traditionally want to slow it down as much as possible and make it almost a bit of a grind. They’ve run a little bit more this year because Jordon Crawford’s that kind of push-up-the-floor point guard, a bit more than what they had in Josh Magette in years past. But it certainly is much more of a half-court-oriented defensive team.

“So the Hawks need to utilise those young legs they have.”

As for the play-in outcome, Hersz has the JackJumpers postseason experience being the difference and advancing to take on the Perth Wildcats.

“As good as Illawarra has been in the second half, I love the way the JackJumpers have been building to this point. That really strong finish, winning five of six games, just puts them in a really good state to come into this game with a lot of confidence,” he said.

“They’ve got a healthy roster right now except for Majok Deng, not sure whether he’s going to be back for this one. But there’s a chance.

“I think at home, they’re going to be a little bit too tough for that Hawks outfit.”

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