Image: Sydney Kings twitter

Stakes don’t come any higher than this.

It’s win or go home for the Sydney Kings or the New Zealand Breakers in the second and final play-in game at Qudos Bank Arena. A rematch of the NBL23 Grand Final, this match will not disappoint.

Under first-year coach Mahmoud Abdelfattah, inconsistency has typified the Sydney Kings’ season. Generating regular defensive stops has gradually become a talking point with every passing game. Lineup adjustments became the norm to establish continuity.

However, after a crushing loss to the Illawarra Hawks in the penultimate round, the two-time defending champions showed their mantle. The Kings would roll the South East Melbourne Phoenix by 55 points the next week to qualify, sealing a play-in ticket after a Brisbane Bullets loss to the Breakers 24 hours earlier.

For the New Zealand Breakers, adversity has been a constant theme.

They navigated parts of the season without Zylan Cheatham (foot) and Will McDowell-White (leg). But the most devastating blow was a season-ending Achilles injury to import Anthony Lamb against the Perth Wildcats in round 18.

The versatile forward became an immediate contributor to an efficient Breakers offence, with his adaptability to take his opponent down on the low block and punish defences by knocking down the three.

This matchup draws parallels with the Tasmania JackJumpers v Illawarra Hawks match. Sydney always seeks to push pace quickly, while New Zealand is offensively meticulous.

The Kings’ arsenal is their three-point shooting.

For the second time in three seasons, they finished first overall for threes attempted at 33.4 per game. But where their long-distance shooting can win them games, it’s their detriment in losses.

They were 23.7 per cent from beyond the arc against the Cairns Taipans in October, while they shot at 22.9 per cent from deep against the Adelaide 36ers in early February.

The Breakers’ three-point shooting on the other hand is an unheralded strength. They finished second in the league this season for three-point percentage at 37.2 per cent.

Whilst Lamb, who shot 36 percent from three is out, they have exceptional long-distance shooters. Next Stars Mantas Rubstavicius (43.2 per cent), Zylan Cheatham (41.7 per cent), Will McDowell-White (38.1 per cent), and Parker Jackson-Cartwright (35.1 per cent) have all proven capable of shooting the long ball.

“That’s been a real weapon for them. Even without Lamb, the way Parker Jackson-Cartwright has been shooting. The way Mantas Rubstavicius is a threat that has to be respected on the floor,” NBL writer Tom Hersz told The Inner Sanctum.

“You talk about Tom Abercrombie and even some of their bench guys that can come in and help out. They’ve built a nice offensive system, and credit to Mody Maor for the way that he’s done that.”

Playing at Qudos Bank Arena doesn’t hold any fears for the Breakers, who took game one of last season’s Grand Final series 95-87.

It nearly won the first encounter on Sydney’s home floor in the regular season, narrowly losing 87-85.

For the Sydney Kings, is their comprehensive victory over a short-handed Phoenix outfit a rejuvenation towards aiming for a three-peat, or is it a flash in the pan?

Before its all-important win, Sydney hit the staggers in the worst possible way, losing nine of 12, including five of six.

Jaylen Adams is their offensive barometer.

When he abundantly attacks the rim and is aggressive with his shot selection, the Kings are hard to contain.

An X-Factor is former Cairns Taipan D.J Hogg.

A shoulder injury has minimised his usual impact. But when the Kings needed him to fire, with their season hanging in the balance, he answered the call, scoring 25 points off the bench against the Phoenix.

“The Sydney Kings, on the other hand, this is a really interesting one because I just don’t know what to make of them week in and week out,” Hersz said.

“I mean we’ve seen them look absolutely abysmal and completely disconnected. And then we see them come out and beat the South East Melbourne Phoenix when their backs are against the wall. So the truth lies somewhere in between there for me.

“If they feel like they’ve got pride on the line and, they want to defend those two championships, then I think they’ll come out and play hard.”

When they have their tails up and in sync on both ends of the floor, quelling the Kings is a difficult task.

However, Hersz believes the two-time defending champions have to start well to keep their confidence levels high.

In their play-in securing win, the Kings made a change to their starting five, with former Philadelphia 76er Jonah Bolden replacing workhorse Jordan Hunter.

Hunter started in the previous 26 games.

Altering lineups isn’t foreign for coach Abdelfattah.

He’s been willing to experiment with various combinations, including bringing Denzel Valentine off the bench in a December 29 win over the Taipans.

Next Generation player Alex Toohey came off the bench in the previous four games before the Phoenix must-win finale.

Even last year’s Grand Final warrior, Angus Glover, recently started three games against Melbourne United, Adelaide 36ers, and the Illawarra Hawks.

Only Jaylen Adams started all 28 games this season.

Whether to keep Bolden ahead of Hunter is a lingering question.

Each player has its strengths, with Bolden’s range to stretch the floor (40.2 per cent from three). Hunter is the blue-collar worker on the glass, setting screens for his teammates to get open.

His strengths are evident rolling to the rim and is one of the most dangerous lob threats.

Whatever happens, the duo’s impact will be vital, going up against Mangok Mathiang, who prefers to patrol the paint and help weak side.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what coach Mahmoud does in that regard,” Hersz said.

“You have to feel like he’s going to go with Jordan Hunter, who’s been there and done that for him all season long. He’s been a real steady force for them on the interior.

“Jonah Bolden has gotten much better as the season has gone along. He gives them a different look in terms of that ability to stretch the floor.

“Jordan Hunter can stick the three. He’s not a high-volume shooter (1.04 threes attempted at 25 per cent in the regular season). He’s not a great percentage shooter.

“It’s going to be matchup-based. And it’s going to fluctuate at different points of the game.

“Bolden’s not going to come out and play 30-35 minutes. He’s going to split time with Jordan. So it’s going to be a different point of the game where that can have an impact. Whether that’s at the start of the game or coming off the bench, I’m not sure that matters.”

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To curb one of the league’s fastest point guards, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, the Kings have several players to take on the assignment.

But none better than dogged veteran Shaun Bruce.

Bruce was the hero in the first meeting, applying lockdown perimeter defence on Jackson-Cartwright, blocking his wild game-winning attempt, and ensuring the Kings won.

“Shaun Bruce, we know, is a dog defensively. He doesn’t back down from anyone. He’s gonna talk smack. He’s gonna try and get in PJC’s head,” Hersz said.

“So I think we’ll see that a fair bit. And that takes a bit of pressure off Jaylen Adams too. Because when those two take the floor together, Adams can guard the two-guard. He can guard Mantas Rubstavicius, or Izayah Le’Afa or whoever it is, rather than have him in the primary defensive responsibility to try and slow down Parker Jackson-Cartwright, which is a tough proposition, as we’ve seen all season long.

“So I think Shaun Bruce will go a long way to deciding how strong Sydney’s defensive effort is, especially in limiting those opportunities for PJC.”

Determining who fights on for another day is a difficult decision to judge.

Depending on whether McDowell-White gets up for the play-in, Hersz is affirmative that the Breakers are “mentally stronger” to advance to the final play-in match on Monday, March 4.

“I’m going to caveat by saying if Will McDowell-White plays, I think New Zealand gets it done, even on the road,” he said.

“I just like where they’re at as a group and a cohesive unit. And the way they are coached, at this time of year than where Sydney’s at right now.”

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