Sydney Kings' Xavier Cooks signing a fan's jersey at the Sydney Kings' open training session. (Image: Twitter/ @SydneyKings)

Sydney Kings coach Chase Buford said his side will be ready to take on the New Zealand Breakers and will embrace the home-court crowd advantage in the NBL23 Grand Final Series. 

The best-of-five Grand Final series will see the regular season’s first and second-placed finishers in the Kings and Breakers, respectfully, face off for the NBL Championship.

Speaking after the Sydney Kings’ open training session on Monday, Buford said he’s looking forward to welcoming a loud crowd ahead of Game One at home of the best-of-five series. 

“[It’s] huge, if they can be twice as loud as the seven or eight thousand we had there last time, then that would be terrific, because they were really loud and really helped us out a ton,” Buford said. 

“So, more bodies, hopefully that just means a better environment even than what we had in the first round.” 

Buford got involved in the semi-final series against the Cairns Taipans, encouraging the home crowd to make some noise at periods throughout the matches. 

“I usually try not to, but in a play-off atmosphere you need them every minute,” Buford said. 

“These games are do-or-die, you can’t rest for one second. 

“The crowd, especially I thought in the second half of game one (against the Taipans), gave us a huge lift. 

“Then, throughout the entirety of game three was really just impactful in helping us in certain moments.” 

NBL23 MVP winner, Sydney Kings’ Xavier Cooks, also echoed those sentiments. 

“We really feed off their energy,” Cooks said. 

“It’s not even about the amount of people that come, it’s how loud and how engaged they are.” 

Regarding the audience numbers for the NBL this season, television viewership rose by 46 per cent during the NBL23 season. 

“I even have friends that aren’t even basketball fans watching all of the games,” Cooks said. 

“It’s huge for the league, it’s huge for the players, it’s huge for the teams around here. 

“You can tell [by] Adelaide [having] great crowds this year, we had great crowds.” 

As for why crowd numbers are up, Cooks said one reason was because of the national team’s success at the recent Tokyo 2022 Olympics, where the Australian Boomers won the bronze medal. 

“That kind of drew the love to basketball in Australia,” Cooks said. 

“I think also just the talent in this league, lately, like we have so many competitive games… people are really enjoying that.” 

The FIBA international break in between the Semi-Final and Grand Final series meant the players had an extra week to prepare. 

Cooks nursed an ankle injury he picked up in Game Two against Cairns as he played in Game Three, but is ready to go for the Grand Final series. 

“It was a fortunate time to have have time off right now to heal up but it feels good,” Cooks said.

“I think this gave us an opportunity, especially (Xavier Cooks), to get healthy and for a few guys to rest up,” Buford said. 

“We’re fine with whatever way it happened, we’re ready to go for Friday.” 

Cooks also said it was fine to have a break in-between the Semi-Final and Grand Final series. 

“It would have been good to keep playing, keep our flow going, but it’s also been good to work with some things during the break,” Cooks said. 

The Kings are keeping their preparation simple, not changing too many aspects from their Grand Final series against the Tasmania JackJumpers last season. 

“We’ve done the same process in terms of the way we scouted,” Buford said. 

“[We] try to keep it consistent as we can [to] the way we normally do things.” 

Cooks is aware of the challenge they will face in the New Zealand Breakers and is ready to accept the challenge. 

The Breakers are a strong team in defence, as they conceded the least number of points in the regular season. 

“It’s gonna be a defensive series,” Cooks said. 

“They’re a great defensive team and so are we, so it’s really gonna come down to that end, matching their intensity, they’re a physical team, it’s gonna be a good battle. 

“I’m excited for it.” 

Tom Vodanovich won the Grand Final series with the Kings last season but moved to the New Zealand Breakers ahead of the 2022-23 season, meaning he will line up against his old club in this year’s Grand Final series. 

“[It will be] amazing, I love Tommy [Vodanovich] to death,” Cooks said. 

“Every time we go out on the court, we always talk a bit of trash, have a bit of fun and no matter what, we always get a beer after the game, so I’m excited for it. 

“The one thing about Tommy [is] he’s ultra-competitive, he doesn’t care whether we’re friends, none of that.

“He’s still throwing elbows and all that kind of stuff, so I’m excited for it.” 

Tom Vodanovich will line up for the New Zealand Breakers against his old side in the Grand Final series [Image: Twitter, @SydneyKings]

With a high turnover of players from last season to this one, Buford said this group has tried to forge its own identity and not try to compare themselves to previous years. 

“This is a new group that’s ready to go play for their own identity” Buford said. 

Cooks said the focus of the group is approaching the series with respect to the opponent and not to put too much pressure on the title of a ‘Grand Final’ series. 

“I think you always just approach any kind of series with ultimate respect to the opponent,” Cooks said. 

“I try not to think about a ‘Grand Final’ series, it’s too much pressure for me to handle it right now. 

“I like to just focus on the series and New Zealand is a good team.” 

However, he was aware of his nerves, but wanted to keep things in perspective. 

“I’m a sore loser, so the thought of losing is making me nervous, but it’s basketball at the end of the day and it’s a lot of stakes right now, but it’s still basketball,” Cooks said. 

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With the Play-In matches this year, there was a longer wait to see if the Kings would have played the Cairns Taipans or Perth Wildcats in the Semi-Final series.

However, Buford said if the scheduling can be ironed out for next season, it could continue to prove to be a good addition to the league.

“It just affected the coaches in the preparation… we just had to just prepare for a few more teams going into that week for the guys,” Buford said. 

“As the [number] one seed, we wouldn’t have had to play any more or less games this year. 

“I think it’s probably good to keep the interest piquing throughout the season for a lot of teams. 

“Maybe the scheduling could be done a little better next year but at the end of the day it’s probably a success.” 

As for any refereeing decisions made throughout the series, Buford said it is human nature to make mistakes if they occur. 

“There’s error in everything humans do,” Buford said. 

“I probably mess up more than anybody else out there, so it happens, it’s a part of the game.” 

The New Zealand Breakers have excelled this year under Mody Maor with NBL Best Sixth Man winner, Barry Brown Jr., also playing a big role to help them reach this point in the season. 

“I watched a little bit of Game Two [between the Breakers and the Tasmania JackJumpers], [but] we were just happy to get [to the Grand Final series] ourselves and then they’re who we got, so we’re ready,” Buford said. 

Buford is hoping his team can come out strong against the Breakers in the series. 

“I expect our team to come out and compete,” Buford said. 

“I think we’ve fallen off a little bit over the last couple months, the way we guard, and we’ve got a little bit of that back against Cairns, I think, especially in Game Three. 

“Hopefully we can build on that.”

Dejan Vasiljevic training ahead of the Grand Final series [Image: Twitter, @SydneyKings]

Buford had praise and respect for New Zealand ahead of the series. 

“I expect New Zealand to come out and do the same thing, they’re a tough-playing team, they’re gonna compete their butts off, as well,” Buford said. 

“It should be a heck of a series.” 

Cooks was also full of praise for New Zealand for how they have made the Grand Final series. 

“Huge credit to those kind of guys and the way they went about it, it’s awesome,” Cooks said. 

“They’re a very defensive-oriented team, they really play together, they’re close-knit kind of guys, they get around each other. 

“I think that’s what basketball is really about, what sport’s really about, the comradery. 

“The way they’ve gone from the bottom to the top is a really great story, but I can’t wait to beat them,” Cooks smiled. 

The series could be decided in three, four or five matches and Cooks is embracing whatever happens in the series. 

“Of course, I don’t want it to go to [game] five, they’re a good team and if we can knock them down in three, that would be awesome,” Cooks said. 

“If it takes five, that would be awesome, but if we can beat the New Zealand Breakers, that’s a huge milestone, they’re a great team [and] it’s a great league.” 

As for any advice Cooks had for the group, he said for his teammates not to get caught up in the moment. 

“Just enjoy it… Don’t think about [it] being a play-off series, think that it’s another basketball game,” Cooks said. 

“We’re still nervous, too, you know, what am I gonna tell those guys, I’m nervous, so it is what it is.

“Embrace your nerves.” 

The Sydney Kings will look to be the first Kings side since 2003-05 and the first team since the Perth Wildcats in 2019-20 to win consecutive NBL Championships.

Game One tips off in Sydney at Olympic Park on Friday, March 3 at Qudos Bank Arena, before both teams head across the ditch to Spark Arena in Auckland for Game Two on Sunday, March 5th. 

The third match will return to Sydney, where both sides will face off in Game Three on Friday March 10th

If the series is 2-1 to either side after the three matches, a fourth will be played in Auckland and, if the series is tied at 2-2, a fifth and deciding match will be played at Olympic Park.

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