It was a hectic Christmas schedule in the NBL with no let up in the action and when the dust settled, the Sydney Kings, Tasmania JackJumpers and Adelaide 36ers flexed their muscles with the Perth Wildcats and Bryce Cotton looming large.
The NBL made Australian sporting history by playing on Christmas Day with the game at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena largely marked a success on all fronts, but also the Kings beat Melbourne United to return to the top of the standings.
Also across the festive period, the JackJumpers consolidated their top six position with a couple of strong wins, the 36ers won on Christmas Eve to continue to build some momentum and there’s another game to come on Tuesday night.
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That features the Brisbane Bullets hosting the Perth Wildcats, and it’s a ‘Cats team on a four-game winning streak and building some form on the back of three-time MVP Cotton feeling as though this could be his best season.
There has been no let up in the NBL action either and it goes back to Thursday night when the Tasmania JackJumpers took full toll of an Illawarra Hawks team missing their two leading scorers, Michael Frazier and Tyler Harvey, to win 87-60.
Then on Friday night in the open roof game at John Cain Arena, Melbourne United scored the critical 84-81 win at home to the Cairns Taipans.
That led into a Christmas Eve game in Adelaide. Even though Ian Clark didn’t hit the floor for the 36ers, they still had too much for a South East Melbourne Phoenix missing four key players to win 94-88.
On Christmas Day, more than 7000 people turned out to Qudos Bank Arena with Sydney beating Melbourne 101-80 to return to top spot but it was an occasion about much more than that.
There was another game on Boxing Day which saw the New Zealand Breakers playing their first game in 18 days and still missing three important players, and the Tasmania JackJumpers beating them 93-82.
CHRISTMAS DAY DOUBLE-HEADER NEXT ON AGENDA
Christmas Day NBL was received to a tremendous response and the league is now looking to turn that into a double-header next season on the back of it.
It wasn’t just the basketball world in Australia watching eagerly to see how Sydney hosting the first ever game on Christmas would go, but the other summer sports as well to see if it’s something they should entertain moving forward.
In the end, a crowd of 7012 turned out to Qudos Bank Arena but more impressive was the viewership reach across Kayo, ESPN and Channel 10 of more than 300,000 people.
That made the game the most watched NBL game this season on ESPN and the third highest viewed program on all of Foxtel for Christmas.
The fact that more than 7000 people were willing to go watch a game on Christmas evening shows that the interest was there, but it was always more about the TV product and by any measure that was a tremendous success.
There are challenges of playing on Christmas too and not trying to disrupt the enjoyment of the season for anyone involved so you could feel for Melbourne United’s players, coaches and staff having to travel.
That’s where a double-header moving forward as early as 2023 will be on the agenda for the NBL. If you can take out travelling for the teams involved, it will eradicate one extra hurdle.
It makes all the sense in the world next season to have a double-header with the Kings playing the Illawarra Hawks, and having a Throwdown between Melbourne United and South East Melbourne Phoenix.
Not only are they two tremendous rivalries so should create great action, but neither team having to jump on a plane and have their Christmas disrupted is a terrific positive.
NBL owner Larry Kestelman was bold enough to make the leap to try the NBL game and now can’t wait to build on it further.
“Given the very encouraging numbers we’ve received so far, we would be open to scheduling a double-header on Christmas next year,” Kestelman added.
“There are always plenty of learnings when you break new ground and trailblaze like we have with this game so for us, it’s about building this as a tradition now and growing the event each year.
“We will continue to speak with all our key stakeholders, including our clubs and broadcast partners, with a view to scheduling more blockbuster Christmas games as part of our fixturing moving forward.”
36ers hold off undermanned Phoenix | 00:53
GAME STARTING TO SLOW DOWN AGAIN FOR MAGNAY
Tasmania JackJumpers centre Will Magnay continues to find his groove back on an NBL floor and the signs are there that the former NBA big man could continue to be a true difference maker at the business end of NBL23.
The JackJumpers made their stunning run to the grand final last season without the presence of their star signing Magnay.
He missed almost a full 12 months with a troubling knee injury, but now the big man who had a taste of playing in the NBA at the New Orleans Pelicans is finding his feet coming to the business end of the season.
Magnay’s numbers might not be jumping off the page with him averaging 6.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game, but his presence as a seven-footer out on the floor for Tasmania has been significant.
On offence, he gives them that post threat and a lob option for players to throw the ball up to which they just don’t have when undersized warriors Fabijan Krslovic and Jarred Bairstow are out there.
Then at the defensive end Magnay provides that genuine interior presence and a shot blocking threat so he is proving already a difference maker for the JackJumpers.
Tasmania has now strung together two strong wins to steady inside the top six with a 10-8 record to go with the role and minutes of Magnay continuing to grow.
He now has 10 more games of the regular season to continue to build. He is finding that he’s starting to feel more at home out on the court once again with every game that he plays.
“I think the games have slowed down a little bit for me,” Magnay said following the Boxing Day win against the New Zealand Breakers.
“When you first come back it’s pretty quick and sped up out there, but I think I’ve now had a pretty good string of games and practices. I think it’s slowed down a little bit and the conditioning is still not quite there, but it’s definitely getting there.
“I’ve always felt comfortable out there but teams kind of speed you up and it’s how quick the game comes to you when you’ve been out for 10 months is a bit of a shock. Scott’s always confident in me, my teammates are always pushing me to do more and go score.
“The confidence has always been there, I just kind of have my legs now a bit later in games and am able to make some plays and rebound. I am feeling pretty good and it’s still a long process, I don’t feel like by any means I’m close to where I can be and have a lot of work to do still.”
JackJumpers outmuscle meek Hawks | 01:06
PHOENIX NOT INTERESTED IN USING EXCUSES
The South East Melbourne Phoenix had plenty of excuses they could have made after losing to the Adelaide 36ers on Christmas Eve, but all Simon Mitchell was thinking was that they let one slip and how he wants another crack at the Sixers.
By the end of their Christmas Eve game in Adelaide, the Phoenix had played six games in the previous 17 days and to top it off took on the Sixers without four key players – Ryan Broekhoff, Zhou Qi, Alan Williams and Gary Browne.
South East Melbourne still competed hard with Mitch Creek putting up another 24 points and five rebounds while Kyle Adnam delivered 18 points and Tohi Smith-Milner stepped up for 14 points, and Owen Foxwell 10 along with three assists.
It wasn’t quite enough for the victory with Adelaide winning 94-88. While Mitchell acknowledged the circumstances his team was in both after that schedule and players missing, he didn’t want to use any excuses.
It was the third and last meeting between the two teams this season with the Phoenix having won the opening two games over the 36ers by a combined 23 points.
Mitchell and his Phoenix team went into the game still rightfully confident they could beat the 36ers and his feeling hadn’t changed post-match, which is where his disappointment lied in terms of the result.
“There will be positives to take from it for sure, but we had expectations coming into it to win the ball game,” Mitchell said.
“That’s not just me, that’s shared by the whole team. I’m disappointed in the result, not necessarily disappointed in the players’ application.
“We made a lot of mistakes and errors, and those are things we can learn from but I still think we are the better team. I’d like to get them again.”
SIXERS BUILDING WITH NBA CHAMPION READY TO ROLL
The Adelaide 36ers are now looking like the team they had the potential to be and that’s without NBA and NBL champion Ian Clark hitting the floor, and coach CJ Bruton feels the key is all about them having that love and passion to succeed.
There was great expectation on the 36ers coming into this NBL season but so far it’s been a case of more drama than results, until now with a current three-game winning streak.
Adelaide didn’t play its first game until Round 3 after their NBLxNBA sojourn and have been playing catch up ever since, at one stage slipping to a 6-8 record at the halfway mark of NBL23.
There had been the turmoil with import point guard Craig Randall, but the potential was still always there with this 36ers team. It’s coming to the fore in their recent three wins against Brisbane, Tasmania and South East Melbourne.
Across those three games, Robert Franks is averaging 18.7 points and 6.3 rebounds, Antonius Cleveland 17.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists with Daniel Johnson, Kai Sotto, Mitch McCarron, Sunday Dech, Anthony Drmic and Nick Marshall playing well too.
There is still NBA and NBL championship winner Clark to come into the line-up too. He was on the bench for the Christmas Eve win against the Phoenix, but didn’t hit the floor.
That will change on Thursday against the Brisbane Bullets and already Bruton likes what he is seeing from him.
“He’s clearly still trying to stay on Australian time, which is difficult, but he’s been on the floor with the boys a little bit and he was good,” Bruton said.
“Our energy was high and everyone’s excited to have him around, and he’s excited to be here. He fits in like he’s been here for a while and while I’ve only seen bits and piece of it, I like what I see so far and his knowledge of the game.”
In the bigger picture, Bruton and his 36ers reset when 6-8 at the midway point of their season. They haven’t lost since and he likes what his group is producing.
“I’ve been excited since I said we started our new season and going into a training camp, and bringing it every single day so the boys see and understand my love and passion for this game,” Bruton said.
“I want to see them to be successful and I want this club to be successful, and they are the ones who are going to do it. It’s about getting that across to them and showing them every which way we can do this.
“As long as they pay attention and are able to share the ball, and share in each other’s success it will be great.”
‘EXCEPTIONAL’ COTTON LETTING GAME DO THE TALKING
Perth Wildcats superstar Bryce Cotton feels this might be his best ever season and he has noticed the MVP talk largely isn’t including him, but he’s just focusing on letting his basketball do the talking.
Cotton is already a three-time MVP and NBL championship winner, but what he’s doing so far in NBL23 stacks up strongly with the rest of his 185-game career in Perth.
He is averaging 23.4 points a game to go with 4.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting at 42.2 per cent from the field, 37.7 per cent from downtown and 94.0 per cent at the free-throw line.
While a lot of the MVP discussion for this season so far has surrounding Xavier Cooks from the Sydney Kings, Keanu Pinder from the Cairns Taipans and Mitch Creek from the South East Melbourne Phoenix, Cotton shouldn’t be forgotten.
Cotton himself might not care too much about whether people are saying he’s an MVP candidate or not, but what he does care about is the way he’s playing and he himself feels as though this could be his best NBL season.
There’s been times through the first half of the season where he was a virtual lone hand on a struggling Wildcats team. But in recent times Corey Webster is proving a perfect scoring partner with TaShawn Thomas and Brady Manek finding their groove as import big men.
That’s been significant in the Wildcats having now won four straight matches heading into Tuesday night’s clash on the road to the Brisbane Bullets.
The ‘Cats are now 9-7 and anchored inside the top six and while Cotton has received more help, he has averaged 25.5 points over those four wins and he is feeling as good as he has ever had.
At the same time, he just wants to let his basketball do the talking and when the season’s done, let those MVP awards or dissection of how well he played take care of itself.
“I don’t have anything to prove to anyone but myself and my teammates,” Cotton said.
“There’s always going to be talk, that’s part of the game and those guys are having amazing seasons. We have a very tough and competitive league, but that doesn’t get to me.
“I mean I don’t really look at it like that, I try to improve every single year and I think I’m having a very exceptional year so far but we’ve still got half a season to play. I’m still kind of locked in but when the season’s done I’ll take a look back and see what type of season I had.”