Tonight sees the tip-off of the first versus fourth NBL Semi-final series between the New Zealand Breakers and the Sydney Kings. In terms of disparity of expectations at the start of the season between these two teams, there could not be a bigger gap.
The two-time reigning champion Breakers were clear favourites at the top of the league, along with the Perth Wildcats, whilst the Kings were tipped to take up the bottom of the ladder by most league pundits. Coming into this series, the Breakers are once again the definite front-runners, having only lost four games all season (24-4), whilst the Kings came out with a sub-.500 record at 12-16.
Unusually, many Kings supporters were gunning for a Finals matchup with the top-ranked Breakers rather than the second-placed Wildcats, as the Kings have performed better against the Kiwis this season.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Do not be surprised to see a Kings upset in at least one game of this series, as Sydney have performed well against the Breakers at times this season. The Breakers have a 3-1 record against the Kings in 2012/13, however not all of those wins have come easily.
The first matchup between these teams, in New Zealand in round 5, saw a Mika Vukona three-point basket in the dying moments required to clinch the game for the Breakers. Their second meeting saw the Kings win by 13 in Sydney (round 10). The Breakers made up for this with a 95-76 spanking of the Kings in New Zealand six rounds later. However once again the Kings gave the Breakers trouble in round 18, as the Breakers scraped through with a two point victory in overtime in Sydney.
The Kings will likely try to get into 2013 MVP Cedric Jackson's head, as the Wildcats attempted to last week. By throwing him off his game, possibly by leaving him more open than normal and covering all other options (thus killing Jackson's passing game), the Kings may have a chance to get an early edge until the Breakers adjust.
A victory for Sydney in New Zealand is unlikely (despite their round 5 close call) as the Breakers have only lost one game at home all season. It will take some serious game-changing tactics to pull the upset that the Kings need in game one, before reverting back to Sydney in game two. For the Kings to pull off an upset, they would conceivably need to do it in two games, as a game three in New Zealand would be a very tough proposition.
Alternatively, this series could get very ugly, with the Breakers arsenal of Jackson, Thomas Abercrombie, Alex Pledger, Vukona and co putting on a show and putting on two straight blow-outs. Certainly, the relative positions of the two teams on the ladder would indicate this.
New Zealand: The offensive spark of Corey Webster, CJ Bruton and Daryl Corletto could kill the Kings if they are to underplay their potential impact. Getting out to the shooters on rotations will be key.
Sydney: Equally, the ability of James Harvey to light up in high pressure situations could be a welcome addition to the Kings' offensive array, after him having little impact during most of the season. If Harvey can complement Ben Madgen's potent league-leading offence on the perimeter.
Breakers in three.