Sydney have retained top spot on the NBL ladder but are on shaky footing heading into their last clash before the playoffs when a new, more intense play-in format modelled on the NBA tips off.
The 36ers upset the Kings 115-108 on Friday, spurred on by a record crowd of 9505 at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre as the visitors struggled with sidelined stars.
Sydney Kings coach Chase Buford during the team’s defeat by the Adelaide 36ers.Credit:Getty
The Kings started to tear away from the hosts to take a five-point lead heading into the final quarter, but the 36ers levelled the score and netted a foul shot, a three-pointer and a lay-up in the final minute to clinch the win down the stretch.
“We obviously played some funky line-ups and a couple of times it bit us in the butt,” said Kings coach Chase Buford, who sat star forward Xavier Cooks the whole game and benched Dejan Vasiljevic in the third quarter after he had scored 18 points.
American import Derrick Walton jnr was also sidelined after aggravating a wrist injury in the third term. Buford said all three players were in good shape despite their absences.
“[We’re] coming out of this weekend with health as a priority,” Buford said. “I mean, winning games is great but we need to be healthy and ready for round one of the playoffs. That’s the biggest priority for us coming out of this weekend for sure.”
Derrick Walton Jr (left) and Kai Sotto of the 36ers during Friday’s game. Walton withdrew after aggravating a wrist injury.Credit:Getty
After learning from last year’s championship run, Cooks said they were fighting to remain physical and driven on court.
“In summer last year, we were on a bloody 16-game winning streak going into the playoffs. We felt our shit didn’t stink. This year is a little bit different,” he said, referencing the Kings’ recent back-to-back losses to the Perth Wildcats and the New Zealand Breakers. “We know we can’t be complacent.”
Throughout the season the Kings have spoken of keeping their foot on the accelerator even as they have cruised comfortably on top of the ladder since October.
“We’re playing against a bunch of teams that are all desperate to stay alive,” Buford said. “They’re fighting for seeding. We have to come out with that same desperate mindset as well.”
Kings players Xavier Cooks (left) and Biwali Bayles. Cooks stayed on the bench for the Kings’ clash against the 36ers.Credit:Getty
It’s indeed do-or-die for the Wildcats on Sunday. The Perth team lost a crucial game to Cairns on Friday and dropped out of the top six. They need to beat the Kings to retain any chance of making the playoffs. Until last season, the Wildcats had qualified for the playoffs for 35 years in a row.
The top-four system has been expanded to a new play-in format modelled on the NBA, with six sides competing for a shot in the championship battle.
The top two teams on the ladder (the Kings and the Taipans or Breakers) will automatically qualify for the semi-final. The third and fourth-seed teams will compete and the winner will face the runner-up over three matches.
The loser of the third and fourth-seeded teams will play the winner of a game between the fifth and sixth seeds in a sudden-death clash. That game will decide who plays the Kings in a three-game series for a shot in the grand final.
The new NBL tournament format sees six teams contend for the championship series rather than four.Credit:NBL
At the time the format shake-up was announced, NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger said the play-in tournament model kept more fans engaged in the league for longer.
“The magnitude of these play-in games will be enormous with the fate of some clubs to be determined by do-or-die contests that promise to deliver a thrilling atmosphere.
“The NBA has had great success with its play-in tournament. We studied that model and are confident ours will see similar success.”
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