Written for nbl.com.au by Liam Santamaria
It’s almost time.
In less than a week the bright lights of the NBL19 playoffs will turn on.
When that time comes the league’s biggest stars will take their games to another level because under that intense finals spotlight, they almost always do. That’s what makes them great.
But the playoffs are also an opportunity for others to embrace the moment.
That’s the beauty of a series: as teams focus their game plans around shutting down certain guys, the stage door opens for supporting cast members to step into the limelight.
Think Tim Coenraad two years ago.
After scoring 6 points per game in the 2016-17 regular season, the Illawarra reserve dropped 26 in Game 1 of the Semi-Finals against Adelaide and then put up 17 and 10– the second double-double of his career – in Game 2 as the Hawks upset the 36ers in three.
A week later it was Angus Brandt’s turn to step up.
With the Perth Wildcats leading the 2017 Grand Final series 1-0, Brandt came off the bench to produce a valuable double-double in Game 2, setting the table for Cotton’s 45-point masterclass in Game 3.
Last year it was undoubtedly Adelaide reserve Majok Deng who was the biggest x-factor of the postseason.
So who will it be this year? Who is ready to step their game up and capture the moment?
Perth Wildcats: Clint Steindl
The Wildcats have been led superbly by Bryce Cotton and Nick Kay all year.
And while Angus Brandt and import Terrico White are key components of their offence – and skipper Damian Martin is the main man on D – it’s Clint Steindl who has the potential to be an x-factor over the next few weeks.
Steindl couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean last season and his inability to knock down shots was a real issue for Perth as they got swept out of the playoffs.
This year, however, ‘The Sniper’ has been lights out – shooting a career-best 44 percent from long range.
And when he’s hitting shots, the Wildcats usually come out on top. When Steindl has hit two or more threes this season the ‘Cats have gone 12-3. When he catches fire, splashing four or more from downtown, they’re 5 wins without a loss.
The 29-year-old’s shooting is a key component of keeping the floor spread for Cotton to operate and he’s a valuable piece to have on the floor when teams are either doubling Brandt in the block or trapping Cotton as he works off on-ball screens.
But Steindl has become much more than just a floor-spacer for this year’s Wildcats. With his ability to peel off screens, square his feet and knock shots down, the ‘Cats have been running a number of sets this season that are specifically designed to free him up. Some have him curling off staggered screens while others, like the one in this clip, have team-mates shutting the gate on his defender as he toes the arc and lets it fly.
The Wildcats entered last off-season knowing they desperately needed to improve their perimeter shooting and while White has been deadly from mid-range, he has actually been a sub-30 percent shooter from outside the arc.
Instead, their improvement has come from Kay (who is shooting a career-best 41 percent from three) and, most significantly, from Steindl.
What Steindl hasn’t proved yet, though, is an ability to make shots in finals. Now is his time to shine.
Brisbane Bullets: Mika Vukona
Brisbane’s veteran reserve doesn’t fit the mould of your typical x-factor.
He’s not going to catch fire at any stage and shoot his team to victory and he’s also not going to surprise anybody with his impact, having played a key role in five championship-winning teams over his long and decorated career.
What Vukona will do is make winning plays.
The 36-year-old has only scored in double-figures five times this season and while Brisbane did win each of those games, it’s Mika’s impact all over the court that makes him so valuable game-in, game-out for the Bullets.
Per crunchtimeshots, the Bullets outscored opponents by 86 points while Vukona was on the floor during the regular season and were outscored by 63 while he was on the bench. Few players across the league have had that kind of plus/minus impact and certainly no other reserves.
“Mika’s a special player,” Bullets coach Andrej Lemanis commented last weekend.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around him for a long time. He does some amazing things, some stuff that’s just hard to comprehend sometimes.
“He does some things that you would think are not physically possible but he just puts his body in situations it’s not supposed to go. He just makes tough, hard plays and that’s inspirational for the rest of the group.”
Vukona was hugely important in Brisbane’s recent wins over Illawarra and New Zealand and his ability to make life difficult for Kay, crash the offensive glass and gather loose balls will be crucial as the Bullets try to upset the in-form Wildcats.
That’s all in addition to the offensive punch he’s been providing. Interestingly, the Bullets have made a real focus of going to Mika on the block during crucial situations of recent must-win games and the veteran has gone to work, using patient iso-moves and nifty finishes to tick the scoreboard over.
Yes, Gliddon, Cadee and Te Rangi will all need to make shots. Yes, Matt Hodgson will need to stay out of foul trouble. And yes, Adam Gibson’s minutes on Cotton will be important.
But Mika, for mine, will be Brisbane’s biggest x-factor this postseason.
“When you start thinking about what a team needs in terms of having all the pieces, you need a Mika Vukona,” Lemanis added.
“You need somebody who knows how to lead, is prepared to lead, is a veteran presence, is a calm head and is inspirational.
“I mean, what does Mika do? He does everything. You can’t explain some of the ways Mika effects the game, he just does.
“It was painful playing against him so I’m just stoked that he’s playing with us now.”
That feeling will likely only increase during the finals – a time when Vukona has traditionally done his best and most memorable work.
Melbourne United: DJ Kennedy
The defending champs are stacked with high-end talent and have a bevy of offensive weapons to choose from on any given possession.
In fact, Melbourne have six players averaging double-figure points. Ware, Goulding, Mitch McCarron and David Barlow all pose legitimate inside-outside threats and Josh Boone provides his play-makers with a constant target as he rolls towards the rim.
But the man who may just hold the key to United’s chances this postseason is in-form import DJ Kennedy.
Across Melbourne’s final 8 games, Kennedy has led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists, averaging 15.6 points, 10.0 boards and 4.7 dimes per game throughout that stretch
What makes Kennedy so dangerous on this United squad is that he’s extremely difficult to scout for. After all, a lot of your focus when taking on Melbourne has to be on shutting down Ware and Goulding. Let those two get off and you’re in for a long night. Now, how are you managing McCarron? Are you rotating off Barlow? Who’s helping in the paint when your big shows and Boone rim-rolls?
Once you’ve got all that worked out, the challenge of limiting Kennedy then comes to the fore. Can you find him in transition and limit his kick-aheads? Can you keep him off the foul line? Can you keep him off the glass? Are you going to leave him open? It may not be his bread-and-butter but he’s actually shooting 41 percent from three.
Amidst all of those areas of impact, it’s probably Kennedy’s work on the offensive glass that’s been most impressive in recent times. He pulled down a massive 9 offensive boards in Melbourne’s final regular season game and, with the Kings ranking last in the league for defensive rebounding percentage, he’ll be looking to get all over the glass during the upcoming semi-finals.
Kennedy also finished the regular season ranked inside the top ten in the league in steals. His ability to disrupt ball-handlers and read passing lanes could cause havoc in the pressure-cooker environment of the finals.
The other issue for Sydney will be not knowing exactly who is going to be guarding Kennedy at any given time. Often he doesn’t even know coming into a game where he’ll be playing the bulk of his minutes.
“We’ve seen it all through the season where DJ just doesn’t know what’s coming in a game. Is he going to play more three? Is he going to play more four?” head coach Dean Vickerman explained this week.
“I’m really pleased with his ability to be multi-dimensional at both those two spots.”
It has been an up-and-down season for ‘Big Play DJ’ but the man is entering the finals as one of the league’s hottest players. And with a game built for the postseason, he looks set for a big couple of weeks.
Sydney Kings: Daniel Kickert
Sydney’s three league MVPs – Bogut, Randle and Kevin Lisch – are clearly the main guys for the Kings.
Next up is veteran Brad Newley who, like Kennedy, is dynamic in the open floor and has the ability to contribute right across the boxscore.
But it’s Sydney’s fifth leading scorer, reserve forward Daniel Kickert, who has the potential to break games open this postseason with his offensive punch off the bench.
Kickert, one of the greatest shooters in league history and a highly efficient scorer from the block, has scored in double figures 13 times this season with the Kings claiming victory in 10 of those games.
One of those efforts came just two weeks ago when Kickert torched United – Sydney’s semi-final opponent – with an equal season-high 18 points, including 4-of-4 from long range.
That night, ‘Kicks’ wisely took advantage of Melbourne’s focus on Randle as he picked-and-popped his way to open looks on the arc.
Unfortunately for the Kings, Kickert has actually gone a little cold since that night, scoring just 6 points across his last two games and missing his last 6 three-point attempts. That being said, he was an incredible 12-of-15 from deep across Sydney’s six previous games.
The bottom line is that Kickert is an absolute assassin who has never shot below 40 percent from long range across his NBL career.
If the Kings can get him some open looks – and give him touches in the block – Kickert could very well prove the difference in a tight playoff series.
His former team will be hoping that’s not the case.