The Illawarra Hawks now know they have to win their remaining four matches to be any hope of taking part in the NBL finals, and while he’s in the middle of a career-best season, 250-gamer Todd Blanchfield is far from ready to give up.
The Hawks put in a solid showing in Perth on Friday night before going down by 14 points. During Round 16, with Melbourne United beating the New Zealand Breakers twice and the Sydney Kings doing the same to the Brisbane Bullets, the top three was set.
It’s just a matter of the order of the top three teams, and over the last two rounds United, the Wildcats and the Kings will fight over who ends up in the top two positions to earn home-court advantage for the semi-finals and grand final.
But with the Adelaide 36ers, Brisbane Bullets, Illawarra Hawks and New Zealand Breakers all unable to string wins together lately, that fourth position remains up for grabs.
It looks as though the Breakers are now all but done after losing twice to Melbourne. Even wins in their last four games at home to Adelaide and Illawarra and away to the Hawks and Bullets might not be enough.
But given they are games against teams also in the race for fourth spot, they aren’t totally out of the running just yet.
It does appear it’s Adelaide’s spot to lose, though, after the 36ers responded to two heavy losses to Perth and Melbourne by winning in Cairns on Saturday to improve to 13-12 and replace Brisbane in fourth spot.
The Bullets have now lost four in a row, including two in Round 16 to the Kings, so they now have their work cut out for a first play-off appearance since 2008, with games away to Cairns and at home to the Hawks and Breakers.
Then there are the Hawks, who played well in Perth on Friday night despite the absence of 278-game veteran Tim Coenraad and despite playing in hostile territory against an in-form team.
They lost, but it was a performance that might have brought about a positive result against other opponents, and the Rob Beveridge-coached Hawks are not giving up on the finals hopes yet.
They can’t afford to lose another game, though, and that starts on Monday night at home against the wooden spoon-bound Taipans, who remain a dangerous opponent.
Blanchfield has now played 251 games in the NBL and is having the best season of his career in his first season with the Hawks.
He is delivering terrific numbers of 15.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists a game while shooting at 48.1 per cent from the field, 41.4 per cent from three and 80.8 per cent from the foul line.
He will be looking forward to another game against Cairns too on Monday, having already produced his career-high of 32 points earlier this season in the Far North. In the other two meetings already this season he also had 20 points and eight rebounds, and 11 points against the Snakes.
While Blanchfield is happy with the way his own season is going after three frustrating seasons in Melbourne and Sydney since leaving the Townsville Crocodiles, team success is what he’s craving.
“Obviously a lot of people have written us off but as a group we have confidence in each other to step up,” Blanchfield said.
“But we just have to take it one game at a time and can’t look too far ahead. We are focused on Cairns now and stranger things have happened than us getting on a role and reaching the play-offs from here.”
The move to Wollongong to join the Hawks has certainly agreed with Blanchfield, and it’s no coincidence that his improved production has gone hand in hand with becoming a key part of his team’s offence again.
Blanchfield became that in his last season at the Crocs and the result was a standout 2014-15 season, earning him most improved player honours and attracting an offer to join Melbourne that proved too good to turn down.
While Blanchfield enjoyed the chance to move out of his comfort zone and challenge himself, he had a somewhat limited role in his two seasons in Melbourne. Rather than utilising his array of offensive skills, he was largely limited to being a knockdown shooter waiting in the corner.
There were positives from his time in Melbourne, so Blanchfield doesn’t regret it, but he moved to Sydney last season hoping for more of a key role on a team that was trying to go somewhere under Andrew Gaze as coach.
But some poor personnel decisions by Kings management last season meant that Blanchfield was forced to play out of position a lot of the time as a power forward. While he worked hard and still played well at times, it wasn’t a role that overly suited him.
So he was on the lookout for a new home in 2018-19 to try to find a club that would allow him more freedom to show what he was capable of and to become more of a focus of the team’s offence to recapture what he had delivered back in Townsville.
The Hawks have become the perfect fit for Blanchfield. He is playing the best basketball of his NBL career and couldn’t be happier with the role coach Beveridge is allowing him to play.
“It gives me confidence as an individual with the freedom Bevo gives his players but also the way the guys have confidence in me to take some shots,” Blanchfield said.
“You are out there with the mentality that you don’t have much to lose as long as you back yourself and play with confidence, which takes the pressure off your individual plays or shots when you know the whole organisation has confidence in you to step up and make the play.
“You know everyone is backing you, so that’s a great feeling and I am the first to admit that I’m a confidence guy. Over the years if I come out and miss my first couple of shots, my head has dropped, but I’ve tried to work on that this year.
“Good players always find ways to contribute even if their shots aren’t falling, so I’ve tried to focus on that this year and have enjoyed myself along the way. But when you know the coaches and players think you can make the play or shot you are making, it’s amazing how much it helps your confidence in making it.”
Reflecting on the past three years made up of two seasons in Melbourne and one in Sydney, Blanchfield is glad he learnt from those experiences but also is happy to have now found the situation he has with Illawarra.
“It might not have been the role I wanted but I was thankful for the opportunity to play in both Melbourne and Sydney,” he said.
“I had to adapt to both situations and I was playing as a job, so every time I put the jersey on and stepped over the white line, I had to give my all and represent the city you’re playing for. Whether you like your role or not, sometimes you just have to suck it up and be able to deal with it.
“Melbourne was the first time I moved away from Townsville, and to be there by myself, you are forced to grow up pretty quick.
“While some places might not have given me what I wanted basketball-wise, but life-wise it was something that has helped me along the way and taught me to grow up pretty quick, so I’m thankful for that.”
It’s not just the basketball that Blanchfield is loving about the move to Wollongong either. The lifestyle is much closer to what he was used to back in Townsville, and that’s just the way he likes it.
“It has that smaller town feel and it’s a bit like Townsville with it being close to the ocean and everything is ten minutes away,” Blanchfield said.
“When you walk around town people know who you are and are very friendly, so it’s somewhere I’m really enjoying playing in and living. I’m a big believer that being happy off the floor helps you perform on the floor, and I’m very happy being here.
“My partner and I are living on the beach and we’ve started surfing, and we do that most afternoons if we can. To have that luxury of having the beach 50 or 70 metres away is pretty cool, so we’re making the most of that.
“I’ve always loved the ocean and did a lot of spearfishing in Townsville, but I’m not doing that so much in Wollongong because the great white sharks are a bit different. But we’re now surfing and this is somewhere we enjoy living and we definitely can’t count out staying here long-term.”
New Zealand Breakers 87 lost to Melbourne United 107
Brisbane Bullets 93 lost to Sydney Kings 95
Perth Wildcats 104 defeated Illawarra Hawks 90
Cairns Taipans 91 lost to Adelaide 36ers 100
Sydney Kings 107 defeated Brisbane Bullets 91
Melbourne United 111 defeated New Zealand Breakers 102
Illawarra Hawks vs Cairns Taipans – WIN Entertainment Centre 7:50pm