The Cairns Taipans' NBL season is still alive with an important 73-69 win at home over Queensland rivals Brisbane.
The Perth Wildcats and Melbourne United look set to provide an NBL grand final series for the ages.
Though the vanquished Brisbane Bullets and Sydney Kings weren’t too far off the mark, there was a gulf between the top two and the rest.
There were times throughout the NBL season where both the Kings and Bullets looked capable of being championship contenders.
Brisbane did manage to beat Perth twice during the regular season and Melbourne in three of the four meetings, so they did well.
Sydney only beat Melbourne once, but did win twice against the Wildcats, including once in Perth, while winning all four games against Brisbane too.
There were reasons for the Bullets and Kings to feel good about their chances heading into their semi-final series against Perth and Melbourne respectively, despite knowing it would take at least one road victory to advance.
It had been the tightest and closest NBL season on record, but in the end what we have teams in the grand final who have separated themselves from the rest.
What that illustrates now is that Sydney and Brisbane were third and fourth best, which while disappointing right now, does demonstrate strong growth for both clubs.
What the future holds for both will be fascinating, with the Kings already on the lookout for a new coach – Andrew Gaze has coached his last game. Brisbane also have a decision to make regarding whether coach Andrej Lemanis is to sign another contract.
But for now, despite being swept, it’s time for the Kings and Bullets to both reflect with a degree of pride on the steps they took in the 2018-19 season.
Gaze’s three years in charge of the Kings has come to an end and while at times it promised a championship run this season, what the two games against Melbourne showed was that as a unit, they weren’t quite on the same level.
The team included three NBL MVP winners in Andrew Bogut, Kevin Lisch and Jerome Randle, along with regular international representatives Daniel Kickert and Brad Newley, along with Americans David Wear, Ray Turner and Brian Bowen, and the emerging Kyle Adnam.
Randle had a strong season, but in Game 2 in Sydney on Sunday, he shot one from 15 for two points, while his point guard rival Casper Ware had 30 points on nine from 15, including five out of nine from downtown.
Kickert and Wear were virtual non-factors as power forwards, Bogut had his hands full with Boone, and nobody from Sydney could catch fire in a way that Ware and Chris Goulding did for Melbourne.
But with a new coach coming in, potentially Rob Beveridge, Trevor Gleeson, Matt Nielsen, Paul Henare, Shawn Dennis or even Lemanis, it will be all about getting the chemistry right because there’s no shortage of top-quality talent.
That’s for someone else to worry about though.
After Sunday’s game, Gaze took the chance to reflect on not only this series loss, but his three years in charge at the Kings.
“In the circumstances I’m in, you don’t really reflect back on the game, you reflect back on the journey and you reflect back on the fact that you no longer get to share this experience with a great bunch of guys,” Gaze said.
“We are obviously all disappointed in the result and in that particular game, you give unbelievable credit to Melbourne United.
“They played exceptionally well at both ends of the floor, they shot the ball in big moments really, really well and we saw some elite level performances. But I’m proud of our guys and the effort that they gave. The effort was not the cause of us losing that game.
“They gave everything they possibly could and unfortunately we weren’t quite as efficient as we needed to be on the offensive end. Then with them being able to score well by making tough baskets, sometimes you just have to shake their hand and say they were too good.”
It’s been a slow build for the Bullets since returning to the NBL ahead of the 2016-17 season. They claimed back-to-back wooden spoons, but things were looking encouraging this season.
With the national coach at the helm, they signed up Boomers Cam Gliddon, Jason Cadee and Matt Hodgson to join Cam Bairstow and Adam Gibson, with New Zealand legend Mika Vukona also joining Tall Blacks teammate Reuben Te Rangi.
They didn’t quite get the imports right at the start, but Lamar Patterson arrived to be named to the All-NBL First Team by season’s end, while Jeremy Kendle and AJ Davis made solid contributions.
They did only sneak into the finals in the fourth position with a 14-14 record but this appeared a team built for the playoffs with the experience and quality throughout the squad.
Ultimately, Perth proved too good and while Brisbane did well limiting the scoring of Bryce Cotton by trapping him at every opportunity, he became the distributor with Nick Kay and Terrico White stepping up the scoring load.
That saw the Wildcats win in two games, but coming from two last place finishes it was a giant step forward this season for Brisbane and Lemanis was proud to be part of the group.
“There’s obviously a lot of good things that have happened throughout the season for the club and as a team. The ability to continue to grow and find a way through some highs and some lows as a group of individuals who are great to be around was enjoyable to be part of,” Lemanis said.
“Not once was there any disharmony or bitching and moaning, it was always about what’s in the best interest of the team.
“That makes it a pleasure to be part of. When you can get in that battle with a bunch of good blokes who are all trying to achieve the same thing, and are prepared to check their egos to try and achieve something special as a group, that’s what makes it rewarding and is why you coach.
“Obviously we would have liked to have gone further and we gave ourselves opportunities, but didn’t make some plays and they did. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Perth Wildcats (1) vs Brisbane Bullets (4)
Game 1: Perth Wildcats 89 defeated Brisbane Bullets 59 – RAC Arena
Game 2: Brisbane Bullets 79 lost to Perth Wildcats 84 – Brisbane Entertainment Centre
Melbourne United (2) v Sydney Kings (3)