The statistic haunting the Kings pursuit of back-to-back NBL titles

Sydney Kings will look to their bench players to grab the ascendancy in the NBL championship series as NBA-bound Xavier Cooks and import guard Derrick Walton jnr continue to battle injuries despite insisting they’ll take to the court at Qudos Bank Arena on Friday night.

Walton didn’t make it to the five-minute mark in game two against the New Zealand Breakers after going down with leg cramps in game one. Cooks managed nine minutes before he was overwhelmed by a corked thigh and an ankle injury.

Sydney Kings guard Justin Simon proved pivotal in the Kings’ defeat of the New Zealand Breakers in game two of the NBL’s championship series in Auckland.Credit:Dave Rowland

“We knew before the game they were unlikely to give us much,” King coach Chase Buford said of the battered pair. “Derrick, I took him out at the five-minute mark and he said, ‘I can’t move my legs’. Even the morons on NBL Twitter could see that he was not having it.

“He tried to play through it, he just couldn’t move.”

Kings import Justin Simon stepped up to fill the void left by the injured duo and will be key to the Kings’ efforts to beat the Breakers at home for the first time this season.

Simon racked up 12 points and nine rebounds in game two, but it was his six steals – a career-best and one off an NBL grand final record – that swung critical momentum behind the defending champions.

Simon continued to build a case for Finals MVP honours by keeping a lid on Will McDowell-White, who came close to a triple-double in game one but was restricted to three rebounds, four assists and seven points in game two.

“We came in there hungry, desperate, backs against the wall, and you could tell by the way we responded,” Cooks said ahead of Friday’s clash. “Our energy was at another level – we’re going to try and match that.”

The Kings made 34 trips to the free-throw line in game two, up from 28 in game one. Cooks said the Kings planned to bring their amped-up aggression and willingness to take the ball to the basket to their home court.

“It was just a gutsy win. It was dirty, it was grimy, but we got it done. We don’t really talk about the dog mentality as much, that was last year’s theme of the team. But the same kind of mentality’s coming in.”

Cooks admitted on Monday that the news he’d signed his maiden NBA contract with the Washington Wizards had the potential to distract him and his Kings during their championship campaign but said locking away another back-to-back title was his immediate priority.

Season MVP and NBA recruit Xavier Cooks was forced off court by an ankle injury.Credit:Fiona Goodall

To do that, there’s a key statistic that the Kings will have to defy.

A nearly three-decades-long trend has seen 25 out of the last 26 NBL trophies lifted by the team that won the opening game of the series. If the Kings bring home their second straight title, they’ll only be the fifth team in NBL history to win the championships without winning game one.

Breakers coach Mody Maor said his team would enter game three focused on keeping their defence consistent.

“We played with a lack of composure for big parts of the game,” Maor said. “Something we need to learn from. Championship Series, big games come with challenges and you need some composure to overcome them.”

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