Nobody needs to remind Xavier Cooks of the magnitude of the rivalry between the Sydney Kings and Illawarra Hawks.
Growing up in Wollongong, he “never really loved” the Kings – his father Eric was, after all, a popular long-time player and member of the Hawks’ coaching staff.
Xavier Cooks shoots during the Kings’ round 19 NBL victory over the New Zealand Breakers in Bendigo.Credit:Getty
Fast-forward to 2022 and Cooks is a crucial cog in a Kings team sitting in second spot and on the second-longest winning streak by any team in the last 13 seasons of 40-minute NBL.
They play the third-placed Hawks on Thursday night but, with home-court advantage in the play-offs potentially at stake, Cooks doesn’t feel the need to add “fuel to the fire” by reminding his teammates of the rivalry.
“This is one of the biggest games of the year for us,” he said.
“Even if it wasn’t Wollongong, even if this was a Perth or Melbourne, this game would be extremely intense.
“At the end of the day, this is about a second-place team play(ing) a third-place team for a playoff seat right now, so they don’t need any more excuses.”
Standing in the way of 13 wins in a row is an Illawarra team on a hot streak of their own. The Hawks have won six games in a row and lead the league in points scored. While the trio of Duop Reath, Tyler Harvey and Antonius Cleveland attract most of the headlines, Cooks said coach Brian Goorjian has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
“Right now, they’re one of the hottest teams in the league, and they’re playing great basketball,” he said.
“Every single player is a threat to us, and we can’t just look at their top two players – we’ve got to look at the whole roster.”
The Kings overcame the Breakers 76-70 in Bendigo on Tuesday night, taking their winning streak to 12 games. Eight of those wins have come on the road and, facing a rapid run of fixtures in the run-in to playoffs, Cooks admitted the legs were getting “pretty heavy” ahead of games on Thursday and Sunday night.
The Kings did not play their best basketball against the Breakers and Cooks said his team was looking to recapture the form that saw them recently “smack” the Perth Wildcats and Tasmania JackJumpers.
“Probably that game against Perth [was] the most complete game we played all year for 40 minutes … and that’s only two weeks ago,” he said.
“We’re playing pretty good basketball right now, we just need to get back to that [form].”
After coach Chase Buford talked up the NBA potential of up to five of his players, Cooks included, the Boomers representative said he is primarily focused on delivering the Kings’ first championship since 2005.
“I’d be crazy to say I wouldn’t be keen to play in the NBA,” he said.
“Every single player on this team has something to contribute, but I’m personally not really thinking about it [the NBA]. I’m just thinking about this next game tomorrow.”
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