CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 20: Corey Webster of the Wildcats reacts with Tashawn Thomas after the round 11 NBL match between Cairns Taipans and Perth Wildcats at Cairns Convention Centre, on December 20, 2022, in Cairns, Australia. (Photo by Emily Barker/Getty Images)

After 18 riveting rounds of enthralling, captivating, and compelling NBL23, the playoffs are here. In a new play-in format incorporated from the NBA, it opens a wide and expansive range of opportunities for the six contending teams.

Those being last season's Champions the Sydney Kings, New Zealand Breakers, Cairns Taipans, Tasmania JackJumpers, South East Melbourne Phoenix, and the Perth Wildcats. Whilst the Kings are favourites again for back-to-back championships, the other five contenders will make sure it won't be a runaway.

The League has been ever-growing but what is the main reason behind it?

To answer this question, it is the change of ownership. Going back to May 2015 when Larry Kestleman became owner and Jeremy Loeliger then in the General Manager position now currently League commissioner since 2019, the two highly creative minds had a grand vision. The ultimate vision to establish the NBL as one of the top basketball Leagues in the world.

Mission accomplished.

This season (2022/2023), the League saw a 30% growth in audiences according to Kestleman and a 40% growth on the League's number one TV broadcaster: ESPN. A far cry before the messiah Kestleman took over with the League barely hanging onto relevancy. And with crowds packing out various arenas across the country, it makes for exceptional viewing.

That's not all. The inaugural Christmas day game between the Kings and Melbourne United according to the Sydney Morning Herald saw more than 300,000 people viewing the game across ESPN, Kayo, and Channel 10.

Attention turns to the play-in tournament beginning on Thursday between the South East Melbourne Phoenix and the Perth Wildcats. Both teams have ridden the ride of a roller coaster season with many peaks and troughs through 28 gruelling games.

Having ultimately been close to a Grand Final appearance in 2021, the Phoenix under Simon Mitchell have the belief to make another deep push. Led by the brilliance of Mitch Creek, the side withstood numerous adversity of inconsistent play and injuries to starters Trey Kell, Gary Browne, and Ryan Broekhoff. Despite this, the Phoenix would string it together at the season's most important time by winning three of their final four regular season games. In doing so, securing a playoff spot for the second time in four seasons.

There is plenty to cheer about the Phoenix's prospects. Although it plays at one of the League's slowest paces, the side can offensively match opposing teams basket for basket. With Creek being the head of the snake with his all-round game from taking smaller matchups down on the low block to hurting defences with his lefty-stroke threes. If the dynamic backcourt in Kell and Browne get firing, then anything's possible for this determined outfit. More importantly, Alan Williams' production is going to be a telling factor with Zhou Qi heading home to China. Although the Phoenix has Dane Pineau to support Williams.

All season, Williams has been a force offensively and on the boards. If his production against their opponents - the Perth Wildcats- is anything to go by, especially the 27-point 14-rebound performance then he could go Shaquille O'Neal mode this evening.

Like the Phoenix, the Wildcats rode its fair rollercoaster wave, no more so than on the regular season finale against its arch-enemy: Sydney Kings edging home by 12 points to squeeze Melbourne United out on percentage. Offensive production won't be an issue for the Wildcats, with superstar Bryce Cotton leading from the front. Expect his stat line of 2/20 shooting against the Kings won't happen for a second straight outing. The 2-time MVP isn't alone to carry the offensive load with Corey Webster, TaShawn Thomas, Brady Manek, and Luke Travers all having important offensive production roles.

If Manek goes off from behind the arc and Thomas (despite battling a right knee complaint) can hold the interior against Williams and his trademark floaters, then the Wildcats will give themselves every chance of extending its season. The matchup should be a belter considering the amount of close encounters between the sides.

Cairns Taipans, the feel-good story - a young upcoming team making its mark under Adam Forde. Shades of the Taipans from NBL20. During the regular season, the team from the tropical North made pundits look foolish by finishing third on the ladder. A fast up-and-down tempo of basketball is the instruction Forde wants his group to play with. Taking the most amount of threes out of the ten sides, Cairns revelled in blasting teams with its range of different weapons.

And they possess plenty of ammunition.

D.J. Hogg being their deadliest three-point shooter, Bul Kuol being steady from deep, and once Mirko "snipper" Djeric returns from injury then an arsenal barrage is set to let fire. However, the Taipans are banking on defensive ace Tahjere McCall to return from injury considering the assignment he is most likely to encounter, slowing down Milton Doyle. His return only solidifies its pesky playing style as a unit. The loss of most improved player and its main focal point Keanu Pinder (orbital eye fracture) is a major loss, however the Taipans can count on Sam Waardenburg to hold the anchor defensively. All hands will need to be on deck to curtail its opponents: the Tasmania JackJumpers.

The JackJumpers hold no fears against the Taipans, despite losing two of the three regular-season matchups. Josh Magette's broken cheekbone is a blow. The steady point guard's poise in picking the right time to facilitate and create shots is one of the reasons why the JackJumpers methodical offensive game is so successful. It's a major piece missing to the team from the Apple Isle's quest to go one better, but they've got options.

Milton Doyle effortlessly puts points in the basket with his smooth all-round game, Will Magnay is a defensive presence, Rashard Kelly aka Larry Johnson can weave his craft down low and from the outside, and the enigmatic Jack McVeigh automatically makes plays happen. Former New Zealand Breaker Jarrod Weeks' production is going to fill the void in Magette's absence. But the veteran has plenty of experience in pressure cooker finals outings. If he continues to bury triples at a career-high rate it's a bonus, potentially beating the Taipans at their own game.

In the course of two seasons, the JackJumpers have been embraced not only in Tasmania, but across the entire NBL community with their team-first approach. Kudos to Coach Scott Roth. Anything is possible, as the team showed in their inaugural season (NBL22) in defying all odds.

The top two teams - Sydney Kings and the New Zealand Breakers are the frontrunners to beat, especially the Kings. Under Coach Chase Buford, the Kings' who play at the League's fastest pace can throw up an array of different offensive sets which has left defences scrambling. From this season's MVP Xavier Cooks effortlessly striding to the rim and overall hustle, Dejan Vasiljevic sinking triples from all sections of the court, the defensive work of Justin Simon, and the weaving athleticism of Derrick Walton Jr, its a bout of the Blue Mountains to conquer for whoever dethrones the Kings off their throne.

Whilst it's starting five is elite, the bench has an assortment of shooters from Angus Glover and Josh Bruce bringing instant offence, former Taipan Kouat Noi making timely plays at both ends, and the all-out grunt work of Jordan Hunter on the glass. This is why the last season's champions hold the aces as to why they are the team to beat.

Last season, the Breakers were at the opposite end of the spectrum - not playing any games at Spark Arena and being away from their families. A season later, a complete reversal. Reminiscent of their prime in the early's 2010s, the Breakers have brought together a high-level of basketball under Coach Mody Maor.

Although not winning Coach of the Year, Maor quickly brought a style of incorporating overall effort and relentless defence. Similar to his former predecessor Dan Shamir - who Maor served as an assistant for three seasons. The Breakers fear nobody as they have shown all season in climbing back into the postseason for the first time since 2018.

The side has excellent front-court depth with defensive guru Dererk Pardon patrolling the paint, Jarrell Brantley punishing teams from the interior and outside, Rob Loe stretching opposing defences, and the offensive stardom of long-time Breaker Tom Abercrombie. Its depth doesn't stop there with William McDowell-White, former King Thomas Vodanovich, sixth man of the year Barry Brown Jr, the pesky Izayah Le'Afa, and the rise of Rayan Rupert.

As Maor said to newshub.co.nz about turning the Breakers into a contender, "I am well aware of the Breakers' strong legacy, and am excited and honoured to be taking over as head coach. I am determined to lead the club in a way that honours that legacy and be part of a new chapter in the club's rich history."

Maor's dream is nearly there with two hurdles to climb in turning around a dismal 5-23 NBL22 campaign into the Breakers' fifth championship.

Let's soak in what should be one of the top NBL postseasons in recent memory. With superstars ready to revel in the spotlight, crowds flocking in its drones, and the game at the height of its peak than ever before, it has all the hallmarks of a phenominal spectacle. So it's time to roll the ball and watch the six teams contend for glory.

In the words of Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird, "Push yourself again and again. Don't give an inch until the final buzzer sounds."