With the second last round of the regular season underway, the race to secure third and fourth positions on the ladder remains on in earnest between Wollongong, Cairns, Sydney, Melbourne and Townsville but the Hawks and Taipans took a giant step in the right direction on Friday night.
Wollongong beat Sydney 81-74 at the WIN Entertainment Centre to remain in third spot with a 12-15 record and a game against wooden spooners Adelaide to come next Saturday night at home.
If the Hawks win that, they are guaranteed of playing in the semi finals against either the New Zealand Breakers or Perth Wildcats.
Cairns is now in fourth position after holding on for a 76-73 victory over the 36ers at home on Friday night as well. The Taipans have now been on a good run of form winning four of their last five games, and seven of their last 12 to improve to an 11-15 record.
The Snakes have two games remaining starting this Sunday in Perth against a Wildcats team with little to play for given they can't finish anywhere but second. The Taipans then play Melbourne next Friday night at home in a match that could very well determine each team's finals chances.
Friday night's big losers were the Sydney Kings who now have lost 11 of their last 13 games to have an 11-16 record with just one game remaining next Friday night at home to the Townsville Crocs.
Even if the Kings win that, they need other results to go their way to finish in the finals for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign.
Melbourne was the team many expected to do enough to gain a finals berth but five straight losses over the past month, including a 30-point hiding in New Zealand on Thursday, leaves the Tigers just 10-15.
However, if they beat Townsville twice and Cairns once over the next eight days they can still play finals, but needing to win in Cairns next Friday and Townsville on Sunday is a massive ask.
The Crocs remain the other outside chance of playing finals if they are able to beat the Tigers in Melbourne on Sunday, win in Sydney next Friday and then beat the Tigers again in Townsville next Sunday. That seems highly unlikely, but while they are still a chance they will be shooting for it.
As for Friday night's games starting in Wollongong, the Hawks took control against the Kings in the second and third quarters outscoring the visitors 51-29 to open up a match-winning advantage.
Sydney didn’t stop fighting, though, and did get back to within six late in the game and only lost by seven, but Wollongong did enough for the crucial win.
Point guard Adris Deleon top-scored for the Hawks with 25 points to go with six rebounds and three assists. Oscar Forman offered strong support with 15 points and five boards while nailing three of his four attempts from three-point range.
Dave Gruber played well adding 11 points and collecting five rebounds with centre Larry Davidson finishing with 10 points and 10 boards, and Malcolm Grant 10 points also.
"We needed to make a statement with our defence tonight and we did that," said Hawks coach Gordie McLeod.
"In the last quarter, it got a little out of hand because we broke down in a couple of areas and they started getting a lot of points in the paint.
"We always knew the Kings at some stage were going to throw that press at us."
Sydney was buoyed by the return of key players James Harvey and Ian Crosswhite from injury, and both made solid contributions with Harvey finishing with 12 points, six rebounds and two assists, and Crosswhite nine points and seven boards.
Darnell Lazare top-scored, though, with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Ben Madgen added 10 points but shot a woeful 4-of-15 from the field and 0-of-6 from three-point range. Tom Garlepp was a good performer with 12 points on an economical 5-of-7 shooting from the field.
Kings coach Shane Heal said his team lacked the big-match intensity.
"We showed character at the end of the game. We didn't show character when the game was on the line - I was disappointed with that," Heal said.
"I didn't think we played like it was a final. That's not the culture we're breeding at the Kings."
Cairns might have been at home and playing to keep its season alive against the bottom-place guaranteed Adelaide on Friday night, but there are far too many players with a lot of pride in the Sixers' team to lie down and hand them victory.
Cairns could not open up a bigger advantage than eight all night against Adelaide and it was only some late free-throws from import point guard Jamar Wilson, and a missed buzzer-beating three from Jason Cadee that made sure the Taipans got their third straight win at home.
"It was a bit of a funny game, hard to get any rhythm. But it's probably a good thing to have close games at this time of year," Taipans coach Aaron Fearne said.
"In the play-offs you need to execute and I think we executed down the stretch pretty well. It was good to walk out of it."
Wilson top-scored for the Taipans as well with 19 points and four assists. Veteran Aaron Grabau, who has been a Taipan since the club was formed in 1998, scored 16 points, Cameron Gliddon 11 and Alex Loughton 10.
Gliddon had seven rebounds and seven assists to go with his 11 points while Loughton pulled in 10 rebounds.
Anthony Petrie scored 19 points and had seven rebounds for the Sixers with Scott Christopherson scoring an NBL career-high 16 points and 250-gamer Adam Gibson adding 10. Cadee and Daniel Johnson both had nine points apiece.