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NBL finals battle closing up
Adrian Warren
20:05 AEST Sun Jan 20 2013

Early season NBL easybeats Melbourne and Townsville are emerging as serious finals contenders, with Sydney and Wollongong hitting the wall.

New Zealand (15-3) and Perth (12-4) dominate the upper reaches but the six other sides, including last-placed Cairns (5-11) are all contenders for the other finals positions.

New Zealand stretched their winning streak to seven at the weekend with a 72-71 home victory over Wollongong (8-9) and an 84-66 away conquest of Adelaide (6-12).

Perth rattled up their ninth win from ten starts with veterans Shawn Redhage scoring 26 in a crushing 86-64 home victory over Cairns.

Third-placed Sydney (10-9) slumped to their third straight defeat, losing 77-74 at home to Melbourne (6-9), who have won four of their past five.

Wollongong have injured guards Lance Hurdle and Rhys Martin listed as out for the rest of the season and a queue of teams eyeing their fourth spot on the ladder.

"That's probably being complementary saying that Wollongong and us are treading water ... it's a leaking boat at the moment," Sydney coach Shane Heal said.

Townsville (6-11) lost their first ten games but have now won six of their past seven.

"Five of those six wins have been very close, so I think the majority of our wins we have won down the stretch and we have made plays," Townsville coach Paul Wollpert said.

"If we can continue to defend like that we can beat any team in the league."

Wollpert won the recent NBL coach of the month award while Crocs guard Gary Ervin, who won the player of the month gong, maintained his hot form with 26 points against the injury ravaged Hawks.

"For us at the moment, where we are with the personnel, we've got to play so much smarter than the opposition, we've got to work to much harder," Wollongong coach Gordie McLeod said.

For Melbourne coach Chris Anstey, the game against Sydney represented the start of a season-defining block.

"We've got a six-game stretch where we play teams around us, we need to win five or six of those games," Anstey said.

"If we can do that then we are in the hunt, if we can't we don't deserve to be, it's as simple as that."

Melbourne's former NBA guard Jonny Flynn scored 20 of his 27 points in the first half, while Sydney centre Ian Crosswhite notched his NBL career-highest tally of 27.

"We've given some of those teams below us a sniff and some of those teams had really tough starts to the years and they are starting to click a little bit more and figure things out," Crosswhite said.

"There's a lot of danger teams there and we've got a big target on our backs."

"We've just got to keep getting better and improving, we're digging ourselves a little bit of a hole and we need to start digging out."