Written for nbl.com.au by Liam Santamaria
The Grand Final Series between Perth and Melbourne is all tied up at 1-1. What have we learned so far?
Rebounding on the Road
With two elite defensive units going head-to-head, rebounding was always going to be a key to this series but as it turns out, it’s even more important than we thought.
Why? Because so far neither team has been able to hold down their defensive glass on the road.
In Perth, United grabbed four more total rebounds than the Wildcats but those raw numbers were actually pretty deceiving. After an arm wrestle of an opening half, the Wildcats grabbed 50 percent of available offensive boards throughout the second half, fuelling their game-winning run.
That story flipped in Melbourne when United dominated the glass after half-time to bust Game 2 open and tie up the series.
Melbourne grabbed every single Perth miss in the third quarter on Sunday while snatching 50 percent of available boards at their offensive end. Those O-boards resulted in 9 second-chance points in that decisive third-quarter.
“I don’t think we had enough desire to get the ball,” Perth coach Trevor Gleeson said.
“That’s disappointing. You’re in this finals environment and you’re getting outworked. To beat Melbourne in Melbourne you’ve got to get those things.”
Of course, the same is true in reverse and if the ‘Cats can hold down the boards two more times at home, they’ll probably win the series.
Run For Your Lives
Two games into the Grand Final, it’s clear that there’ll be very few easy buckets in the half-court in this series.
Both teams are locked in at the defensive end and as a result, finding ways to generate transition opportunities is crucially important.
In Game 1 the Wildcats forced Melbourne into 15 turnovers and converted those errors into 23 points down the other end.
United’s propensity for throwing the ball away is a genuine weakness while Perth’s active hands have caused problems for teams all year – scratch that – all decade.
“When we’ve lost some games this year it’s happened, we’ve turned the ball over,” Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman said.
“(Especially) live ball turnovers that are pretty hard to recover from… we’ve just got to take care of the ball.”
United did that in Game 2, throwing the ball away only 5 times across the first three quarters and, in the process, starving the Wildcats of chances to push the rock.
On the flip side, United got out and ran off defensive rebounds, especially in that decisive third term.
So much of Perth’s identity stems from their presence on the offensive glass but as Melbourne secured clean boards off Wildcat misses, they punished the visitors for not getting back on D.
So, here’s the takeaway: if United are going to swing this series by winning in the Jungle, they’ll need to look after the ball.
Best Supporting Actors
Another important element of this series has been the production of supporting cast members.
With so much attention being paid to the superstars on each team – Cotton for Perth and the Ware-Goulding combination for Melbourne – the stage is set for others to step into the limelight.
In Game 1 the Wildcats had a bunch of different guys step up.
Cotton struggled to find his shooting rhythm on Friday night but it was all good, as his passing game was on point and six other ‘Cats connected on three-point shots, helping Perth to finish with 5 players in double-figures.
That went the other way in Game 2 when United’s supporting cast rose to the occasion.
Melbourne put 92 on the board on Sunday but had nobody score more than 14 points. They ended with 6 guys in double-figures and another, Pledger, who chimed in with 8 points and 7 boards.
The defending champs are sending bodies at Cotton on every possession and Perth are similarly shadowing Ware. Which side has the better supporting cast?
White vs Kennedy
All that leads us to the fascinating small forward battle between Terrico White and DJ Kennedy – a match-up which may well end up deciding the championship.
White was outstanding in Game 1 as he led the Wildcats in both scoring (19) and rebounding (8) while Kennedy was the standout performer in Game 2 with 12 points, a game-high 14 rebounds, an equal game-high 4 assists and 2 steals.
Moving forward, I can’t help but give the edge here to Kennedy.
White is a great fit for the ‘Cats, I’ve said that all along, and he has stepped up his game in the playoffs… but, for me, he just doesn’t quite possess the same x-factor qualities that Kennedy does.
Kennedy is a stat-sheet stuffer. He’s an elite rebounder and a dynamic playmaker who has the ability to break games open in a variety of ways.
In Melbourne’s Round 18 win over Perth, with White sitting out, Kennedy pushed United over the line with 9 offensive rebounds and a game-high 6 assists.
On Sunday, it was his work on the defensive glass (11) and ability to make plays in transition that were heavily influential, especially when Melbourne busted the game open in the third quarter.
Don’t get me wrong: White is a very important piece to Perth’s championship puzzle and the Wildcats will need to keep getting him good looks if they’re to win the series. I just think Kennedy is the more talented and versatile player.
The other thing to note is that Kennedy is a real match-up issue for the Wildcats. White does what he does and you deal with him accordingly but Kennedy has the ability to have a match-winning impact in so many different ways.
Playing at the three, he’s a handful for White in transition and on the glass and he’ll also take Steindl to the block if that’s who is guarding him. But when Melbourne really made their push in Game 2, Kennedy was playing at the four, covering for Barlow who was in foul trouble. Kept closer to the basket, that’s where Kennedy can haul down defensive boards and kick-start the break. And when he’s in that spot you’ll also see Melbourne get into their ‘Horns’ stuff to allow him to take Perth’s frontline off the dribble.
“Out of the whole group, he’s right at the top of the guys that are so hungry to win this thing,” Vickerman said when asked about Kennedy.
“From day one when he turned up he talked about it and he’s continued to talk about it. He’s quite emotional when he talks about coming here to try and win a championship.”
Both White and Kennedy have started the series well, with each gaining the upper hand at home.
Can they both keep it going?
The Sniper is Shooting Blanks
Lastly, keep an eye on Clint Steindl.
The ace up Perth’s sleeve at the offensive end has not had much of an impact on the Grand Final Series thus far, connecting on just 3-of-13 field goal attempts and hitting 1-of-9 from long range.
He did make a key defensive play in Game 1 when he blocked Boone at the rim, but the truth is, ‘The Sniper’ is in a bit of a shooting slump having made just 1 of his last 16 three-point attempts.
That being said, Steindl can definitely shoot the rock. He finished the regular season ranked sixth in the league for three-point percentage, shooting 43.7 percent, and has knocked down multiple triples in 15 games this season.
The question is: can he do it in the playoffs? He couldn’t last year and the answer so far in NBL19 is still no.
But this thing is far from over and if Steindl can find his stroke – the stroke that helped turn Perth’s season around six weeks ago – the Wildcats might just add another championship banner to their collection.