Melbourne United v Sydney Kings: SF2 Preview

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When: 7.30pm (AEDT), Monday 3 March

Where: Melbourne Arena

Broadcast: SBS Viceland; ESPN; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand

The last time

Sydney 86 (Tate 23, Newley 17, Cooks 13) d Melbourne 80 (Trimble 34, Long 23), Semi-Final Game 1, Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney

Most of these comments should be about Melbourne because they were quite simply superb … for 34 minutes. At that point they were tracking for a 93-74 win that would have seen their offensive and defensive planning and execution lauded, especially on a night where they missed plenty of makeable looks. But from there it was the Tate and Didi show, the imported pair combining for 16 points in the next six minutes as Sydney shut the defensive gate and stole Game 1 with a devastating 24-2 run.

The now

Devastating defeats are hard to bounce back from, as we saw with the Boomers at last year’s World Cup. However, once the frustration from letting a golden opportunity slip fades, United should walk into Melbourne Arena full of confidence. They owned the majority of Game 1, holding Sydney to 43 per cent from the floor as they chased tirelessly over screens, ran shooters off the arc, rotated and recovered to force the Kings away from their preferred shots on the arc or at the rim.

Sydney took away United’s preferred action late via the Xavier Cooks-Tate defensive frontcourt, which closed up the space around ball-screen situations. Up until that point the Kings had struggled mightily to close down Melbourne’s shooters, protect the rim and protect the defensive glass, and there is little doubt they dodged a bullet with Chris Goulding and Dave Barlow shooting a combined 2/13 from deep. That’s unlikely to happen twice in a row, especially at Melbourne Arena. 

The stats

– Melbourne had 13 offensive rebounds from 37 misses in the opening 33:30 of Game 1. In the final 6:30 they had one o-board from 10 misses

– United held Sydney to 24 points from outside the arc and 16 from the foul line in Game 1, after they’d averaged 61.3 points from ‘ones and threes’ in the season series

– The Kings took 26 shots from between the no-charge zone and the three-point line in Game 1. In their previous four clashes with Melbourne they had taken 40 in total

– During their match-winning run, Sydney shot 4/8 from long range, compared to 4/25 (16 per cent) for the rest of the game. Melbourne were 0/7 from deep in the final 6:30, compared to 12/35 (34 per cent) prior to that

The match-ups

Shawn Long v Andrew Bogut – Melbourne took a leaf out of Perth’s book and found multiple ways to attack Sydney’s drops defence, and with Melo Trimble scoring from all parts and Long dropping 4/6 from range, it meant the Bogey Man was sitting when the chips were being counted. Long had excellent energy on the glass, and while he only grabbed two o-boards, he helped suck in the D and open up United’s shooters.

David Barlow v Jae’Sean Tate – It looked like Melbourne had subdued the beast, but Tate was great late, finishing with 23 points as he embraced the invitation to shoot and drained 4/6 from deep to finally spread the United D. Barlow was starved for looks most of the night, and rushed a pair late when execution was needed. With Melbourne 9-0 when he hits three or more triples, they need to get DB more than four shots.

Shea Ili v Casper Ware – Dean Vickerman summed it up best when he said “Shea was amazing”. Sure, Ware has had his shooting struggles through much of this season, but it wasn’t a case of missed looks on Saturday, it was pure workrate and smarts from Ili – with help on the other side of the ball-screen – that denied him touches within range, eliminated his penetration and forced long contested shots late in the clock.

Chris Goulding v Didi Louzada – They were two whistles for incidental contact not usually seen in a playoff game, but they were called and Chris Goulding never recovered. Playing just 18:30, Goulding went 2/9 from outside and was not able to deliver down the stretch. Louzada had no such troubles, scoring 8 points in four fourth-quarter minutes – including the go-ahead triple – to seal the W, and finish with a game-high +27. 

The quotes

Go with what’s worked. To follow that piece of advice is human nature and it is certainly coach’s nature – but it might have just cost Dean Vickerman and Melbourne United on Saturday.

The underdogs produced a superb defensive game plan that took Casper Ware out of the game and put the other Kings out of their comfort zone.

“We had a good adjustment defensively about how we guarded today,” Vickerman said.

“Credit to (assistant coach) Ross McMains, he did a really good job with the scout and with the communication to the team and the boys executed really well.”

On the back of that defence, Melbourne then pushed the ball at every opportunity, but were smart enough to move the ball or re-use screens to test Sydney’s schemes and then crash the offensive glass to capitalise on the Kings’ rotations.

It was a superb two-way display that helped them rack up 78 points in the opening 33:30 despite an off-shooting night where plenty of open looks for good shooters went begging.

When asked what changed across that fatal final stretch, Vickerman basically said his team didn’t go with what had worked.

“I thought what changed the game was the pace they started to really push,” he said.

“They felt that we had bogged them down in the half-court so they really started grabbing it out of the net and I thought Newley was a factor in really changing the pace of the game, the way that he was attacking.

“And for the last five minutes we probably slowed our attack to get started in our offence, we saw a few late shot clock situations as well, so we can be better at that.”

Once Vickerman re-watches the tape, however, he will see Melbourne take five shots in first half of the shot clock and three turnovers in the first 12 seconds of their possession during that stretch.

Their coach had implored them to keep going with what had worked, but they did it without the nuance, culling their offensive rebounding chances and fuelling the Kings’ running game.

Vickerman also went with Chris Goulding, because going with CG43 has worked many times before. At first, Vickerman sat Shea Ili, but their defence then leaked 13 points in the next two minutes.

Melbourne needed their defensive star back in and their coach put him in for Trimble, their brightest offensive light on the night. Nek minute. They went scoreless for the next three minutes until Melo scored on his first possession back in the ball game.

In the end, when split second decision were made, Vickerman went with a player who had worked in the past, not those who had worked on the night, and an out-of-rhythm Goulding couldn’t deliver the daggers he has so many times before.

Yet while for United fans the loss was a tough pill to swallow, Vickerman is looking positively towards Monday’s Game 2.

“It’s not tough at all, we felt like we should have won it, that’s the positive to say the last three games we’ve played them we haven’t been in the position to go and beat them,” he said.

“We came in ready to play and nearly got a win on the road which is tough to do in any semi-final series, we go home with a lot of confidence about our game plan, there are some people on our team who will shoot the ball a lot better than they did tonight.”

For Sydney, who have copped plenty of criticism about their high-speed bench rotations, their steamrolling finish confirmed what they’ve known all season.

Xavier Cooks believes it was the team’s depth that allowed them to eventually crack Melbourne’s paint-packing defensive code and get back to owning the inside late in the contest.

“We talked about that going into the week, we thought they might do something like that and throughout the game we wore them down, we figured it out and our depth really helped. We had 10 players play tonight and that really helped us out,” he said.

“Games like tonight show that, bad teams when they’re down start to doubt themselves, we never doubt ourselves, we stayed with it, we had our front foot forward and we took over the game when it mattered.”

Weaver knows that code isn’t completely cracked though, and his players will need to play smarter to triumph in Game 2 and complete the sweep.

“Obviously Melbourne played their asses off, they were into us from the jump and got off to a good start, dominated the free throw battle considering how many times we were driving. There was a big discrepancy in terms of the ratio and I think a lot of that had to do with us doing silly, ‘seek contact’ sort of things,” Weaver said.

“I trust that over time, if we keep talking about those simple details we’ll figure it out and our guys did.”

It all sets up a Monday night classic. Can Ili repeat his defensive masterclass on Ware? Will Goulding and Barlow connect from outside? Can Long repeat his aggressive performance? And will Melbourne again successfully exploit Andrew Bogut and Daniel Kickert?

Can Tate again deliver from deep? Will Ware, Kevin Lisch and Shaun Bruce go 0/14 again? Can Sydney utilise Bogut more at the offensive end so they can keep him on the floor for longer? And do both teams have to be ready for a string of whistles early in the game once again?

So many questions, and the answers promise to be tantalising, provided Melbourne aren’t too dejected from their momentous meltdown. Trimble insists they’re ripe for the fight.

“Very disappointing but this is a series,” he said.

“I think we figured out how we want to play our defence. A lot of didn’t fall, open shots, but that’s basketball, I think Monday at our house with the fans behind out back we’ll be a different team and a better team.”

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