Melbourne United v Perth Wildcats
When: 3pm (AEDT), Sunday 12 February
Where: Hisense Arena, Melbourne
Broadcast: NBL TV; SBS; Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ
Win and you’re in
Welcome to the early edition of the Swisse 2017 NBL Finals. That’s the reality for the Perth Wildcats, who face a win-and-you’re-in, lose-and-you-go-home situation at Hisense Arena on Sunday.
The good news for the Red Army is their team is 3-0 against Melbourne United this season, the bad news is they’ve won just three of their 11 road games since their last triumph in Melbourne in Round 3.
For United, it’s a case of nothing to play for, right? That may seem the case pre-game but with Hisense Arena another sell-out – as the NBL closes in on an all-time attendance record – you can bet the Melbourne players will want to put on a show.
“One of the better crowds I’ve played in front of around the world , it’s a great crowd here, the fans love basketball, you can tell the way they’re into the game,” point guard Casper Ware said in Round 8.
— NBL (@NBL) November 26, 2016
Chris Goulding has spoken repeatedly about the edge United get from the Hisense Arena faithful.
“The crowds are fantastic, we can feel the momentum building and I’m sure other teams can as well,” he said.
Josh Boone has played in the NBA, Euroleague and in front of hoops-mad Chinese and Filipino audiences, but he likes what he sees in Melbourne.
“It was great,” he said after his home debut.
“Like any other basketball player I love playing in this environment like this, this is when I seem to play my best basketball. It’s tough when you’re overseas because some places are really good and you go to other places and the fan support just isn’t there.
“Clearly they have some great fans, so I’m really looking forward to playing more and more games here.”
Home, sweet home
This is the last hurrah for a much-hyped roster that has been plagued my injury and inconsistency. When it came to the crunch in New Zealand on Friday they could only manage 70 points, dishing out just five assists on 24 made field goals and 17 made free throws.
The good news for United fans is their team is 4-10 on the road averaging 80.4ppg, but at home that rockets up to 9-4 at 87.1ppg, and in their past six Melbourne outings the men in blue have scored 94ppg.
It’s perhaps Goulding who is the biggest home body, his road averages of 14.4ppg at 41 per cent rising to 19.2ppg at 45 per cent once he’s south of the Murray River.
The Rio Olympian tweaked his ankle in Auckland on Friday, but if available he teams with Ware, Todd Blanchfield, Dave Barlow to Dave Andersen to give United enough firepower to sink the Wildcat playoff ship.
Having beaten Melbourne by a combined eight points in their meetings to date, Perth coach Trevor Gleeson knows just how big a task Sunday will be.
— NBL (@NBL) October 23, 2016
However, he will take great heart from Friday night, when they held Sydney’s talented line-up to just 32 points after intermission, including keeping Jason Cadee scoreless after a 15-point opening half.
“I thought our group intelligence was good out there, the court awareness of who was hot and who needs special attention,” he said.
Gleeson revealed the Wildcats’ have drilled themselves to maintain their disciplined defensive approach through opposition hot runs, knowing eventually contested shots will start missing.
“You’ve just got to stay with what we’re doing,” he said.
“We have a terminology ‘you’ve got to pound the rock’. Keep pounding, keep pounding and you hit the rock 100 times it doesn’t break, but the 101st time it breaks, that’s what we’ve got to do offensively and defensively … and hopefully the other team breaks.”
Perth may make some changes from their Round 17 clash, however. Starting Matt Knight against Barlow at power forward opened up pick-and-pop opportunities and driving lanes for United which they took full advantage of.
— NBL (@NBL) January 28, 2017
In Barlow’s combined 9:32 to open the first and third term, Melbourne outscored the ‘Cats 21-8, shooting 53 per cent from the field and 60 per cent from the arc.
Over the rest of the game Perth prevailed 63-50 and held United to 42 per cent from the field and 18 per cent from deep.
Plenty in reserve
Gleeson lauded his bench – led by Shawn Redhage, Greg Hire and Jarrod Kenny – for restoring order and said “the perseverance of the team was unbelievable”. On average, the Wildcats’ reserves had a plus/minus of +10.2 compared to their starters’ -8.2 that night.
“The bench guys came on and provided energy, Shawn was huge down the end providing energy and scored those two points to put us up,” Gleeson said.
“Greg played well off the bench and JK. It was a tough physical game, that was a playoff game, it wasn’t pretty but it was two teams going at it, and it makes you tougher going through that.
“It was just the commitment of the guys, we didn’t miss a beat. Damo came off, JK came straight on and we’re (still) playing that intense defence which is our staple, we’re playing a game against one of the top-scoring teams in the league and we keep them under 80 points, it’s a pretty good effort.”
What will make Perth feel even better heading into Sunday’s do-or-die clash – where a win will earn them a trip to Cairns for Game 1 of the semi-finals on Friday – is the resurgent form of Casey Prather.
— NBL (@NBL) February 10, 2017
Since missing a game with injury four weeks ago, he had averaged 11.6 points at 30 per cent from the field, but against the Kings he exploded back to life with 29 points at 55 per cent, six assists, four boards and two steals.
“It was just coming back from an injury, I just had to get back into the gym and get back to the basics,” he said, adding he is “getting back to my full 100 per cent self”.
“To have this little slump and then have the opportunity for the team to compete for it all, going into the playoffs, I was just up-and-about.”
Most pleasing for Gleeson was the way Prather linked up with Bryce Cotton for the first time since the shooting guard’s arrival 10 games ago.
“It’s just a time thing when you haven’t played that much together … but they’ve started clicking, started looking for each other, feeding off each other’s energy,” he said.
“Especially when they get so much attention on the defensive end, to be able to find different pockets, and you do that after you play with somebody a little bit, you get to know their habits and what they like to do, and I thought the synergy between them tonight was fantastic.”
— NBL (@NBL) February 3, 2017
With Cotton averaging 24ppg in his past three games on 61 per cent field-goal shooting and 13-of-18 from range, Perth have the offensive side of things covered, whether they win on Sunday and progress to their 31st straight post-season will depend largely on the defensive end.
While Gleeson knows his team can’t control how many tough shots Andersen, Goulding and Ware make, he knows if they “pound the rock” hard enough they can make life very tough for a team that is just playing for pride.
“What we can control is how hard we play, play (with) great teamwork, and when we step on the court we’re going to be a team who give it all we’ve got,” he said.