It’s now Melbourne United’s NBL title to lose

Chris Pike Columnist

By Chris Pike, Chris Pike is a Roar Expert

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    Melbourne United star shooting guard Chris Goulding. (Chris Pike)

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    Melbourne United has now overcome its hoodoo against the New Zealand Breakers, having already done the same against the Perth Wildcats, and they are guaranteed of the NBL regular season championship. It sure is their title to win with one round remaining.

    There was a false dawn for Melbourne two years ago when they also finished the regular season in top spot but were simply no match for the Breakers, losing in straight sets in the semi-finals in embarrassing fashion.

    But two years on, this is a very different Melbourne team. It starts with the coach. No longer is the enigmatic Dean Demopoulos in charge, but instead at the helm is Breakers championship-winner Dean Vickerman. The difference is obvious.

    This Melbourne team is one with a strong defensive mindset and that’s where their great strength is. They are a greatly improved defensive team and they are strong physically with their mental aptitude also now a strength.

    While they have some strong offensive weapons led by Chris Goulding, Casper Ware and Tai Wesley, this is a defensive-minded team led by Josh Boone while Craig Moller is proving himself one of the best small forward defenders in the league.

    Even Ware and Goulding are improved defensively and it’s simply a tough Melbourne team to play against, to score against and to beat in the physical stakes.

    That has now seen them secure the regular season championship with one round of the season to go. After beating the Breakers twice in Round 18, home and away, Melbourne have won six straight matches and 13 of their last 14.

    That has them with a 19-7 record to be two wins ahead of the Adelaide 36ers (17-10), Perth Wildcats (15-11) and New Zealand Breakers (15-11). The top four looks set to stay in that order heading into the final round.

    The two big question marks hovering over Melbourne even during this recent streak has been their inability to beat the Wildcats and Breakers – the two teams who have split the past eight NBL championships.

    But they answered the call against Perth winning at Perth Arena a month ago and this weekend, they ended a run of losing ten of 11 games against the Breakers by winning twice.

    All that means this just has to be the time that Melbourne capitalises on the talent they’ve had for some time now and goes all the way to claim the 2017-18 championship.

    Casey Prather Melbourne United NBL

    (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

    They still have a big call to make on whether to welcome back Casey Prather from an elbow injury or to stick with his replacement Carrick Felix. It does appear they have made the call to bring back Prather while David Andersen is still to return from injury too.

    The reality is this is Melbourne’s championship to lose and coach Vickerman was delighted to break their run of outs against New Zealand in Round 18 – twice.

    “It does mean something for us. Obviously it hasn’t been a great winning percentage for the club against New Zealand but to split two games each with them I think is important and gives us a bit of confidence knowing we have done that,” Vickerman said.

    “But I’m well aware of what that group is capable of in finals situations and you know that every possession is a war with them when it gets to finals time. I hope they get healthy and finish off those last two games really well.”

    Clearly, the team most capable right now from the top four of challenging Melbourne United are the Adelaide 36ers.

    They have the added motivation of finishing last season on top before losing in the semi-finals to the Illawarra Hawks. So the pain is there and they appear a better team this season even without MVP Jerome Randle.

    Their three imports – Josh Childress, Shannon Shorter and Ramone Moore – as a unit are better than Randle, Terrance Ferguson and Eric Jacobsen, while Nathan Sobey, Mitch Creek, Daniel Johnson, Matt Hodgson, Majok Deng and Anthony Drmic provide a brilliant Australian core.

    The Sixers are now guaranteed of finishing in second position following Sunday’s 111-87 win over Illawarra despite being without Moore, with Sobey being ejected and captain Brendan Teys out through suspension.

    Coach Joey Wright likes his team’s chances more this season than he did 12 months ago.

    “I just think we are a better ball club than last year regardless of where we finish or anything,” Wright said.

    “I think we’re a lot better team overall, more well balanced and we communicate better with one another. I just think we have better chemistry than we did last year.”

    Nathan Sobey runs with ball

    (Image: NBL)

    The Wildcats are attempting to win a three-peat for the first time in club history, but that looks a forlorn hope right now given the team’s current form.

    They have now bafflingly lost four of their past six games at home and eight of their last 13 overall. They have still done enough to qualify for a 32nd straight finals series, but whether it’s Melbourne or Adelaide they face in the semi-finals, they look way off the pace.

    Coach Trevor Gleeson is fully aware of that and is especially concerned that his team continually lacks energy early in games.

    “We have tried different starting rotations but it’s a mindset thing really. We came into this game (at home to Cairns) to put pressure on the top two position and we give up 26 points in the first quarter and let them shoot 65 per cent,” Gleeson said.

    “Is that desire on the defensive end? We are supposed to be a DNA defensive team but we are being selective and when you are being selective you take the game out of your hands. We really should have been a lot better than that.

    “It just comes down to hard work and we are being selective. We just aren’t doing all the things we need to do for long enough right now.”

    The Breakers are also guaranteed of playing finals, but since their nine-game winning streak early in the season, they have now lost ten of the 16 games.

    They have also lost four of their past six after the two Round 18 losses to Melbourne.

    Coach Paul Henare was disappointed they lost on Sunday at home for the first time ever to Melbourne but he still thinks the Breakers can have an impact come finals time.

    “It just means that we probably can’t finish in the top two now, which is disappointing, but it is what it is what it is. We are going to have to do it the hard way and that’s okay,” Henare said.

    “We missed a bit of a psychological opportunity in that first half to keep them under scoreboard pressure. For them to walk into the break up five after we missed however many free-throws and good looks shifted the mental edge that you can either have or drop.

    “Then I thought our effort was there and we didn’t accept playing the way we did, but the effort was there and the boys tried hard. It just wasn’t our night.”

    NBL Round 18 Results
    THURSDAY
    Brisbane Bullets 99 defeated Illawarra Hawks 91

    FRIDAY
    Melbourne United 89 defeated New Zealand Breakers 83
    Perth Wildcats 83 lost to Cairns Taipans 85

    SATURDAY
    Sydney Kings 92 defeated Brisbane Bullets 80

    SUNDAY
    New Zealand Breakers 82 lost to Melbourne United 100
    Illawarra Hawks 87 lost to Adelaide 36ers 111

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