If a road team is to win in this NBL grand final series it appears Sunday’s Game 4 is the chance for the Perth Wildcats, but Melbourne United is confident of bouncing back without some of the obstacles they feel come in Perth.
All the questions heading into Friday night’s NBL blockbuster were over Melbourne United, but after they scored a strong win to go clear in top spot it’s the Perth Wildcats with big decisions to make.
Coming into Friday night’s clash at Perth Arena Melbourne was on an impressive six-game winning streak, but none of those wins had come against the NBL powerhouses Perth and New Zealand.
The Wildcats and Breakers have split the previous eight championships between them, so the fact that Melbourne had lost a combined 11 of the past 12 games against them was a far more telling figure than the six-match winning run they had been on.
Quite simply until Melbourne had proven they could match it and beat Perth and New Zealand they didn’t deserve to be in the championship discussion as we hit the home straight of the 2017-18 season.
Melbourne answered the challenge with flying colours, coming away with the 82-80 victory. The two-point result might not be emphatic on the scoreboard, but the way Melbourne played was far more impressive than that suggests.
Melbourne was downright embarrassing on its home floor when it lost to Perth by 32 points back on 19 November. Everything that was bad that night was improved on Friday, most notably their physicality, ability to set strong screens and simply fight and scrap for every possession.
Even though Melbourne came into the game without David Andersen and Majok Majok and even though centre Josh Boone was limited to just over 20 minutes due to foul trouble, they got on top on the interior despite Wildcats centre Angus Brandt at times threatening to take over.
The fact that Melbourne iced the victory in hostile territory in front of a regular season record crowd of 13,611 people at Perth Arena when Craig Moller collected an offensive rebound and scored off it showed everything that was right about their performance.
Melbourne ended up outrebounding Perth by two and also did well to score 16 points from their turnovers. The defensive effort of Casper Ware on Bryce Cotton was commendable, holding the Cats sharpshooter to 15 points on 5/15 shooting.
The difference in the game without question, though, was Tai Wesley. In his second season with Melbourne since crossing from New Zealand Wesley is having his career-best season, and he was quite simply unstoppable by Perth in the block on Friday night.
He finished with 21 points, ten rebounds and five assists on 8/13 shooting from the field. Virtually every time he caught the ball in the post and Perth guarded him with single coverage he got whatever look at the basket he wanted.
The end result for Melbourne is that they have won seven straight games to improve to a 13-6 record to now be a game clear on top of the NBL ladder, at least until the 12-6 Breakers play the Illawarra Hawks on Saturday night.
Their next test comes in the form of the Breakers in Auckland next Thursday, but they deserve to go into that having their confidence greatly boosted by the win in Perth.
“They kicked our arse last time and that was a great wake-up call for us,” said United coach Dean Vickerman. “We had two weeks in that FIBA window to understand that our physicality wasn’t up to scratch and we weren’t going to beat New Zealand or Perth if we didn’t make a change there.
“Ever since that game we come into our practices every day and rate ourselves on our physicality. We talked about that before the game and how they are the best offensive rebounding team possibly ever, and we held them to a reasonable total in that area.
“We set some screens that were much better than last time. We dived on the floor and did some of the things that are a lot tougher than how we played that game eight weeks ago.”
Wesley knows all about battles with Perth from his time with the Breakers and knew after that last loss at home to Perth that Melbourne simply had to be tougher.
They have put the work in to make that happen, and it all came to fruition in Friday night’s win.
“It was a wake-up call getting embarrassed by them on our home court in a game where we came out pretty confident in and then just got knocked down and stepped on,” Wesley said.
“From that moment we drew the line in the sand and went to war. We did some weird stuff – we wrestled and did some MMA and all sort of stuff – but it’s starting to translate a little bit.
“We are playing harder, we are playing more physical and this time we hit them first and they kind of had to take a step back to recover and then try to come back at us.”
The Wildcats now have a big decision to make: whether they stick with their current group or make the brave call to try to upgrade in time for that potential new arrival to play enough games to qualify for the playoffs.
Melbourne wasted no time replacing the injured Casey Prather with Carrick Felix, while New Zealand have just added a third import, Rakeem Christmas, and the fourth-placed Adelaide 36ers have signed Josh Childress since the season started.
They have all made big moves by bringing star players in. Now the Wildcats have to decide if they want to do the same and if they feel it necessary to try to complete their championship three-peat.
The man under the pump is import centre Derek Cooke Jr. He started the game on Friday night against Melbourne but had a horrible opening, including a poor defensive effort trying to guard Wesley.
His night never improved, and even though Brandt was constantly in foul trouble, Cooke clocked only 14.5 minutes while delivering four points and eight rebounds.
He has had some good moments in recent times, including ten points and 14 rebounds against the Sydney Kings last week. The problem is he seems to have as many off nights as on ones.
While he can finish strongly at the rim in clear space and can rebound well, it does appear the Wildcats need more from their big man than that in order to not only compete but to beat the likes of Melbourne, New Zealand and Adelaide for the championship.
Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson wasn’t mincing his words after his team’s loss on Friday night in making it clear it was his big men that let their team down.
“We gave up too many second-chance points and they ended up with 13 offensive rebounds, and when the game was on the line they scored on an offensive board to take it to four points, which was disappointing,” Gleeson said.
“We struggled to guard Wesley and their bigs won it easily against our bigs. It’s disappointing the way that went. Lucas [Walker] fouled out in the third quarter and we had to kind of mix around our team a fair bit from there.
“We had trouble with our big guys – they got into foul trouble too many times, so we’ll have to look back on the tape to see if that was because they were coming across to help the guards because they were getting beaten on the dribble or if they had their hands in the cookie jar.
“I’m more concerned with the fouling by the big guys than anything. I thought the guards did well to keep Casper to shooting 26 per cent, Goulding to shooting 27 per cent, so they did an outstanding job with that.
“But it’s our big guys who need to step up to the plate to help us in that department. We’ll learn from it and pick it up.”
If the Wildcats are to replace Cooke and the new arrival is to qualify for the finals, they need to move quickly and have done the swap in time for next weekend’s home-away double against the Sydney Kings.
NBL Round 14 fixture (AEDT)
Adelaide 36ers 100 defeated Cairns Taipans 90
Perth Wildcats 80 lost to Melbourne United 82
Sydney Kings vs Adelaide 36ers – Qudos Bank Arena at 5.30pm
Illawarra Hawks vs New Zealand Breakers – WIN Entertainment Centre at 7.30pm
Brisbane Bullets vs Perth Wildcats – Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre at 3pm