The Perth Wildcats and Melbourne United look set to provide an NBL grand final series for the ages.
The NBL finals begin this Thursday night and there’s no reason to suggest that either the Perth Wildcats, Melbourne United, Sydney Kings and Brisbane Bullets can’t come away with the championship.
It was the tightest season in NBL history with top three teams Perth, Melbourne and Sydney all finishing on identical 18-10 records with the Wildcats ending on top ahead of United and the Kings thanks to percentage.
The Bullets had to win their final game of the regular season to beat the Adelaide 36ers to the fourth and last playoff position, but they had been inside top four most of the season and were deserving of their place at the end of the day.
Both semi-final series’ begin this Thursday night with Melbourne playing Sydney in Game 1 at Melbourne Arena leading into Perth hosting Brisbane at RAC Arena.
By Tuesday at the latest, we will know who will be playing in the grand final to determine the 2019 champions – and it’s sure to be fascinating basketball played.
History is certainly on the side of the top two teams who have home court advantage. Since the NBL switched to 40-minute games a decade ago, 22 of the 27 playoff series have been won by the team with home-court advantage.
But you only have to go back to 2017 when both the fourth-seeded Illawarra Hawks and third-placed Perth Wildcats won their semi-finals to advance to the grand final so it’s far from an impossible task ahead of the Kings and Bullets.
However, winning Game 1 does certainly set the tone with the winners of 17 of the last 18 Game 1 NBL playoff series’ going on to advance. The only anomaly was Adelaide in 2017 who won their first semi-final against the Hawks before losing the next two.
And while the Bullets and Kings are the lower seeds against the Wildcats and United, it’s been quite a finals drought for both.
In both cases it has included a hiatus from the league, but Brisbane’s last finals victory was February 23, 2008 against the New Zealand Breakers. Sydney’s last playoff victory was Game 4 of the grand final series against the Melbourne Tigers on March 12, 2008.
Meanwhile, Perth has won three of the last five NBL championships in 2014, 2016 and 2017 with Melbourne the defending champs.
History might be on the side of Perth and Melbourne advancing to the grand final, but Brisbane and Sydney loom as more than worthy opponents and any of the four have teams capable of coming away with the championship.
It all gets underway in Melbourne on Thursday and with the history built from the Tigers and Kings battles of years past, and the natural Melbourne-Sydney rivalry, and the friction between both clubs this year make it a contest to look forward to.
There are tantalising match ups all over the floor and none more so than the battle between two former NBA big men, Melbourne’s Josh Boone and Sydney’s reigning MVP and Best Defensive Player Andrew Bogut.
While Sydney might be deficient in the power forward spot in terms of rebounding and defence, that isn’t so much the case against Melbourne as Kings pair David Wear and Daniel Kickert are similar in plenty of ways to Melbourne’s David Barlow.
The small forward contest will be a crucial one too featuring Melbourne’s DJ Kennedy against Sydney’s Brad Newley with Kennedy receiving support from Mitch McCarron and Newley from Brian Bowen.
The point guard contest between two of the best in the competition Melbourne’s Casper Ware and Sydney’s Jerome Randle will be worth the price of admission alone as will Australian Olympic teammates Chris Goulding and Kevin Lisch facing off as rival captains.
There’s plenty to look forward to all over the floor. Both teams are made to win a championship and then you have Melbourne looking to go back-to-back and Sydney to achieve success again and to send off coach Andrew Gaze in the best possible way.
Once Game 1 is done in Melbourne, attention turns to 13,000 screaming fans in red in Perth as the regular season champion Wildcats host the Bullets.
It might be Brisbane’s first playoff appearance in 11 years but there’s plenty of in-built playoff history between these two clubs.
Brisbane coach Andrej Lemanis along with Mika Vukona and Reuben Te Rangi were all part of that famous rivalry earlier this decade between the New Zealand Breakers and Wildcats.
Then there is Bullets veteran Adam Gibson who has played in grand finals and semi-finals against Perth both with the Gold Coast Blaze and Adelaide while Cam Gliddon has played two semi-final series against the ‘Cats when he was part of the Cairns Taipans.
Jason Cadee has played three playoff series in his career to date and two of those were against Perth while Matt Hodgson was part of Adelaide’s semi-final win against them 12 months ago.
While this Bullets group will be playing their first finals series together, Gibson and Vukona are the two most experienced players in the league with 860 games between them to go with seven championship.
Lemanis is a triple championship winning coach as well while Te Rangi is a dual title winner at the Breakers.
Then on the Wildcats side of things, you have Damian Martin and Jesse Wagstaff who are four-time championship winners while Greg Hire has three rings, Tom Jervis two, Bryce Cotton one, Rhys Vague one and Angus Brandt one.
They might not have got the recognition at the NBL awards night, but it’s hard to not make the case that Trevor Gleeson deserved to be Coach of the Year and that Cotton should have been MVP as well after the Wildcats secured top spot to earn home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
With the history between the players on both teams and indeed between Gleeson and Lemanis as coaches who are locked on 16 wins apiece against one another in 32 meetings, it’s sure to be a tremendous series starting in Perth on Thursday.
For the Bullets, they have felt under-appreciated all season long and while there might be reasons for that given their wooden spoon finishes the past two years, this team is full of experience and championship credentials.
Cadee is in his first season with the Bullets as part of a backcourt with Boomers teammate Cam Gliddon and old Blaze and 36ers teammate Gibson, and hopes they can continue to prove people wrong.
“To be back here now and with the group we have and how no one expected us to be here and a lot of people picked us to come last, it’s a good feeling to be here as underdogs,” Cadee said.
“It was one of those things where we rolled out with a starting backcourt of Australians and had a five man who was an Aussie, a four man who was an Aussie and a three man who was an import.
“That’s how we started the year and that’s how we’ve finished even though we now have Lamar (Patterson) instead of Alonzo (Gee). We knew we would add pieces to the puzzle as we went along and we have been fortunate to find Lamar, but the other two guys in AJ and JK are two great guys who fit into our system.
“Part of the reason people might overlook us is because I’m not Casper, Glizzo’s not Bryce Cotton and we don’t have a Shawn Long or someone like that, but we knew from the start where we were at.
“I said at the Blitz when we had been together 12 hours and played our first game that we’ll be a pile of mud to start with but we will build on that. We got fortunate to add Lamar but we were already on the right path and now we are where we are.”
Cadee has played three finals series before in his career and two of those were against the Wildcats – losing efforts in the semi-finals at Gold Coast and grand final with Adelaide.
He’d like to get one back over them over the next five days but knows it’s easier said than done.
“If you want to be serious about winning a title then what better way than to beat Perth and you have to win in Perth,” he said.
“I am excited by the challenge of playing a team like Perth because you have to respect how consistent they are to be there year in, year out. You have to respect it but you love to beat it too.
“They are there every year so at some stage you are going to play them and everyone just about has a playoff story against Perth. It’s a credit to the core they’ve kept and that’s a big part of it when you’ve kept guys together year after year.
“I can see why that success carries over and now I’m excited to try and create that with the Bullets. We are going to have a fair bit of carryover in coming years and that’s only going to be positive for our group moving forward.
“That makes it refreshing to not have to say goodbye to most of the guys once the season ends knowing we’ll see each other in a few weeks to roll into the next season.”
Cadee is now an experienced NBL point guard with 248 games under his belt and with the game getting closer, is feeling ready.
“The last week and-a-half since we played that last game feels like it went forever and it feels like we trained for two months, but now that we have got to Perth and are just focused on preparing for the game, everyone is excited to play,” Cadee said.
“We just want to play again and we’ve been talking and reading about it, but now we get a chance to go out and play, and be part of it and enjoy it.
“At the end of the day you have to enjoy stuff like this and four other teams would love to be in this position. For us it’s about enjoying the atmosphere and finals basketball, and rolling the dice and seeing how we go.”
NBL semi-final fixtures (AEDT)
Perth Wildcats (1) v Brisbane Bullets (4)
Thursday February 28 – RAC Arena 10.20pm
Saturday March 2 – Brisbane Entertainment Centre 2.50pm
GAME 3 (if required)
Monday March 4 – RAC Arena 9.50pm
Melbourne United (2) v Sydney Kings (3)
Thursday February 28 – Melbourne Arena 7.50pm
Sunday March 3 – Qudos Bank Arena 2.20pm
GAME 3 (if required)
Tuesday March 5 – Melbourne Arena 7.50pm