R18 Preview | Melbourne United v Perth Wildcats

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Melbourne United v Perth Wildcats

When: 2.50pm (AEDT), Sunday 17 February

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Where: Melbourne Arena

Broadcast: 9GO; Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ



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Perth 84 (Cotton 27, Kay 18) d Melbourne 79 (McCarron 21, Ware 15, Boone 12), RAC Arena, Round 14

Bryce Cotton, Nick Kay and Damian Martin combined for 21 points in the opening eight minutes and Perth found themselves 16 points up in the shadows of quarter-time. Chris Goulding and Casper Ware caught fire from range in the second term to stem the bleeding, and a Mitch McCarron burst put the visitors in front in the third. But Perth always had the answers, Cotton, Kay and Terrico White making the big plays needed to seal an important win.


The now

The Wildcats all-but locked themselves into first place with Friday’s big win over Adelaide, their sixth in a row. They would need to drop 2.8 per cent on Sunday to drop to second – which equates to a margin of 32 points or more – that’s unlikely, and you can bet Perth will want to claim another win on Melbourne’s dunghill ahead of a potential grand final match-up.

In contrast, United wasted a golden opportunity on Thursday, outclassed by a determined Cairns for the best part of 40 minutes. Melbourne showed their toughness to almost pinch it late, but have left themselves mission improbable to claim top spot. A win is still crucial though, as it will lock in home-court advantage for their semi-final date with the Kings.


The match-ups

Chris Goulding v Damian Martin – This long-running match-up becomes intriguing with Goulding coming off the bench. Will Damo be asked to spend longer spells on court so he is waiting to greet CG43? Does coach Trevor Gleeson change his rotations to give Martin earlier rest? Or does he entrust Terrico White with the job at times? Whichever way, Perth need to restrict Goulding, who is 3-of-16 from range in his past two games and due for a big one.

Casper Ware v Bryce Cotton – With Martin best suited to stand the ultra-physical McCarron from tip-off, the league’s best point guard will take on its best shooting guard in this truly marquee match-up of two genuine big-shot exponents and MVP candidates. So far in this season series, Ware has averaged 18ppg at 30 per cent from the arc and 3.7apg, while Cotton has responded with 23ppg at 42 per cent from outside and 2.3apg. Bring it on!

Dave Barlow v Nick Kay – In the NBL’s top 20 in seven major statistical categories, Kay has quietly produced a season for the ages, and his efforts against the tough-as-nails Barlow have been no different, averaging 15.7ppg at 64 per cent and 12.3rpg, including 5.3 o-boards per night. DB has managed 10.7ppg at 46 per cent and 4rpg, but had his best night in the series in Melbourne’s lone win with 13 points at 75 per cent, and United need a repeat of that and more on Sunday if they are going to win and threaten the margin required.

Josh Boone v Angus Brandt – The numbers don’t jump off the page, but Brandt’s 10ppg at 61 per cent, 6.2rpg and 2.2apg in 25 minutes have been a huge part of Perth’s six-game winning streak. Boone’s numbers against Cairns dropped off the page, -18 with just 7 points and 1 board in 14 minutes, from a man who had averaged 11 caroms in his previous nine games. Melbourne isn’t winning anything without their unassuming centre in form for the playoffs.


The stats

The Wildcats are 3-2 in Melbourne over the past three seasons, while the rest of the league is 9-31 at Melbourne Arena in that time.

In those three wins, they have held United to just 74 points per game. Across their other 87 games in that period, Melbourne have averaged 88.9ppg.

Across their opening 20 games, Melbourne allowed opponents 9.3 o-boards per game. In their past seven they’ve allowed 14.9, with no opposition team grabbing less than 11.

In this season series United are +6 in the possession game, with 11 fewer turnovers than Perth but five fewer offensive rebounds.


The story

What is it about Melbourne and Perth over the past two seasons? Almost every time they do battle it ascends into a classic.

Maybe Dean Vickerman has brought the spirit of the Breakers-Wildcats rivalry with him across the Tasman? Maybe it’s just one club that was ready to reach the summit against another that has long been there?

Whatever it is, fans of the Hungry Jack’s NBL are the beneficiaries, and that was never more the case the in Round 14 at The Jungle.

The Wildcats were at their brilliant best early, Melbourne charged back and momentarily put their noses in front, then over the final 12 minutes both teams engaged playoff-type basketball – physical, intense and punctuated regularly by big-time plays.

Mitch McCarron highlighted his extreme value for United by showing he could step up on one of the biggest stages.

“McCarron made some really good buckets in the third there, so it kept it to one possession or two possessions,” Perth coach Trevor Gleeson said.

Nick Kay continued his all-world season with a game-high +19, popping up everywhere for loose balls and put-backs, constantly plugging holes on defence and terrorising Melbourne on the o-boards.

“Nick’s so talented at getting offensive rebounds,” United coach Dean Vickerman said.

“There’s a couple there that are on rotations, whether it’s on the guard or whether it’s on the big, but he’s a priority box out and he still found his way in there at crucial times.”

While Barlow was outplayed by his Boomers teammate, and plagued by foul trouble, he still managed to have an impact late.

“Him picking up some early fouls was an issue there, when he was playing down the stretch he made a couple of huge threes for us,” Vickerman said.

He wasn’t the only veteran stretch forward stepping up in the key moments, Jesse Wagstaff nailing an enormous triple just as McCarron was threatening to carry Melbourne into the lead.

“Jesse’s corner three was a huge shot, “Gleeson said.

“Jesse only played minimum minutes, comes off (the bench) and plays great D when they went small ball, had an open look on the three and nails it, that’s a huge play.”

Then of course there was the age-old battle between Damian Martin and Chris Goulding, Bubbles held to a 3-of-16 shooting night while Damo nailed two big trifectas early as the Cats jumped the gates.

Then there was the new-age classic match-up of Bryce Cotton and Casper Ware, with Perth’s MVP +18 for the game as he splashed five triples and handed out six dimes.

“We rest Casper for a while and Cotton grows another leg as well, and really wants to take it on a little bit more and he made some tough ones,” Vickerman said.

Oddly, the contest was effectively ended when Ware – who has become a big-shot guru for United – missed arguably the simplest shot of the night to put his team in front with eight seconds to play.

“I grabbed Casper after the game, he looked pretty dejected after that one and he prides himself on making shots down the stretch and putting himself in key situations, he wants the basketball,” Vickerman said.

“I just let him know we executed the play great and sometimes you miss shots … he’s certainly made some tough threes over people in his time at Melbourne.”

Perhaps that miss was from an accumulation of Perth’s impressive defence, which jammed the paint and restricted United to 38 per cent conversion from two-point range.

“The defence we played to keep Melbourne to under 20 points for two quarters is outstanding work ethic,” Gleeson said.

“We give up 79, hold a great offensive team to under 20 points for two quarters, it’s an outstanding effort and that’s our DNA.

“We get points when we get stops, on the rebounds we get run-outs and take the game on in transition.”

While some of the edge may have come off the lead-up to today’s clash, with Perth holding a 32-point edge when it comes to the minor premiership, that won’t last for long once the whistle sounds.

A loss will drop Melbourne to third, gifting home-court advantage to Sydney when the semi-finals start in under two weeks, and handing a mental edge to the Wildcats should they meet again in the grand final.

Given their two losses to Perth have been thrillers at RAC Arena, Melbourne will feel good about their recipe for success, especially after coming home strong last time around.

“We obviously talked a lot pre-game about what we were going to do with certain people, and early in the game I think some guys made some shots that we were perhaps prepared to live with,” centre Alex Pledger said.

“We just stuck with the process throughout the game and those guys starting missing a few of those, we got out and started rebounding and getting out and running, and when we do that we’re pretty tough.”

Pretty tough is exactly what Gleeson is expecting from the defending champs, so bring on another classic to finish one of the greatest regular seasons in the NBL’s 41-year history.

“They’re a good team, they didn’t win a championship for nothing,” Gleeson said.

“You’ve got Casper and Bubbles, and McCarron got off, and then Barlow hit some late threes, they’ve got some pretty good players, so you know they’re going to give you a good, hard charge.”

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