A win is progress for Melbourne United, but their defensive deficiencies were again worrying with their pursuit of a title in mind.
In a scenario that fans have witnessed before, the full Shawn Long experience was on display as he flashed the parts of his game that can frustrate, as well as the dominance that often places him in the top ten players in the league.
To start, it was his inability to capitalise on a seemingly favourable matchup on offence in the first half. At the same time, he was also exposed in instances defending the pick and roll, whilst his inability to grab a defensive rebound also contributed to the Breakers building and maintaining a lead for most of the game.
Long’s propensity to get frustrated with non-calls, to not get back in transition, as well as his struggles in making multiple effective decisions or reactions on defensive possessions has proven to be a significant challenge during his NBL career thus far.
Similar to his performance against the South East Melbourne Phoenix though, much of the second half saw Long embrace physicality on offence, and on the boards, to re-establish dominance and foul New Zealand Breaker Brandon Ashley out of the game.
“I thought [Shawn Long] rebounded at a different level in the second half and came up with those extra possessions that we needed” said Dean Vickerman post game.
Without Ashley on the floor, the Breakers deployed some all-wing lineups, and whilst this put five ball-handlers on the floor, New Zealand slipped into bad habits, possibly hunting individual shots too often, rather than quality looks for each other. This is something that at times plagued them against a stingy Sydney Kings defense last week.
Interestingly, RJ Hampton looked the most likely Breaker to consistently find a teammate for a good shot in his minutes. Hampton finished with just one assist but could have had half a dozen if other shots had fallen.
This matchup with Melbourne brought out the best version of both Hampton and Ashley that we’ve seen so far, perhaps concerning for where Melbourne’s current defensive level sits.
“We’ve talked about our consistency of our defensive intensity; we’ve had little lapses that have cost us a couple of games,” said Vickerman on Thursday.
This comment could have just as easily come after Saturday’s game against the Breakers, with Melbourne’s weaknesses all too common over this initial stretch of the regular season.
With each team in the league having now played at least four games, United sit eighth in defensive rating, seventh in defensive rebound percentage, and they are conceding the second highest free-throw rate (the Breakers had struggled to get to the line prior to Saturday).
Looking at play-type data now publicly available at jordanmcnbl.com, the numbers further highlight an area of concern around United’s ball-screen defense.
Melbourne have conceded 1.31 points per play from possessions that end in a hand off, as well as 1.05 PPP to the pick and roll ball-handler (well above the 1.06 and 0.90 league averages). Opponents are also running these plays with higher frequency than normal.
Vickerman and his staff will be rotating through options over the next block of games, in terms of both system and personnel, as they search for answers and change up their tactics so that opponents cannot routinely target their weakest defenders.
“We put a little defensive set in that was a bit switchy, and did some different things, and we needed that alternative defense today, and it helped us,” said Vickerman after the win.
One other option to soon add into the group will be the inclusion of Casey Prather who is recovering from surgery. At his best, Prather is one of the better defenders in the league.
The ability of Melbourne to put a higher-IQ defensive lineup on the floor featuring Barlow at center and Prather at power-forward could be a season defining combination for United.
The current group, and their current defensive output, are nowhere close to a title run but they do have the offensive firepower to regularly be in games in the fourth quarter.
With their roster changes this off-season, United bet on their coaching staff’s ability to improve and maximise their personnel’s defensive attributes and there are still 24 more games left to stress the finer details and ready them for the bright lights of a playoff setting.
After the first three games, the talk was about emphasising winning habits. After game four, the areas of weakness are still obvious, but at least the win column is no longer empty.