Melbourne United's battle for survival begins anew against reigning Sydney Kings
A historical rematch is set to unfold, as Melbourne United and Sydney go head-to-head again in the semi-finals for the second year in a row, although the tables are turned this time. Last season, despite the Kings’ much-heralded signing of Andrew Bogut, United made easy work of their foe in two games, before going on to lose their title to the Perth Wildcats.
The Kings have since made up for that pain, and are riding a season of blistering form. They finished as the top-seeded team in the league, and are in a commanding position for the finals. Melbourne meanwhile, lingered in sixth place before the final round, before dispatching the South East Melbourne Phoenix, on the final day of the season to ensure their postseason entry. It’s the fourth time the team has made finals in their six-year history under the United franchise, though this race for fourth has easily been their grittiest effort to date.
When chatting to ESPN AU/NZ on Monday, Goulding admitted that it wasn’t exactly the way he’d hoped to qualify for the finals, but reveals the group is tighter and focused ahead of the blockbuster match up. “I would have preferred to have locked up a spot a lot earlier, but the last few weeks have been really good for us in the way we’ve attacked our games. We’ve been playing each game like it’s our last, and now we’re heading into a series where each game could be our last.”
It sounds strange, but Melbourne’s defiant do-or-die attitude could be the key to success against Sydney. There were doubts cast on United at the beginning of the season, given the wholesale roster changes --a particularly significant departure being that of former club MVP Casper Ware-- but Goulding has been confident that their style of play would pay off. “We knew it was up to us," Goulding shared. "If we played a brand of basketball that was aggressive, we could set ourselves up. Coming into that last round that derby against South East Melbourne, we knew it was up to us.”
United knew the stakes at hand --one loss would end their season, catapulting the Brisbane Bullets into the postseason instead-- and played their final season game against the Phoenix hard. They won 109-90, starting with a strong 34-point first quarter, and wrapped the game behind Goulding's 28-point effort. United shot 51.5% on threes, took 15 offensive rebounds, and made 22 of its 25 free throws.
Having been part of Melbourne United in earlier years, Ware is familiar with the team’s ability to play hard ball. “I expect nothing but a fight," Ware shared with ESPN AU/NZ. "They’ve been fighting the past two weeks to stay in that hunt for that fourth spot. They’re in playoff mode, I think they’ve got a chip on their shoulder where they wanna come in and prove they belong and that they deserve that spot.”
For better or worse, United has played through the season its way and ground its way to the postseason, despite struggles with offensive fit between its star players. Instead of Melo Trimble and Shawn Long, it was Chris Goulding who became the team's reliable scoring machine. According to Spatial Jam, the guard took nearly 10 threes a game this season, and hit 39.3% of those shots - Goulding's shooting was a big reason United was one of the two postseason teams to have won its last three season games.
Credit also goes to David Barlow and Mitch McCarron, two United role players who have continued to do the little things right, that's helped Melbourne to stay afloat in their race to the postseason picture. For context, McCarron and Barlow are the most impactful two-man combo on United this season, and the team's top seven two-man combos have all featured either McCarron or Barlow - the same goes for their three-man lineups. McCarron, who also had a sterling defensive season, was nominated for Defensive Player of the Year honours, but lost the award to Cairns Taipans wing, DJ Newbill.
“I think resilience is the best word to describe us right now," United big man, Shawn Long shared. "We had a rough road to get here but we just need to let that go let it be in the past and just do what we do, I think we’ll be okay.”
In a perfect fairytale world, the team who finishes top should win the title. This is the NBL however, where you’re only as good as your last performance. “We take it a game a time. First, we got Melbourne in the semi-finals - we’re not worried about what’s next or what could happen," Sydney guard, Casper Ware shared with Fox Sports Australia on Monday, during the NBL Finals launch event in Melbourne. "The way we got here, was just worrying about the next step, and our next step is Feb 29th against Melbourne United. I didn’t know we were making history until they actually announced it, and that’s how much fun it’s been. We’ve just been enjoying the ride, we stayed in the moment the whole season. I don't think it's going to change in the finals. We're just going to enjoy each other's company and just keep working hard.”
The Kings have had an illustrious history as a franchise, but this coming appearance makes it their second finals series in the last seven seasons. Key signings that included Will Weaver as head coach --who has been integral to the team's success this season, especially for the Sydney reserves-- and high energy forward Jae'Sean Tate have strengthened Sydney’s depth and crunch time experience. Add a well-rested Bogut, who's quietly been managed all season long and is undoubtedly ready for a championship run, and there's no doubt that Sydney could really win it all this time.
Ware isn't thinking about the pressure though.
"You don't think about that, you just go out there and play," Kings point guard Casper Ware told AAP. "Just go play basketball. We've been playing it the whole season and nothing's changed. If you played the right way the whole season, finals shouldn't be any different. We're going to go out there and do the same thing we did this season and we're going to give it all we got. That's the biggest thing we got implanted in us; just go out there and play hard, everything will take care of itself."
After their hopes of back to back championships were snuffed out by Perth last year, Melbourne returns with a sizeable chip on their collective shoulder. A potential Grand Final rematch looms with Perth, assuming the Wildcats dispose of the Taipans. But first, Melbourne will have to focus on what's ahead, and fight harder than they've ever done this season, in the upcoming series against Sydney. It's a desperate battle for survival, and it starts soon.