The team from down under that nearly upset the Thunder
Larry Kestelman's risk of sending NBL teams over to America to face NBA clubs in pre-season matches could have had major ramifications. How would the casual basketball fan be attracted to the NBL if Melbourne United, the Sydney Kings, and Brisbane Bullets went over there and got belted by 30-plus points?
The same old narratives of how the NBL is no good-- a significant step below the NBA-- would appear again, and the league would be left wondering if they had gotten a bit too ambitious and bit off a little too much to chew.
However, United did us proud. They are the team from down under, that so nearly upset the Thunder.
The Kings were also solid in their contest against the Utah Jazz, while the Bullets are yet to take to the court against Phoenix. However, this adventure into the deep waters of the NBA will forever be remembered for Melbourne’s courageous effort in Oklahoma City against the Thunder.
The scene needs to be set.
Oklahoma City has a packed roster. A star-studded roster. Adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook means the Thunder has a combined 20 NBA All-Star appearances on their roster. They’ve catapulted themselves back into championship contention, and many believe they have a squad capable of bringing down the mighty Golden State Warriors.
Then you have United, who admittedly, have assembled one of the most talented rosters in NBL history, albeit yet to win anything. Put them up pound-for-pound against the Thunder though, and it was easy to see why Dean Vickerman's team entered the contest as immense underdogs.
After all, there was a reason why Westbrook wasn’t expecting shit. But shit does happen.
After 144 straight NBA games in which he has scored in double-figures, Westbrook scored just 9. Yes it was not the NBA and his record remains in tact, but that alone tells a story.
What transpired turned out to be a defining moment in Australian basketball history. Heck, it might even develop into a storied memory in Australian sporting history. It is too early to tell. Yes, they lost. But that alone misses the point.
At three-quarter time, NBL owner Larry Kestelman walked past the media row and said, "The NBL has arrived," as reported via Roy Ward of The Age, who was on the ground in Oklahoma.
He couldn’t have been more right.
To go down by a single point, in a game where George played 39 minutes, Anthony 31 and Westbrook 28, is a performance of almighty standards. How hard the Thunder was playing is a question we’ll never know, but the fact their stars played regular season minutes adds to the magnitude of United’s effort.
Melbourne trailed 0-8 before two minutes had even elapsed. They could have easily rolled over and taken a double-digit smashing. They didn’t though, and ended up leading the match at numerous stages, before failing to convert in the dying seconds.
Watching it in the early hours of a Monday morning, you simply couldn’t help but smile. United’s capacity to get that close to Oklahoma City has earned praise from across the basketball community, and even the team understands what this means.
“It was great,” David Andersen told SEN. “We had a good time playing against some of the best in the world and it was a pretty close game. They got lucky coming away with a hard little victory.”
Casper Ware, who led the way for Melbourne with 20 points, including nine in the final term, says his team had a point to prove and was determined to represent the league.
“It says a lot about the NBL,” he told NBL.com.au. “I think they didn’t know about us much, now they will be saying “they have some good players over there” and that is the biggest thing that we wanted to do.
“We wanted to show this league is no joke and we have good teams over here too, just like Europe or somewhere else. That was the biggest thing for us.
"That finish was crazy. I really wanted to win, I was happy we played good but to win would have meant so much more other than just getting close. But to get close to a team with players like that left us feeling good and hopefully we can carry it on to the NBL.”
Kyle Adnam, the small blonde-haired bombshell, found himself defending the NBA’s MVP, and even he had to pinch himself on occasion.
"For many of us this was a once in a lifetime experience," he said, via Ward.
Australian basketball legend Chris Anstey has seen the highs and lows of the NBL, and is in awe of how far the competition has come.
“They matched OKC blow-for-blow across the entire game,” he told SEN. “You couldn’t see them getting blown out, as a lot of people globally may have expected. It was a wonderful result, which really highlights the depth of talent and athleticism we have here in Australia. It showcased our league to the NBA.”
The Twitter world also took note of what was a sensational performance, one that may well forever live in Australian basketball folklore.
Next: Brisbane vs Phoenix this Saturday, live on ESPN Australia and via NBA League Pass.