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Semi-Finals Preview: Melbourne v New Zealand

Who: Melbourne United v New Zealand Breakers What: Swisse NBL Finals, Semi-Final Game 1 When: 7.30pm (AEDT), Thursday 18 February Where: Hisense Arena, Melbourne Watch: Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ; NBL Live App Last time they met: New Zealand 70 (Wesley 23, Vukona 10) d Melbourne 68 (Goulding 22, Kickert 16), Round 19, Hisense Arena, Melbourne THE MATCH-UP Todd Blanchfield v Tom Abercrombie – While there are many great match-ups in this series, the battle between this pair of unassuming and selfless small forwards could be pivotal. The Breakers are 13-4 when Abercrombie grabs five or more boards, while Melbourne were 6-0 when Blanchfield hit 50 per cent from the arc until that undefeated run was broken in last round’s dead rubbers. Blanchfield is 2-of-11 from deep against the Kiwis this season. THE STATS New Zealand have won their past nine playoff games, their past eight playoff series and their past four post-season road games. United average 29 three-point attempts per game, and in their Round 5 win over the Breakers they fired up 32. In their three losses to NZ they have taken 19, 20 and 23. THE STORY It was no doubt a turning point in the Breakers’ season. Having lost to Townsville by 23 points, they headed to Cairns with a five-game losing skid and plenty of beaten up bodies. “At the start of that (training) session in Cairns I looked around and there were guys who should have been on massage tables but they were ready to train and I thought, ‘they're on’,” coach Dean Vickerman said. New Zealand fell desperately short against the Taipans but they haven’t lost since, not even taking the foot off the pedal in last Sunday’s dead rubber in Melbourne. “When you put on a Breakers singlet you just want to win, and you don't want to lose that mindset,” Vickerman said. Vickerman described Tai Wesley as “a monster” in the low block after his match-winning 23-point haul, pleased that Melbourne now have to plan for Wesley’s post play as well as Cedric Jackson, Tom Abercrombie and Corey Webster, who missed the game for the imminent birth of his child. “Now they have to plan for a little bit of the unknown, how we’re going to structure it a little bit differently when (Corey) comes in,” he said. “We’ve got quite a few people they have to worry about right now, Tom was a little quiet tonight and I think he’s going to give more in the playoffs as he always has, he’s stepped up to another level.” Melbourne coach Dean Demopoulos needs his rebounders to go to another level, giving up 14 offensive rebounds to five on Sunday, including three on the decisive final play. In the two meetings last round, New Zealand grabbed almost as many o-boards as United did defensively. Yet while Demopoulos conceded “they're better rebounders than we are right now” he wasn’t fazed, aware that in the two meaningful clashes this year his team grabbed 28 o-boards to 25. “I honestly believe, truly believe that we will step up in that category on Thursday,” United forward Daniel Kickert said. Demopoulos described last weekend’s double header as very strange, and was looking forward to getting back to real business against the league’s benchmark. “I like the way we’ve played all year, irrespective of the rebounding not being so good, these guys have competed as well, if not better than anyone else here, so why would I feel anything but confident?” he said. “We’re excited as hell to have the opportunity to play against a dynasty. Four out of five (championships) where I come from is a dynasty, that doesn’t happen very often.” THE WRAP Melbourne have scored less than 70 points just four times this season, with three of those against the Breakers, who have done the best job of running United’s stars off the three-point line and into the shot-blocking of Alex Pledger and Charles Jackson. New Zealand showed excellent patience offensively on Sunday – particularly via the low post – making Melbourne play defence for long periods and slowing their preferred high tempo. If Webster returns Thursday that patience will be critical to get their leading scorer open looks. The Breakers’ Achilles heels have been against zone defences and turnovers against pressure, but neither of those areas are Melbourne strengths, meaning their ball-screen defence –something they have greatly improved – will have to be top notch to restrict Cedric Jackson. Melbourne must create transition scoring opportunities for Chris Goulding and Stephen Holt – and by extension Hakim Warrick and Kickert – however the Breakers’ offensive rebounding is elite, so United must have all five players to the boards before doing their high-octane thing at the other end.
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