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Semi-Finals Preview: New Zealand v Melbourne

Who: New Zealand Breakers v Melbourne United What: Swisse NBL Finals, Semi-Final Game 2 When: 5.30pm (AEDT), Saturday 20 February Where: Vector Arena, Auckland Watch: Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ; NBL Live App Last time they met: New Zealand 91 (Cedric Jackson 20, Abercrombie 16, Webster 14) d Melbourne 82 (Warrick 24, Goulding 23, Blanchfield 11), SF1, Hisense Arena, Melbourne THE MATCH-UP Cedric Jackson v Nate Tomlinson – Jackson was like a blur in Game 1, unstoppable in the open floor as New Zealand cruelly punished Melbourne’s mistakes. Tomlinson was like a rock in the half-court, masterminding his team’s resurgence from a slow start. This pair’s tempo control will be crucial on Saturday. THE STATS In Tomlinson’s 18 minutes, New Zealand scored just 26 points at 33 per cent and had six turnovers. In the other 22 minutes they piled on 65 points at 52 per cent and coughed the ball up twice. The Breakers scored 43 points on 18-of-25 shooting off Melbourne turnovers or missed field-goal attempts. Against set defence they shot just 16-of-51 from the field. THE STORY Breakers coach Dean Vickerman hadn’t read about Melbourne’s intentions to target Cedric Jackson and “cut the head off the snake”, but he wasn’t too fazed by it. “They're right,” he said. “He’s a big part of what we do, and if you have the ability to slow him down that can slow us down, but he’s playing at another level right now and no one’s been able to do that.” Jackson reaffirmed his position as an all-time great with Thursday night’s 20-point road performance, repeatedly causing Melbourne mistakes and turning them into transition baskets for himself or teammates. “Sometimes he tests how far he can go and help other people, but he has unbelievable anticipation and he gets deflections as that ball’s coming back out, some of those were key for us tonight,” Vickerman said. “Defensively he has some of the quickest hands in the league, he has unbelievable ability to play at a high speed without making too many errors and I think that’s what separates him from other players.” Game 1 was a different story when the tempo slowed, however, Melbourne able to milk the sublime talents of Hakim Warrick with the unassuming Nate Tomlinson pulling the strings, United outscoring the Breakers by 19 with him on court. “He’s been doing that all year long … he’s a guy who helps facilitate togetherness.” United coach Dean Demopoulos said of his reserve point guard. Tomlinson was the marshal of United’s zone defence – which kept New Zealand to 13 points in 12 minutes to close the first half – constantly directing teammates and keeping them a step ahead of the Breakers’ zone offence. “He’s a coach’s son, he’s been around the game a long time, he thinks it, he’s been a pivotal part of our success all year long and he’s going to continue to be,” Demopoulos said. But Tomlinson’s smarts need to be matched by effort from all United players to counter the rebounding intensity of the Breakers. “They have more domination of the ball than we do right now in a lot of areas,” Demopoulos said. “But like I said we’re going to strap it up, go in there, put our head in the lion’s mouth and see if we can take its teeth out.” Vickerman acknowledged his club’s record-breaking 10th straight playoff win, but wasn’t in the mood for celebrations. “It’s nice isn’t it, but we’re looking for 11 right now, we’re not looking back,” he said. The sharp-shooting Corey Webster did look back, only briefly, to deliver a parting message to the Melbourne media as he left the press conference. “We ain’t coming back,” he said. THE WRAP While most think Melbourne want an up-tempo contest and the Breakers more of a grind, Game 1 told us otherwise. United simply can’t match the athleticism of Jackson and Co in the open floor, but in the half-court they continually forced them into contested shots. Melbourne like to play in transition but it is a controlled approach, and if their shot selection and ball security is good on Saturday the Breakers could struggle to post a winning score. Give the league’s best defensive rebounding team the chance to board and run, however, and New Zealand could post a cricket score. A big key to that offensive control is utilising Daniel Kickert’s low-post game. Mika Vukona shut down his perimeter looks on Thursday and Warrick was Melbourne’s key post target. But Hakim’s free-throw struggles and inability to pass out of double teams negates some of his good work. Another crucial factor is getting Majok Majok more involved on the boards, because if New Zealand again have an extra 11 shot attempts on Saturday this series is as good as done. Vukona and Alex Pledger had 12 offensive boards between them, more than Melbourne’s entire team, and finding a way to keep them off the glass is a puzzle United must solve if they want to bring this series home next Friday.
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