R12 Preview: Melbourne United vs NZ Breakers

When: 3pm (AEDT), Sunday 20 February, 2022

John Cain Arena, Melbourne

ESPN; Kayo; 10 Peach; 10 Play; Sky Sports NZ

Who won the last time?
Melbourne 89
(Goulding 23, Lual-Acuil 22, Agada 16) d New Zealand 78 (Martin 20, Siva 19, Besson 17) – Round 7, MyState Bank Arena, Hobart

New Zealand looked a chance to topple the ladder leaders in Hobart, but a Chris Goulding three sparked a 31-13 run across three-quarter-time to effectively end the contest, Melbourne’s offensive rebounding and ability to get to the foul line decisive.

What happened last start?

Melbourne showed their defensive muscle in the Throwdown, and their stars showed their offensive class to outscore SEM 43-28 over the final 14 minutes. Jo Lual-Acuil and Shea Ili were the key men at both ends, while a Chris Goulding cameo late in the third was pivotal.

New Zealand showed us their best and worst in Round 11, streaking 26 points ahead of the Snakes as they produced the juice on defence, cleaned the glass and executed in transition. They forgot about the second half though, almost capitulating under Cairns’ pressure.

Who’s in form?

Jo Lual-Acuil – JLA’s numbers are getting ridiculous now, his past four games providing 25.3 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3.5 o-boards and 2.3 blocks, shooting 73 per cent inside and 5/11 outside. He was perfect from the arc on Thursday, and can score on drives, post-ups, o-boards and transition. Perhaps the only way to slow Jo is foul trouble – over to you Yanni.

Yanni Wetzell – The Pretzel has averaged 20.3ppg at 62 per cent, 9.3rpg, 3.3 o-boards, 3.3 assists, 3.7 steals and 1.3 blocks in his past three outings in a tireless 34 minutes per game. He’s scored just 19 points in two games against United though, and he’ll need Peyton Siva and Chasson Randle handling pressure and executing the ball-screen to get him good looks. 

Who needs to be?

Chris Goulding – In two big wins over championship rivals Perth and SE Melbourne, pair of crucial Goulding outbursts changed the game. Against the Cats, he had 16 points and 2 dimes in eight minutes before half-time to take United from 13 down into the lead. In the Throwdown, CG scored 10 points in six minutes surrounding the final break to take his team from eight down to one in front. When the Batman signal goes up, the captain answers.

Finn Delany – Wetzell was the man offensively in Cairns, explaining Delany’s 8 points from four attempts, but his 1 rebound, 5 turnovers and 5 fouls in 23 minutes won’t get it done against Melbourne. Before last Monday, the Flying Finn had averaged 7.3 defensive boards in wins but just 4.7 in losses, and if he isn’t playing with intensity, crashing the glass and attacking the United defence at speed, Jack White will dominate those very same areas.

Who’s statting up?

 - The Breakers defence is ranked 10th in the halfcourt and eighth in transition. Melbourne ranks second and first respectively

 - In the third quarter in Cairns, the NZ defence gave up 22 points in the first 12 seconds of the shot clock

 - New Zealand allow a league-worst 37 per cent from the three-point line. United are 5-1 when they shoot above 37 per cent, but just 2-3 when they shoot below 30 per cent

 - Last time the teams met, Melbourne grabbed 83 per cent of d-boards, 50 per cent of available o-boards and scored 16 second chance points. United are 6-1 when they score 15 SCPs or more

Who’s matching up?

Shea Ili v Peyton Siva – Forget Shili’s defence for a moment, his past six games have delivered 8.5 points at 55 per cent from the field and 39 per cent from three, with 4.8 assists to 2.2 turnovers. His penetration is a key part of Melbourne’s offence to open up Goulding and Lual-Acuil, and NZ must respect him when defending ball-screens.

On D, no one busts up screens and hand-offs better, so NZ may shorten their sets to keep Siva in attacking positions. Peyton penetrated at will in Cairns for the contrasting return of 1/7 on two-pointers and 8/9 from the foul line, but the Taipans’ pressure got to him late, his last three attempts from outside, and he needs more composure against Ili and Delly.

Who’s talking the talk?

Everyone’s talking about the Jo Lual-Acuil v Yanni Wetzell battle … except for big Jo himself.

“That’s more for you guys to talk about, you guys are going to talk about a match-up between me and him, but it’s between Melbourne and the Breakers, I don’t care what Yanni does as long as we get a win,” he said.

For Lual-Acuil, United are a team, and he and Ariel Hukporti are a two-headed monster in the middle.

“I felt like Ariel was the biggest change for us in that third quarter,” he said after the Throwdown.

“He came in and gave us energy, gave us big minutes. As much as the attention is going to be on me, it’s really the team, it’s a collective effort and I would like that to be more of a headline than how well I played.”

However, there is good reason why this star pair is the talk of the town, for in a Hungry Jack’s NBL season featuring the likes of Cam Bairstow, Will Magnay, Zhou Qi, Duop Reath and Jarell Martin, it is Wetzell and Lual-Acuil standing out from the pack.

“Jo was exceptional all night, to see him go 3/3 from the three-point line and attack the rim the way he did tonight, in single coverage he was just able to get by people and get to the rim,” coach Dean Vickerman said.

“Any time you reach an elite level Jo has through this period, to then keep doing it consistently and know that people’s coverages are going to increase on him and he’s going to see more attention, there’s going to be more focus in the scout on him, so for him to keep running through that and even see his numbers lift is pretty exceptional.

“When we get into review, he’s calling himself out, and that’s what I like, the leadership with him to say, ‘Yep I'm playing well, but if I'm doing things wrong I'm going to let you know’ and that’s what you want from leaders.”

That leadership – exemplified by JLA vocally calling out a rare defensive mistake by Shea Ili on Thursday – highlights how quickly he has grown from a streaky bench spark to a genuine two-way superstar.

It’s the next area of improvement for Wetzell, who was an unstoppable force in the first half in Cairns, but didn’t do what was required after the break and was left starved of touches.

“There were a couple of plays run for me in the post and I let Pinder get over my shoulder, he got a couple of deflections on those post touches that we run for me and then we went away from it,” he said.

“I've got to be better sealing Pinder, sealing guys like that, I know they were fired up and they were full of infectious energy at that point of the game. We've got to be more solid, more composed, get into bodies, get open and I just lacked that in the third quarter.”

That will be Melbourne’s defence from tip-off, and is a large reason why Wetzell has been a non-factor in their two meetings this season.

When he isn’t demanding his teammates execute and get him the ball, the team suffers, something he realised in Cairns.

“It felt like we weren’t on the same page at all times. The point guards, leaders, Finn and I, we’ve all got to be better in that aspect, bring the team together and make sure we’re all on the same page,” he said.

“It’s just about getting open, being solid and playing simple and effective basketball.”

When they do that, coach Vickerman knows the Breakers are incredibly hard to guard.

“Dan Shamir’s a hell of a coach, a smart coach, he has that group organised and uses the abilities they have on that roster really well,” he said.

“He uses the on-ball screen to precision, whatever coverage you’ve got he’s got a counter for it and his boys know how to do it.

“How well we can counteract that, and starve them of the shots they want to create, and ensure we’re playing United basketball the other way and sharing the basketball.”

Sharing the Spalding is something they’ve done at a high level the past two games, with the versatility of Lual-Acuil and the speed and passing of Ili opening up teammates all over the floor.

“It came out of a structure with Jo and Shili in an on-ball that we thought could create an advantage,” Vickerman said.

“It’s good that we can create an early advantage and attack it straight away or let the basketball shift, and that’s what we saw, the basketball move and we had an advantage on the other side.

“That’s something we've been working on, how we pass the basketball, and it was pleasing to have 21 assists tonight and share it, you’re pretty hard to scout if you have multiple people really basketball well, it was a bit of a highlight tonight.”


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